Friday, June 2, 2017

Healing My Faith

I've been going through a personal springtime of faith that reminds me of the days of my first conversion in college. It's not self-motivated. There are no plans, programs, or goals. I would describe it more as appetite, delight, and desire. I'm thirsty for God again, after years of feeling allergic to prayer. During all that time, I lamented that I wasn't praying and I could see that I probably should, but a sense of repugnance kept me away.

I felt repelled because I associated prayer with a life I had left behind -- life as a consecrated woman in Regnum Christi. The post-years were marked by phases: disillusionment, anger, then forgetfulness (truly, I forget for months at a time), and then a gradual acceptance of the past as part of my story. I think one factor that has helped that acceptance is love of my present life and a sense of many good opportunities on the horizon for me. But time also does its work.

A few years ago, I wrote a post on this blog (and deleted it a few days later) saying that in spite of being in a more peaceful place, I still had so many questions about my past, so much of a lingering sense of confusion about how it all fits together. At the time, the image that came to mind was one of a tangled, knotted ball of yarn. Shortly after, Rebecca Carpeaux posted something on Facebook about a novena to Mary, the Undoer of Knots. I never did the novena but the title stuck -- I had never heard it before, or at least had never associated it to my own internal questions and confusion about faith in the wake of the strange experience of those ten years and their aftermath. 

Fast forward a few years. I was talking to a friend who has recently lost her faith. We were talking about things in the Church that damage faith and I expressed some of those lingering questions again. She said, "It seems like you have faith scars from your time in Regnum Christi." The phrase stuck. Faith scars. Of course. (Another friend, speaking of herself, said, "I feel like my faith has been polluted.") Scars and pollution. Many of us still feel these effects.

There are open questions that remain unanswered. One could also say I have faith dislocations: some  fundamental concepts are probably out of alignment, or out of joint, and this affects the way that I pray and perceive God and myself. So those things need to be put in their proper place. 

So yes, there are scars... but now I also have more confidence that there is an answer for them, or that I will eventually reach some kind of deeper peace about them. I might not get those answers right away or all at once, but I think the pieces will fall into place in some way over time.

Several years ago, I said that my answer to the problem of faith knots was just to put it all aside and leave it on the back burner without dealing with it. I knew that I would eventually have to look at it more closely, possibly with the help of a therapist, but it didn't seem to be the right time. Now I think the right time has come. And I've already been getting little insights through reading that have been putting some things in a new light. My interior response to these insights has been one of relief, delight, and joy. I would say it's akin to the experience of having carried a headache for a long time, and then suddenly feeling it fade away. 

I'll share a couple of those insights today, and more as they come along (and as I get time to write about them) in case anyone else feels in any way identified. I know that each one had a different experience, and many people are way ahead of me in this process and already worked through their lingering issues years ago. I'm usually late to the party.

So I'm not presenting these as anything but what they are: personal insights drawn from reading or conversation that have shifted things around in my mind and given me a better perspective on my relationship with God. I'm not interested in rehashing the past; I'd rather look to the future and to what heals, rather than analyze what caused the wounds. If I briefly mention some of the errors of Regnum Christi, it's just by way of contrast, not to dwell on it too much.

The mistake of trying to control everything. 

The first one is from the introduction of To the Priests, Our Lady's Beloved Sons (yes, I know I'm not a priest). I'll just quote the passage that hit me like a lightning bolt: 

Secularism, at the intellectual level, becomes "rationalism" and, at the level of life, it becomes "naturalism." [...] Because of naturalism, there is a widespread habit today of giving great importance to one's own personal activity, to efficiency and to the organisation of programmes in the apostolic sector, forgetting the primary value of Divine Grace and that the interior life of union with Christ, that is of prayer, must be the soul of every apostolate.

I remember reading the classic book The Soul of the Apostolate and I never noticed at the time that apostolic life in Regnum Christi was actually organized around a naturalistic view of fruitfulness. Lip service was paid to prayer and union with God, but in practice the driving force of the apostolate was human action, plans, programs, projections, lists, strategies, and numbers. Always numbers. "Frutos, frutos, frutos." God's fruitfulness and action in souls was reduced to something man-driven and external. And it had to be fast. 

Going slow.

Lately I've been reading Carl Honoré's In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed and savoring its message. Honoré points out that modern life is all about speed. And speed is all about efficiency. But the "slow movement" in cuisine, parenting, work, city planning, medicine, and even sex is about finding a more human pace of life and resisting the constant acceleration of this frenetic world that is obsessed with productivity and external development, but blind to the inner development of the spirit. In education, in relationships -- and in spiritual life -- we want to microwave everything, pluck the fruit before it's ripe, diagnose an illness in 30 seconds, fast-track our children's academic formation in ways that damage them, and even medicate ourselves with quick fixes that only mask underlying issues.

In the face of all that insanity, the Slow Movement is about consciously and deliberately giving each task the time it requires to be completed well, even if it means we're out of sync with frenetic modern life. A friendship needs years to develop. A child needs time for play. A wound needs time to heal. Fruits need time to ripen. Prayer needs time to unfold. Grace needs time to seep into the mind and heart. Souls need time to open. You can't pry open a flower's petals to make it open faster; you'll only damage it. So slowness is really about respect for beings and their needs. It's not slowness for the sake of slowness; it's doing things at the proper pace as a way of living a more human life. 

We were told there is a rush to bear fruits because... souls! the Church! the urgency of the mission! And so on. No. Not like that. External fruits produced at an unnatural speed are useless, artificial, fragile, tasteless. And they rot quickly.

Being present to God.

What really matters, I'm realizing, is interior union with God (and in my case, also with Mary). And it's not a union that we can force or plan or program. (Remember those "programs of life"?) I pray my Rosary and have started with some very tentative, brief "lectio divina" prayer times. These are not a burden to me; I don't do anything that I feel reluctant about. I only do what I feel drawn to do by a sense of attraction. But setting those types of prayer to one side for the moment, I'm also realizing that there is another aspect to prayer that is more fluid and God-directed. 

A few months ago, I asked Ellen McCormick Mady for some good spiritual book recommendations and she pointed me to Opening to God: Lectio Divina and Life as Prayer. It has been a major perspective changer. I'm only a third of the way through it, but so far, this section caught my attention: 

The Word and silence belong together. Their rhythm is as simple and basic as breathing. We draw in. We let go in response. [...] It should be the same with the rhythm of these two core movements of prayer. First we open ourselves in faith and draw in God's Word, and then we rest in silence, allowing that Word to become life to us. 

What caught my attention in that paragraph was the gentleness of it, the slow and easy pace, the naturalness of it. Prayer is like breathing. 

He continues further on:

The kind of attention that is essential if we are to open ourselves to God is quite different from [an] effortful focusing of our thoughts and constriction of our imagination. In many ways, it is the exact opposite. Prayerful paying attention is not scrunching up our willpower and tightening our focus, but simply opening our self to what we encounter. This makes it much more an act of release than effort. 

So prayer is not so much a cognitive exercise of "trying to pray" as it is a "being present." It's a totally different type of interior movement from what I'm used to. How could it be that simple?

The author refers to the French Jew Simone Weil as a master of this type of prayer: 

Attention for Weil is not the active mental process of concentration that is involved in what we usually refer to as "paying attention." Rather, it is suspending our thoughts and allowing our awareness to develop. It is therefore more like prayerful openness than thinking. In fact, she argues, "attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love. Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer." [...] Attentiveness is prayer because attention paid to anything is a doorway to the self-transcendent. It moves us beyond our self-preoccupations and opens us to that which is beyond our self.

What strikes me most in this is the way that prayer, true prayer as contemplation, is not self-directed. It's simpler, and it gives primacy to God's grace to flood the present moment. Prayer in this sense is not me thinking things about God or even so much about conversation (although there is a place for that too) but rather listening and being open and quiet. This, I would add, requires a willingness to be slow and apparently unproductive. It's the ultimate "waste of time" -- doing nothing but waiting and listening and being present in the moment, not rushing ahead mentally to the next thing or self-evaluating or worrying about self-improvement and spiritual growth. It's not up to us. We just water the seed with attention and listening and responding... and get out of the way. 

What does that have to do with man-made fruits? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. 

It has everything to do with abiding in God. "Abide in me, and you will bear much fruit." But we don't have to look at the fruit or even know about it. We don't have to agonize or obsess over spiritual development. We have to learn to be present to God in slowness, peace, and silence, and let God's grace direct the unfolding of the flower, not our own effort. "Look at the flowers of the field; they neither sow nor spin. Yet not even Solomon in all his glory was clothed like one of these." I always took that to mean that we shouldn't worry about clothes. But now I think it also means that God does his own grace-spinning inside of us, in hidden ways that we can't see, and the best thing we can do is just to stop trying to control things, and let the process unfold peacefully in the way He wants.

Just some thoughts to start off -- I hope to share more later as things strike me from readings or conversations. I would also really like to get book recommendations and insights that have helped those of you who are much further along in this process than me. 


Rebecca P said...

Trish, thank you for this post....It is so healing for me to hear it from someone else's mouth. So moved by prayer as being present... not something we concoct successfully or unsuccessfully. These several years since I left consecrated life I have mourned the loss of being able to pray. I became completely tangled up and only have had Mary to hold on to for a lifeline. She has prayed for me and kept me somehow connected. These days my knots are slowly undoing and I am refreshed by the thought that I can just be present to God - take him in and just present myself and go from there. Anyway, long comment but so blessed by your post and your reading recommendations. Sending you a hug and a promise to remember you in my next "knots" novena.

Nicholas F said...

Hi Trish,
Thank you for sharing your thoughts and personal experiences. Interesting read.
To tell you the truth, I can't relate much to your experience. For me, I loved my time in the LC. I lived fully and presently in the moment, both when I was inside and now that I've moved on.
I have no regrets, for that or any part of my life. On the contrary, my LC formation has made me who I am today, and I am extremely grateful for it (and so is my wife!). I am happy of where I am in my journey as a man, a person of faith, husband, father, leader, breadwinner - and all of this is a direct result of my formation.
Could I live my life 1000 times over, 1000 times over I would have gone to the Apostolic School and seminary.
And if my children ever show interest in that life, they would have my full support and encouragement.
I recognize that there are a wide variety of experiences, both inside and outside the Movement. It is concerning to see a few brothers and sisters abandon belief in God, Christ, the Church, morality, healthy sexuality, etc. after so many years, but we are all human with our own history, experiences, outcomes.
I continue to pray for all of us, and I believe that God, who is faithful to his promises, will not abandon those who have given so much to Him.
God bless, and I look forward to following your journey.

Katie Wesolek said...

Thank you for sharing these thoughts, Trish! Beautiful prose too, by the way! I really do relate to a lot of what you wrote about. I've had a lot of similar discoveries about spiritual life....mostly through the help of a few wonderful people God had placed on my path! Thanks for the book recommendations too! I want to look into the one on slowing down. That has been one of the hardest RC habits for me to let go of...feeling guilty if I'm not always doing something and being productive. On a final note, I also really love my life right now! Like you said! And that's such a good thing!