Circling back

I am always relearning the thing I thought I had learned. In this case, recollectedness. 

For many years, I have benefited from reading Thomas a Kempis’ Imitation of Christ. several months ago, I felt bogged down by some of his sage words, and realized they were aimed at cloistered religious people and couldn’t possibly apply to me. A few weeks ago, I found my small red volume of Thomas a Kempis, and it was very dusty, and even a bit moldy. I had left it. I was looking for a remedy to the advice he gives, which is impossible advice for the person in the married state who has a large family and social life. I found that St Catherine of Sienna kept coming up, and also St Louis de Montfort.

I haven’t gotten to delve a whole lot into the writings of those two Saints, but since losing Thomas a Kempis, I have lost a certain sense of calm and security. It was as though I had a hedge of protection around me which gave me strength in many situations, but especially social ones. So I had thrown out the baby with the bath water.

The wisdom I forgot was this: how to be recollected, as well as possible, at all times. What I lost was a sense of where I stand. I stand deeply in the camp of God’s side. I have almost begun to let the outside rob me of my peace. Peace and recollectedness comes from God. Being in God.

Acts 17:28 “For in Him we live, and move, and are…”

So in God we begin. 

We can almost never see where we are going. A year ago, I would have been absolutely shocked if someone told me everything I would be doing today. Maybe there’s a reason we don’t get to see ahead. When we try to get control of things, we lack so much in understanding that we would almost certainly upset everything. 

So we walk with God and we do what we are given, we live simply and we trust in Him. And we look back and see how amazing it is, what He has brought us through, and where He has brought us to.

Love, Trust, Walk. Be not afraid.

Advertisements

Music

We go along through this life, a battle, no banners waving, no trumpet blasts, just grueling hard trudging along. Sometimes all alone. Not much encouragement, just a quiet, secret hope. Our eyes look up and we remind ourselves that we believe that there is something grand and glorious beyond the physical sky. We believe that we will live forever in perfect peace, perfect joy, perfect love. All will be happiness. Forever. For that, we will go through anything. It’s a Person and our love for Him that really drives us on. Not just a meaningless promise of pleasure. We’re not here to guzzle up all the pleasures for our own stomachs. That would be an empty hope since we’re spending our lives freeing ourselves from fleshly vices. We find the greatest hope in love. “….but the greatest of these is LOVE!”

A banquet is held, a grand and glorious feast. Some enter and feast their eyes and stomachs on all they can take for themselves.They enter with the idea of getting for themselves. Some enter in peace, knowing and loving the one who gives the banquet. They have a story in mind, and this is the celebration of the happily ever after. They enjoy more deeply and more greatly, because they do so with love. Not just for Him who is Love, but for one another. Fellow soldiers.

Really though, at this feast, there can be no one who enters in selfishness and greed and who sees only material gain for himself. It wouldn’t be a place of perfection if selfishness, jealousy, dissension, or any evil thing were there. This is the celebration of the victory over those things. So those things must be cleaned away from those who harbor them, and if they can’t be, or won’t be, cleansed, then they will never be allowed in.

But this is hard. We’re in a bloody, dirty, sweaty, dark, scary battle. We don’t see it from above. We can’t back up and look at the progress on the map. We’re in a very narrow space in the trench. We depend on trust. We HAVE to trust in God. We can’t see Him, We can’t even hear him most of the time. We have these old old verses and truths in our minds, feeding our souls. We remember past warriors who’ve gone before us. We cling to them as the dirt and tears stain our faces, and hope deep inside. We hope. We cling to promises. We believe in God, and we trust Him to know what he’s doing.

Like in a movie when you’re pulling for the guy in the middle of it not to do what seems best to him, because it will mess everything up really badly. We pull for him to trust what he’s been told to do instead, to do it against what seems like good reason to him. We wish we could say to the protagonist who can’t hear us, “Do this! or Don’t do that!”, knowing there’s no way he can hear us or get all the information we have. He’s in the middle of it. Deep in the trenches. His victory depends on trust. And for us, in our battle, we trust because of love.

So it’s quiet, it’s difficult, it’s grueling. It’s very frustrating and we begin to think God has deserted us, or maybe we fell for some huge joke. We see the revelers all around us, doing all the stuff we’ve been told and understand is bad for our souls. Partying until the ship goes down. We know too well to fall for it though because of good sense. We have seen them fall. So we cling to our dirt and our injuries and our hard life, and we keep moving. Heartsick and exhausted to the bone, we continue on. This is how heroes are made.

And then we find that our God made something in heaven and gave us a taste of it on this earth to bolster us up, to give us a glimpse of the gloriousness of what lies ahead for those who stay in the fight, who don’t give up, who don’t fall away when they lose heart. It too, like love is not something which can be explained away by nerves and synapses. It’s spiritual, a gift from on high. Medicine for the soul. A message of coming victory urging us to keep up the fight. The banners waving, the trumpets blowing. And we smile through our dirt encrusted faces, we thank God for the dirt, for the wounds, they’re all “badges of courage”. Music speaks in ways words can’t and all in an instant, we understand everything. We see. We know.

I am not much of a music person. There’s always so much stigma attached to what type you listen to . Like you’ve aligned yourself with a party or a subculture of some sort if you enjoy a piece of music. I occasionally remember music though, and I find myself transported, and in wonder about so great a gift. Music is a tool of course, like any other. It can be used for good and great things, or for evil purposes. I think we do need to be careful with it. But when one of the good guys gets the gift of music, we are brought messages from heaven. We are shown pictures of our hope and infused with life giving strength to carry on. This is one of those transcendent things. One of the higher things that points to the reality and existence of a God. It shows us something not physical, not seen, and we understand more deeply the weighty reality of it by the descriptive power of music. We’re brought up and out of ourselves and we’re aware that there is more. We’ve been spoken to in a language that means something outside of this world.

A set of things to think about

I heard an interesting piece of a conversation today. It was on the radio, and I didn’t get in on the whole thing. But parts of it definitely caught my attention. It was on Al Kresta’s EWTN show, and the featured guest was Anthony Esolen. Esolen was talking about a whole pile of things which interest me. Poverty, education, stories.

I have often wondered whether in heaven, we’ll get to sit down and hear each other’s stories. The whole stories from beginning to end. Everyone’s amazing and completely unique life story. I guess I think if heaven is a place of perfect happiness, there must be story time. I often look around, people-watching, and just wonder what the stories are of each of these unique persons I see walking past. What amazing things are contained behind the exterior that so often doesn’t give the slightest clue as to the story underneath it. We think we can judge, but personally, I am almost always completely wrong. I would like to hear more of what Esolen was saying about people’s stories.

Kresta went on, for some reason, to ask him about something seemingly unrelated. The question of poverty, and what Jesus meant when he said “Blessed are you poor”, or “Blessed are the poor in spirit”. The point was made that the rich young ruler wasn’t told to merely make sure he wasn’t attached to his things, but to sell them all and follow Christ. No doubt about his meaning there. I always was on the side of thinking he went away sad because he knew he had a big job ahead of him and it would be hard to sell it all.

But this is a shocking statement for us in our culture, where we have truly an embarrassment of riches. Our lives are really set up with the idea in mind that we are to be making money to buy things to make ourselves comfortable. And here’s the statement I absolutely loved made by Esolen on the show, (and I paraphrase from memory): “…and there are actually Catholics out there who truly believe that the purpose of education is to learn a skill, to get a job, to be able to go out there and earn money to buy things.” I think I laughed. I’d go so far as to say there are very few people out there who don’t see it that way.

I have long felt that education is a process of forming the mind and endowing the human spirit with good things to be used throughout the journey of life. Things like stories. And as I take on the enormous task of having a hand in the education of my own children, I find it’s still my view. In fact, now more than ever. I want to give them gifts for life, arm them for life, give them tools for life, and inspire them for life. And all because I love them and I want them to know more than anything else in the world, that God loves them.

Life requires education, a job requires training. There is overlap, to be sure. And this is ground where angels fear to tread. We must trust in God, and live as His people, and not as slaves to the materialistic world. (Here I am thinking about the chosen people of God having been released from slavery and then having to be taught who they were and how to live by receiving the commandments, and having to learn to trust God in the desert every day for their food. They were used to being slaves in Egypt. they tended to think maybe that had been better. So God had to teach them that they were a people with an identity rooted in God Himself. So they had to learn what it meant to separate themselves from their past and everything they knew and were accustomed to, and to trust in God and be free.)

Doing

I was sitting in a classroom at a Baptist church one Friday a couple of months ago. Odd for a Catholic, but I was there with the home school speech and debate club. I looked over at a bulletin board I was sitting beside, and since I was waiting for things to begin, I occupied myself with reading some of the little notices pinned there. One was a letter written to people who were donating meals to the college ministry lunch every Thursday. “Huh, ” I thought. “I used to be one of those college students at the Baptist Student Union, getting my free lunch every Thursday.” I wasn’t Catholic yet when I was in college. Every Thursday, we got to eat free sloppy Joes and socialize at lunch time. It was nice. 

The letter was urging the people donating meals to this ministry to do the same thing they had done the previous year, and keep in mind that the idea is to “Do It Big”. The writer of the letter emphasized how proud he was of the cooking and the marvelous effort put out by the people who were giving their time and resources to the college students. He said that it made a very positive difference in the lives of these college kids for people to deliberately and obviously do something really, really, well and caring for them.

This caused me to reflect. Do it big? For college students? Just little old college students?

But then I remembered how much it meant to me as a college student when someone went out of their way to do even the slightest thing for me. How it inspired me to do the same in my own life. To do things for other people. I’m really often so selfish that I don’t even think to do anything nice for anyone outside my own family. And even then, I don’t think about doing it big. I think about doing it fast. cheap. small. easy. Do it big. hm.

I decided I like this idea. Do it big. I think I’d rather have a life marked by doing things all the way. Not by halves. Doing things really well. My best. Full out. Wow. What would it be like if everyone stopped counting the cost so much and just did their best always? Gave all? What an amazing world we’d have! Giving begets giving. At least so it seems to me. 

Why be small and petty and convenient all the time. Love Big. Do it all well. Your best. Every time.

The Lincolns and lessons in virtue

I have been reading the story of the life of Abraham Lincoln as told by Dale Carnegie. It’s no surprise that his life story is a remarkable one in many ways. Carnegie decided to write this book as a kind of every man’s version of the life of a great American who became respected around the world.

A few aspects of his life stand out to me as important lessons in saintliness. They are poverty and love. In complete contract to these virtuous aspects of Lincoln’s life, his wife dove deeply into avarice and hatred. Lincoln married Mary Todd out of a conviction that he was honor bound to do so since he had asked her to marry him, even though he fell out of love with her once her true character began to be revealed. He tried to convince her to release him from the obligation. But she refused and pursued him until he gave in to her wishes.

The Lincolns had 4 children. Only one lived into adulthood. Lincoln loved his children, and in his lifelong state of melancholy induced by his hateful wife, he doted on them and seemed unaware of any need to correct them. Perhaps it was to be in contrast to his wife’s constant nagging, henpecking, screaming, criticism, and dissatisfaction with everyone in her family.

Mary Todd, (as she tends to be referred to in history instead of by her married name), had enormous ambition and dreams of grandeur. Her family did not match the visions in her head of how an important family should appear. She was constantly measuring her husband and children against a standard she was very proud to have been trained in- that of a French finishing school in which she was brought up. Her appearance mattered more to her than anything else in the world. 

Lincoln, on the other hand, saw people. He saw need, and had mercy. He often worked as a lawyer for free when he saw an injustice done to a poor person. As a result, the Lincolns didn’t have much money for most of their lives. His wife despised him for this.

Lincoln didn’t attend church. His wife did. He said it was because he wouldn’t know how to behave. One Sunday however, he did attend with his wife. One of his young children, not knowing where he was, ran down the street to the church that morning, and ran in the back door, barefoot and covered with the black dirt he’d been playing in. The child’s mother was embarrassed and horrified. But Lincoln simply reached out his arm and scooped up his son and held him close to his heart.

We should always live to please God and not man. That means we should always love. We should never have ambitions that rise up and smother our love for our fellow man. And most especially, we should love our spouses and our children so much that we have no care for what others may think of us or them. We should love. I don’t think you can ever love too much.

Home

I went to the library today just to relax and browse. One of the things I find the most relaxing to daydream about is a beautiful, clean, well organized home. Of course I also want my home to be brimming with life and activity. I want all this to be done with love and smiles. So I found the books of greatest interest to me today were on the subject of home organization. 

I love browsing through pictures of ideal family homes with seemingly spontaneous, yet somehow perfect design schemes, and order. Lots of Scandinavian orderly perfection everywhere. Then I compare this to my own shoddy attempts at creating it and try to use this imagery to inspire myself to keep trying, keep striving towards the goal of a bright, well ordered, happy home complete with kids in socks flopped on the couch absorbed in good books.

After a while in the clouds, I come back down and remember that these pictures don’t take homeschooling 6 children and an income with limits into account. But yet, valiantly, I proclaim to myself that I will try! I will not sink to the depths of “lowering my standards” as so many of my fellow homeschoolers of large families have claimed it is necessary for me to do! No, I shall break the mold, and bring my family to higher heights. All the while comparing my home to the spotless homes of friends with 0-1 children, and professional decorators. Yeah I want it all.

Then there, between the books about how to declutter, and how it’s all too much, was a book about how a house too well kept represents a life unlived. I had to see what this was about, because we live. We have so much housework to do, because we are living so much life. Was this a stamp of approval on life, lived and unexamined through a microscope of perfectionistic housekeeping? Could such a thing be acceptable? Could this writer prove it to me?

I love clean. I hate clutter and too much stuff. But I must admit, I have, in the past, whittled things down to the point that there was nothing left to do. Nothing but maybe read. But it’s so easy to clean up after reading. I have also experienced the joy of being deeply involved in the process of creating something. I do enjoy being nestled in the busy-ness of producing something wonderful. It’s exciting.

In this book were pictures of homes where people live more to do things, love one another, care for others, and place things that they love, and that they love to do.  Cleaning things out can mean cleaning all the things you do right out of your life. Sure, cleaning’s easier when you have nothing left to clean. But is having nothing left to clean really the best goal to have as a mother of 6 in the prime of busy family life? It’s actually a little mean.

What we need are places to conveniently store the wonderful things we each love to do. There should be a place to lovingly store those objects of each person’s passion, whether it’s painting, writing, gardening cooking, programming, rocketry, electronics. And these places should make sense and invite the passionate endeavor, but also enable quick and sensible clearing. I think our 3 year old’s train track basket fits that description. The trains and train tracks don’t fit my usual criteria that we just can’t have toys made of millions of little parts. The train tracks are really only dozens, but there is such a quick and convenient way to pick them up and store them, that they’re kept in their unassuming basket right in the living room.

Perhaps more living and less cleaning would take place if there were a sewing basket near the dining room table like that instead of random sewing supplies housed in bags in the furthest reaches of the laundry room cabinets. Accessible passionate living. Books stacked next to a favorite chair. My paints and brushes where I can get to them instead of hidden out of reach above the refrigerator.

Life is about relationships. Home is about welcome. It’s for people to live in and love one another and pursue their passions. Our home is not about hiding our stuff to make it more palatable to those who prefer to tiptoe around their homes feeling glamorous in them.

And you know, it’s much better around here since last year, when we had a very colicky baby who nursed hourly, everyone had a deathly flu, and our living room floor had to be torn out due to a leak in the kitchen sink, and all our belongings had been tossed aside into sliding avalanche of disorder by the demolition crew who left us in this train wreck covered with white sheet rock dust. We cleared a spot and set up our Christmas tree and felt thankful to have a home and 6 healthy beautiful children.

This year, our home is intact, and imperfectly, but functionally organized. I have realized that functionally organized is organized. Our kids are here, being homeschooled this year, unlike last when they were in public school, and they are so very helpful at keeping things clean and orderly! Yet, not perfect. But that’s okay. I’m not ready to be photographed for a publication, there’s life and love happening here. There’s noise, activity, sewing, painting, computer programming, laughing, cooking, playing, reading, and sometimes there’s arguing and fussing. But LIFE! It’s beautiful too.

As some of my friends are prone to point out, “Where no oxen are, the stable is clean, but much revenue come by the strength of the ox.” Proverbs 14:4

Who are we and what are we doing here anyway?

   I’m confronted lately with the question of what God wants me to do. Turns out, it’s not a question of receiving a to-do list and then checking of all the items on the list. Actually, we are given lists. Our lists look very similar to the lists of those who are on similar pathways in life. We have a terrible tendency to compare our lists with theirs, and measure ourselves as being far less grand, impressive, and perfect than our fellow travelers on the road. It can become a kind of contest, diverting our focus from the task at hand and worse, from the people we’re called to love, and away from the Person on whom our focus should always rest. Turns out, our calling is not actually the checklist.

   So how do you know what to do without a checklist? You have to find out what it is God has called you to do. Or perhaps a better way of putting it would be to say that you have to find out who God is calling you to be. And really, there is a checklist there too. It’s the same for everyone. Several actually. But they’re not to-do lists. They’re more of a set of measurement tools. Like a barometer or compass to find out if you’re on the right path or in the right state. They check who you are, and set the foundation without which you can’t move on to your unique, irrevocable, God-given calling.Those check lists are the Ten Commandments, the Beatitudes, the Fruits of the Spirit, the virtues, and the vices.

   But the greatest thing on those lists is Love. So if you’re short on time, start with the love of God and the love of neighbor. All the other lists naturally pour out from, and become clear through these. So we have love.  Elizabeth Goudge said once through a character in one of her books, something like, “It doesn’t matter what we do in this life, so long as we do it as a vessel of God’s love.” That’s always stuck with me.

   We’re called to Love. We’re called to be loved, and we’re called to give love. We’re not just called to it, but we’re made for love. Form follows function. And we’re actually designed by God, our Creator, our Loving Father, Who himself is Love, to be loved by Him, to live in His love, and to become a channel of His love to others, and so to love one another.

   So then what do we do? What do we do with all this time we’re given every day? In between the sleeping, the eating, the cleaning, the dressing and the taking care of ourselves and each other, these creaturely busy goings on that are so necessary to sustaining our very lives, these activities which themselves can be transformed into acts of beautiful love, what do we do after these?

   The answer starts with the moment just prior to your conception, in the mind and heart of God. It starts with a twinkle in His eye. A Divine idea. At that moment, you are thought of in completeness, as only God can conceive and completely know a person. He knows who you are, whom He is making, why, for what purpose. And He has a plan. A beautiful beautiful scheme. You are made with love, you are made in love, you are made for love, and you are made to love. Each one is imbued with a unique set of characteristics, unique gifts, a unique mind, and then placed into unique circumstances.

  And each is also given a chilling device. It is a device which would seem to break the whole thing. We’re given a frightening power called free will. We’re given the power to choose to be this which God envisioned, or not. To love or not. Love is not love which is not given by the complete will of the giver. So without this device called free will, the whole thing cannot exist.

   But once we’ve arrived at love, after any one of the many battles is over, and free will has turned into a weapon which wins out in favor of love, we realize that we were never left alone with this tool, and with our tendency to choose poorly. All along we’ve been carried by the Holy Spirit. Not left fighting alone, but given the best chances to win. The Holy Spirit is with us to guide us, to protect us, and to shine His light on our path. If we follow this light, we become the beloved person whom God created us to be. The Holy Spirit dwells in us, infuses us with his being, making us into the perfect version of our self He intended us to be.

   And so we yearn for our God. We want to know Him, love Him, serve Him. We also want to see what He sees when he looks at us now, and also what he saw when then, when he first thought us up and made us. We want to see the cup he designed for us drink, the cup He designed to fill to overflowing for us.

   Sometimes we think our cup must be a big one, because we admire people who have big cups, and we want to be like them. We want others to be impressed with our hard work and great accomplishments, just like we’re impressed with theirs. We think that must be the thing in life to go for. The thing that results in hearing the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

   Most of our cups are little. And all of our cups get filled all the way. It actually better to live a simple life in service to God. Most of God’s humble servants, His beloved children, aren’t given earth shattering tasks to do.

   It’s good to be content. It’s best not to compare my small cup to cups I perceive to be large. If I am doing what is set before me, and doing it with love, it is enough. Attention is better spent on loving others than on how great our accomplishments are.

   So I still wonder  sometimes, what has God given me to do, or who has God made me to be? I still feel confused and lost about this at times. I am a mom, a wife, a teacher (because I homeschool my 6 children), and a homemaker. I love my husband, our children, our home, our friends and family so dearly. That’s enough right? Yes.

   But within all that are the ways my soul responds to the universe and finds God, and sees Him and knows Him. I am small. I am like a tiny person with a tiny little thread reaching out into the vastness of space to find the loving God to find Him and tie my thread from him to me. It finds Him in goodness, beauty, truth, stories, art, and even music.

  Here is a story about music. Maybe a little key to my own answer.

  Music sometimes opens my soul, my heart, my mind, and my life before me all at once, and I see the story before me. I was recently listening to the song, “Such Great Heights” by the Postal Service. I was exercising at the time and so my own striving became part of the song for me. In my current state of introspection, I could see my marriage being described in the song. I’ve always related our romance to this song, but this time there was a new element being described. In the world we live in, having children is not regarded by all as a thing to be celebrated, congratulated, and called beautiful, but some see it as a thing to be feared and even pitied. Strangers of this variety are often ready to share their dismay at the sight of our beautiful brood. There are also many wonderful strangers who share their delight in seeing our incredibly blessed family. There’s a line repeated in “Such Great Heights” that goes “They will see us waving from such great heights, ‘Come down now”, they’ll say.” Each time the line was repeated I saw a distinct memory of a person inviting us to “come down” from all this joy of having children. There was the lady in the Hotel at Galveston Island, who thought she’d be clever and ask if we knew how this happened, she got a response which shocked her more than she shocked us, and we got a good laugh out of it. There was the doctors casually asking if I’d like to have my tubes tied while they had me open at the time of the c-section for our daughter’s birth. I was horrified, and replied just as casually, “No thank you, we love our children.” There was the nurse in the pediatric intensive care unit, who had briefly stepped in to help attend to our 2 year-old son who was recovering from having a brain tumor removed from his head, and who thought it would be obvious to ask if he must have been a mistake, since he was our fourth. “No, he was not a mistake.” And no, we will not come down. We will never, never, never come down.

   Maybe sometimes our calling is to just keep doing what we’re doing. To listen for God, to watch for God, and to learn to be content, to trust, and to not worry. After all, we’re His beloved children, and He is our beloved Father, will He not provide for us?