Scripture with the Desert Fathers (Part 2)

By Ignatia, continued from Part 1.

Being able to hear God’s voice is vital for figuring out where He’s calling you now – if you aren’t listening to Him or giving Him space to talk to you, how can you know what His will is?

So what’s another way to pray that doesn’t involve sitting still for an hour?

A friend and I just started this prayer idea for Lent which might prove helpful.

First, the background:

We had a one-day retreat recently at my school, and the priest giving the retreat was speaking about the desert fathers way back at the beginning of monasticism (ca. 4th century AD). He said that they left the cities because, after being legalized, Christianity had become something associated with status, and they felt like they needed to experience difficulty in order to progress in holiness. One of the things that they wrote about was their thoughts – that is, those stories we tell ourselves all day long to narrate what’s going on around us. And they recognized that our thoughts are really, really powerful – the things you think enter into your subconscious and manifest themselves in your actions. And negative thoughts, they said, were particularly potent. They also recognized that temptations generally started not with passions or emotions, but with a thought. So they tried to figure out how to battle these lies that they found themselves telling themselves all the time (the negative thoughts), and they figured out that they needed to replace the lies with truth whenever they came up.

If you have ever done any cognitive behavioral therapy, this might all sound rather familiar. Modern science and psychology has “discovered” many of the same things that the desert fathers knew back in the 4th century.

But what the desert fathers did that went beyond what most modern therapists do, is that they took the next step: I need to replace these lies with truth, but where is Truth found most of all? In Scripture. So they would memorize Scripture to have ready as a “weapon” against the thoughts – similar to the way the Lord used Scripture during the temptation in the desert.

Our retreat master told us the story of a monk who had been in the desert for ten years. One day, he went to get water somewhere near a village, and he saw a woman there. And immediately, the thought came into his head: “Why am I out in the desert doing all this penance? It would not be so bad to get married. Look, this woman is all alone – she probably needs someone to provide for her. I could do that. I could leave behind this penitential stuff and go help her.” But he knew that it was a temptation and not the authentic voice of the Holy Spirit. And the verse that he had been meditating on that day was “The Lord is my Shepherd, there is nothing I shall want.” He immediately began repeating this verse over and over, attacking the temptation and reminding himself to find his comfort and fulfillment in the Lord alone.

So what our retreat master encouraged us to do was to have a “word” from Scripture every day that we read either before going to bed or when we wake up in the morning, and that we then carry with us throughout the day, maybe writing it on a sticky note and putting it someplace we’ll see it. We should keep it very close to us and think about it throughout the day, so that if at any point during the day someone were to ask “What is the word you’re carrying today?” we could answer without hesitation.

Based on this, my friend and I have decided to work our way through the Psalms using this method – one verse every day. And that one verse is the “word” that we read and think about and give to the Lord to fill it with meaning for that day. This means that it’s really about Him: We’re not picking verses we like, we’re just working through them as they come and waiting to see what the Lord does with them, asking Him to help us understand them and to hear Him speaking to us through them.

And when we find ourselves falling into negative thoughts during the day, we can use this word as a weapon against it. So the thought might occur to me “I’m such a failure, I’m never going to be able to do anything with my life” and instead of agreeing with it or trying to fight it on my own strength, I can respond by repeating that verse over and over. It redirects my thoughts to the words of the Lord in Scripture instead of getting stuck thinking about how much of a terrible person I am.

And the fact that the desert fathers – and even Jesus Himself – used Scripture in this manner to fight temptation gives me the confidence that this is an ancient practice in the Church in which I can trust.

Recently, my verse of the day was “Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous” (Psalm 1:5). I can’t say that I was thrilled with this verse – it just didn’t seem to say much to me. But I was determined to do my best to let the Lord use it to speak to me and to let Him fill it with meaning.

I’m currently in graduate school studying theology, and on that day in my Moral Theology class, my professor began talking about obedience in religious life and what it encompasses – as well as what it does not encompass. The topic was rather out-of-the-blue, since the course is on virtues and vices and we hadn’t read anything directly related to religious obedience. It’s a sensitive topic for me – and for many of us who’ve left the convent, I suspect – and so it was difficult to remain calm, but by some grace of God, I was able to stay calm enough that I could really listen to what he was saying and ask questions, and it actually helped me a lot. I felt like I was finally starting to understand better what had happened to me in the convent and the events that led to my departure. Still, it brought up a lot of emotions, which manifested themselves when I went to Mass after class. As I was kneeling after Communion trying to pray and my heart was hurting quite a bit, I called to mind my verse for the day and tried to use it against the hopelessness that was threatening to overtake me … but it didn’t work. I felt absolutely nothing. No consolation came. So I turned to the Lord and told Him so: “Lord, this isn’t helping! Give me something that actually helps!!!!”

To my surprise, a verse from the Psalms immediately ran through my mind: “The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom should I fear? … Of whom should I be afraid?” (Ps 27:1). And with it came a sense of peace. I spent the rest of Mass – and then the rest of the day – repeating that beautiful verse which I am sure the Lord gave me to help me. It continues to give me comfort and the strength to continue to process some of the more painful memories from my time in the convent even now, a week later.

I have to admit that I hadn’t envisioned this practice turning out that way – I had anticipated the Lord suddenly giving me an insight into the verse I’d originally had, not give me an entirely new one! But somehow He always manages to surprise me, and is constantly reminding me not to box Him in. So I am learning even through lessons like this one to rely even more fully on the Lord and to remain open to His voice, however it comes to me.

Perhaps you’re in a place where a daily holy hour isn’t possible for whatever reason, or you want to pray with Scripture more but can’t afford to set aside any more time for prayer than you already have. I hope this method of praying with Scripture will prove helpful – it’s less intimidating than committing to a holy hour every day, since it only takes a few minutes at the beginning or end of your day, and then a brief moment now and again to recall that one verse while you’re “on the go”. It can help combat the negative thought cycles we so easily find ourselves caught in, and it’s a beautiful way to incorporate the Word into your everyday life, giving Him the opportunity to speak to your heart in His own words.

St. Anthony and all the desert fathers, pray for us!

Scripture with the Desert Fathers (Part 1)

By Ignatia.

When I left the convent, I almost stopped praying altogether because it hurt too much. Every time I walked into a chapel I burst into tears: that had been the center of convent life, and that’s where everything that was really important happened, and I was so angry with the Lord that He hadn’t helped me stay, and so hurt, and so disappointed – and at the same time, I was completely terrified that I had walked away from Him, that I’d disappointed Him, that I’d left just because it got hard. If it hadn’t been for a priest at my parish who reached out to me (who’s now my spiritual director), I might have just stopped praying and eventually lost my faith. Recently, as we were discussing the phenomenal growth that I’ve experienced in my relationship with the Lord in the year and a half since I left the convent, Father, too, acknowledged how precarious my faith was at the beginning.

The first time I met with him, only about 5 days after coming home, the first question he asked me was “Are you praying?” He was the only person I talked to after leaving who knew to ask me that question, and who knew that the answer might be “no”. He himself had once been in a similar position, having discerned out of seminary (he re-entered later), so I suppose he had the insight that personal experience brings. When I told him that, indeed, I was not praying, he rather sternly told me that I needed to be praying a holy hour every day, especially because I wasn’t doing anything else at the time – I didn’t have a job yet so I was just home by myself all day. It took me a long time to really get into the habit of doing that – every confession for at least a month and a half included “not praying” – but eventually, with his encouragement, it started happening regularly.

At the beginning, I felt like I had to re-learn how to pray – I no longer trusted myself to recognize the Lord’s voice, and I had to ask my spiritual director to explain to me how to pray as though I had never done it before. For weeks, all I did during my prayer time was cry. Cry and yell at the Lord and tell Him how confused and hurt I was and how I didn’t understand any of this and how I hated Him for abandoning me and not helping me stay and how I hated myself for walking away from the convent and from Him. So it was pretty tough … but by some grace of God, I was able to stick with it and it slowly got easier and less painful.

I’ve discovered since then that it’s normal to struggle with praying when you leave the convent. I’m pretty sure every woman I’ve talked to who’s been in that situation has mentioned not being able to pray, or not wanting to, or not knowing how to anymore.

But what to do about it?

Obviously, I’m a big fan of the holy hour every day plan – it has helped me to get to a place where my faith is stronger and more real than it ever has been before.

My director had encouraged me to follow this structure in my holy hour:

10 minutes of just sitting with the Lord, recognizing His presence and looking at Him – and letting Him look at me.

15-20 minutes of Lectio Divina or Ignatian meditation on the Gospel of the day, allowing the Lord to speak to me through Scripture.

15-20 minutes of spiritual reading or another devotion, like praying the Rosary or Divine Mercy chaplet.

Most of the time, I just prayed with the Gospel, or, if I felt that wasn’t fruitful, I picked up a book. I read parts of St. Faustina’s diary, all of Benedict XVI’s “Jesus of Nazareth”, a book called “Edith Stein and her Companions” (highly recommended, by the way – there are a number of people who were martyred with St. Edith Stein who had previously left religious life!) and a number of other books during the ten months I spent at home “recovering”.

Still, doing a daily holy hour isn’t the only way to pray, nor is it necessarily the best way for you right now. It really depends. It could be that you’re experiencing a lot of anxiety, so trying to sit in the chapel for an hour might not work well. Or perhaps you have a full-time job, and just don’t have an hour to spend in the chapel each day. The important thing is giving the Lord space and time to speak to you, whether that’s in the chapel or out on a walk or in a prayer space in your room or at the library or on your lunch break at work or wherever. Being able to hear His voice is vital for figuring out where He’s calling you now – if you aren’t listening to Him or giving Him space to talk to you, how can you know what His will is?

(For the answer, stay tuned for Part 2 this Saturday!)

Book Review: Sister Mary Baruch – The Early Years

By Rosemaria.

“My name is Baruch; I know, it’s not a girl’s name, but it’s my name… Mary Baruch, which gives it a nice feminine flavor, yes?… Like all the nuns that came before me, I was dying  to know what name I would receive… I was hoping for the name of one of the Apostles, or one of the Dominican saints… But I learned later that Mother wanted something from the Hebrew Scriptures… I didn’t know the Hebrew Scriptures all that well, and Baruch, for me, was the name of [that] college on Lexington Avenue and 24th Street…I’ve grown to love the name, however, as I know it means ‘Blessed.’… Before all that, I was just a nice Jewish girl from the Upper West Side of Manhattan…”

These quotes from the opening pages–and the lines of innumerable pages along the way–of the delightful fictional story Sister Mary Baruch: The Early Years may ring a bell or two within your heart.  Anyone who has ever been in religious life for any amount of time will find this tale of a young Jewish woman in the 1960s who converts to the Catholic faith and enters a Dominican monastery to mirror some of her own story.  Early on in the book, you will meet her devout Catholic friend who not only challenges her to go jogging (sure, but the tucked-away candy bars certainly help along the way!) but also is the reason she makes her way into a Catholic church to light a candle of hope and prayer one day and finds her life changed forever.  As you follow the spiritual journey of Rebecca-turned-Sr. Mary Baruch, you may see yourself, but for sure, you will laugh, and you may even cry!

Written by a Dominican priest, Fr. Jacob Restrick, the story offers a true inside look at monastery life as you watch Sr. Mary Baruch grow in her walk of holiness.  You will feel her struggles, laugh at her foibles, and rejoice at realistic stories of God’s grace.  And when you get to the end and wish there were more… don’t worry, there is a sequel, Sister Mary Baruch: The Middle Ages.  The only “complaint” I have about the book is that she is fictional:  she seems so real that you will be tempted to pray to her!

As the Year Ends…

 

cross-christian-pixabayBy Jacqui, re-printed from her blog Talitha Koum with kind permission. Please pray for her as she begins her volunteer work at at orphanage in India!

The past year has been such a journey. As we near New Year’s Eve, I am seeing more and more comments on social media about how terrible this year has been…as a whole. I have been conflicted in my response.

Yes, people died. We, as a society, have mourned the loss of many celebrities this past year. But, how many people have lost a friend or a loved one? How many parents have had to lay a child to rest too early? Personally, I have been to two infant funerals in 2016, and was not able to attend another. Dear friends of mine, who lost their babies all too soon.

I imagine their pain is overwhelming. Yet, I admire their determination and faith, that in the Lord’s time, all pain and sorrow will be healed. They have not dwelled only on their loss…they have found moments of joy and great blessing. They have chosen to look at the graces of 2016 and to look forward, in hope, to a new year. A new beginning. A fresh start in living out their lives of faith and trust in Divine Providence.

As I reflect on my own life, this past year, there are many moments of great pain and sadness. There are moments of death. Moments of utter abandonment. Moments where spiritually, there was only great darkness and a deeply penetrating feeling of despair or hopelessness. How easily I could look back and say, “Thank God, this year is finally over! It was such a terrible year. Hopefully 2017 will be better.” Yet, I choose to see God at work in my life. I choose to not focus only on my hard times, losses, etc.

In my looking back, this is what I see my year was:

I was living my life, as Sr. Emilia. I lived the life that, for as long as I can remember, I have always dreamed of. Then, in discernement, I began to pray about being called to an openness…to the idea…that I was being called to leave religious life to discern marriage. That was a huge time of fear, faith, trust in the darkness, excitement, etc. It was a gift…even in the pain.

I attended a Theology of the Body course retreat, in PA. That retreat literally, “changed my life!” I had no idea how beautifully painful that week was going to be. The Lord showed me throughout that week, His great and abiding love. The phrase I used after that week was, “…it felt like I had been stripped and beaten, then hung up to dry, alone.” It took me months to connect that imagery, to that of Christ, on His own Cross. Then, my pain (because it was on that retreat that I discerned I was called to marriage…which meant leaving my life and sisters at the monastery) became beautiful…because it was united with our Bridegroom’s Cross…the marriage bed of the Lamb.

(Now, a quicker version of the rest of the year…)

I left religious life in May. I lived with my Granny for a time. I lived on Kelley’s Island for three months. I applied and was accepted for a time of volunteering in India. I moved home to prepare for that mission. Now, we are just 6 days from my departure to India! I will live the first 5 months of 2017, on the other side of the world.

There were SO many days of great pain and sadness, as I adjusted to my new life outside of the monastery…without community…without such intense and beautiful prayer. Looking back, I see only growth and the gift of the Father’s love. There are no regrets. Yes, I could focus on the many wounds and struggles, the deaths of family and friends, etc. but I have chosen to look back at 2016, with gratitude. I choose to see the many gifts bestowed upon my life, as well as the times when I failed to live my life in holiness.

I choose to look forward to 2017…not in the hopes that “2017 will be better,” or “to forget 2016!” No, I look foward to this new year of blessings and growths…trials and pains…adventures and the unknown, while remembering the past year and how it helped to bring me to where I am.

I implore you, my friends, to take a look at your own lives and focus on the blessings…even in the face of pain. Seek to find the good. What graces were you given this past year? What moments did you see growth in? Have you taken it to prayer? Have you thanked God for His love and blessings?

Merry Christmas!

Happy New Year! May it be a year of abundant growth and happiness.

#Censusfail

By Penny.

Get online on August 9!

So ran the slogan for the 2016 Australian census, which – for the first time ever  – could be submitted online. We’d been assured it was unhackable, which inevitably turned out to be more or less the same as unsinkable. I got online on August 9 and found the website down, bombarded by so many millions of fake logins that the Australian Bureau of Statistics had hit the panic button and closed it down.

In filling out all the census questions a couple of days after the original deadline, I was reminded suddenly of the last time someone attempted to include me in a survey of this kind, which also didn’t work out as planned. Three-and-a-bit years ago, a letter from my former university arrived in the convent mailbox containing a Graduate Careers questionnaire for all alumnae. I dutifully filled it out:

What is your current occupation?

Postulant.

What are the primary responsibilities of this role?

Prayer, penance, and the witness of a holy life.

How many hours per week do you spend performing this role?

Ideally, every waking minute.

What is your current annual income?

Nil.

What is your anticipated annual income in five years’ time?

See above.

What is your level of seniority within the organization?

Non-existent.

What is your next anticipated career development?

Novice, about eight months from now.

What is the level of seniority of this position within the organization?

Non-existent.

At what age do you expect to retire from the workforce?

Death.

Sadly, although it gave the sisters a laugh at recreation, I didn’t end up mailing back the answers above; partly because I genuinely didn’t want to skew the results of their survey, and partly out of a sense that a religious vocation is not something that can be broken down into a tidy set of numbers as they would have to attempt to do. (Imagine an accountant trying to classify “a hundredfold in the life to come” as your superannuation, and you’ll see what I mean.) Had I still been in the convent this year, I assume my superior would have entered me on the census as an employee in a religious non-profit/charitable organization or some other odd contortion of language like that, because the census isn’t equipped to handle “spouse of Christ” any more than the census that brought Saint Joseph to Bethlehem two thousand and six Decembers ago had a category for “carpenter/foster-father of the Messiah” (#censusfailcaesaraugustus).
A census is a practical, quantitative tool, not a qualitative one: if I check “Catholic” in the religion category, a computer somewhere far away will go click and add one Catholic to its demographic information, and that’s the whole bewildering tapestry of my religious experience to date statistically done and dusted. It’s rather like the limitations of the Google Analytics data that I, with my Blog Mistress hat on, use to measure traffic through the Leonie’s Longing website. I might be delighted to see a spike on the graph showing that over a hundred people viewed a particular article, but that spike doesn’t tell me the most important thing of all: what that article meant to the real people who read it. My own cheerful postulant answers to the university survey were contrariwise all true, but contained not a single piece of information that they could use because everything that mattered was inside my soul and therefore unquantifiable. And although I’ve finally submitted my census, and hope that the government will be able to use the information I provided to help get an idea of the demographics of Australia in 2016, the act of filling my life out on a form is a reminder that although a human can be represented in numbers, the numbers will always fall short of the image and likeness of God.

Who Am I?

Identity Mask Disguise Mindset PixabayA classic parlour game, with a Leonie’s Longing twist! Answers below.

a) My parents refused me permission to enter the convent because they could not give me a dowry. Several religious communities rejected my application to enter because I was poor and had little formal education.

b) I made three attempts to enter the religious life in active communities of sisters, none successful. Finally, I accepted my spiritual director’s advice to enter the Capuchin Poor Clares, a community to which I felt no attraction at all.

c) I entered the Sisters of Mercy in my early twenties, but my health collapsed and I returned home after eighteen months of religious life. I was unwell for nearly two years afterward. During this time of illness I began to feel called found my own religious community, but my spiritual director told me that this idea was a deception to be rejected.

d) As a young woman with poor health, I applied to the Sisters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul and was turned away. My sister was accepted by the Visitandines. I decided that, if I could not be a religious sister, I would raise a large family and dedicate my children to the Lord.

e) When I applied to the Passionists, the superior sent back a letter saying, “We will not have the convent contaminated by her.”

f) All of my sisters became nuns. My own first attempt at living the religious life lasted eight weeks; I made two more unsuccessful tries before persevering.

g) After years of struggling to keep up academically in my studies for the priesthood, I was dismissed from the seminary. I was re-admitted, and failed my examinations again. It took me eleven years to complete my studies and become a diocesan priest.

h) At the age of twenty-two, I applied to the Augustinian Canons of the Great Saint Bernard Hospice in the Swiss Alps, famous for rescuing pilgrims lost in the snow or endangered by the treacherous conditions. However, in order to be accepted I was ordered to learn Latin, a language which I found impossible; finally, I admitted defeat and accepted, to my great disappointment, that I did not truly have a religious vocation.

i) My spiritual director told me to put the idea of a religious vocation out of my head; I was poorly educated, and considered slow-witted. A few days later, however, he came back and asked me whether I really did believe that Jesus was calling me to religious life. When I said that I did, he asked me whether I could at least peel potatoes. Yes, I said, I can peel potatoes. So he told me to go to the convent to peel the potatoes, and I did!

j) I was enclosed in a church as an anchoress, and was resolved to stay there forever. There was fierce opposition when God called me out of my anchorhold to reform the Poor Clares; it was considered a betrayal of my vocation.

k) I applied to enter the Franciscans and was initially accepted, but later turned away after I confessed the details of my past life to one of the friars. I was devastated, and broke down in tears during my next Confession.

l) I was accepted as a novice by the Third Order Dominicans, and I made my first vows in the community; however, I found out that my true vocation lay in the cloistered life, and I left the Dominicans to become a Carmelite.

m) I was rejected by seven monasteries before I realised I was not called to religious life.

n) As a young seminarian, I felt a deep attraction to the life of a Carmelite friar, but my bishop told me to finish what I started, and would not permit me to transfer to the monastery. I finished my studies and became a diocesan priest instead.

And the answers…

a) Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska, mystic and Secretary of the Divine Mercy, canonized April 30th, 2000.

b) Servant of God Sister Consolata Betrone, mystic and victim soul.

c) Venerable Mary Potter, foundress of the Little Company of Mary.

d) Saint Zelie Martin, mother of Saint Therese of Lisieux.

e) Saint Gemma Galgani, mystic and victim soul, canonized May 2nd, 1940.

f) Servant of God Sister Francoise Therese (Leonie) Martin, sister of Saint Therese of Lisieux.

g) Saint John Marie Vianney, Patron Saint of priests, canonised 1925.

h) Saint Louis Martin, father of Saint Therese of Lisieux.

i) Saint Maria Bertrilla Boscardin, Dorothean Sister and nurse during the First World War, canonised June 8th, 1952.

j) Saint Colette of Corbie, foundress of the reformed branch of Poor Clares which bears her name, Colettine.

k) Father Thomas Merton, Trappist monk, priest and spiritual writer.

l) Blessed Elia of Saint Clement, spiritual writer.

m) Saint Benedict Joseph Labre, the pilgrim Saint, French mendicant and Franciscan tertiary, canonised December 8th, 1881.

n) Pope Saint John Paul II, canonised April 27th (Divine Mercy Sunday), 2014. Yes, really!

Can you add any others?