Monday, April 27, 2015

Something Bigger Than Whiskers

I will bless the Lord at all times; 
his praise shall continually be in my mouth.
 My soul makes its boast in the Lord; let the humble hear and be glad.
 Oh, magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together!
 I sought the Lord, and he answered me and delivered me from all my fears.

Those who look to him are radiant, and their faces shall never be ashamed.
 This poor man cried, and the Lord heard him 
and saved him out of all his troubles.

The angel of the Lord encamps 
around those who fear him, and delivers them.
 Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good! 
Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him!

 Oh, fear the Lord, you his saints, for those who fear him have no lack!
 The young lions suffer want and hunger; 
but those who seek the Lord lack no good thing.
 Come, O children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the Lord.
 What man is there who desires life 
and loves many days, that he may see good?..

 The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.
 Many are the afflictions of the righteous, 
but the Lord delivers him out of them all.
 He keeps all his bones; not one of them is broken..
 The Lord redeems the life of his servants;
none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned.
Psalm 34

Reflection – OK, I’m back. And back with one of my favourite psalms of all, one of (in my view) the most beautiful and poignant pieces of biblical poetry and prayer there is. I often assign this psalm as a penance in confession, and return to it often in my personal prayer.

This psalm captures the essential spiritual attitude that must be at the heart of our life, and that spiritual attitude is praise and thanksgiving. This is always important, but all the more important when life in the world or in our own personal lives is hard and painful.

The world is full of troubles right now. Be it simple tragedies like the earthquake in Nepal, or the genuinely horrific evil of terrorism and brutal violence in the Middle East and Africa, or the various complex and painful social ills and evils confronting us here in North America, there is little ‘good news’ in the news we read these days. As well, we all have our personal problems and sorrows, big and little, which can darken our minds and hearts at any time.

To praise God in the face of all this may seem a bit polyanna-ish, a bit ‘whistle a happy tune’ or ‘these are a few of my favourite things’—a flight from reality into positive thinking, some kind of head trip to fool oneself into feeling better. To say that, when one’s own personal problems and sorrows are mounting especially high, praise should be particularly intense in one’s own life, seems almost perverse—like the more pain you are in, the more you should try to smile and laugh.

If it were just a matter of positive thinking, of raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, the objection would hold. But that is not what praising God is, really. To praise God in the face of evils and sorrows of all kinds is to make a deep act of faith and trust in the reality of God, that God is real, is here, is acting, that there is a whole bigger and broader field of being (admittedly almost entirely concealed from us) in which there is great good, cause for hope, reason to rejoice.

Pain and suffering focus the mind on themselves and on their immediate cause. When we stub our toe, our whole world becomes, for a brief moment, The Toe, and the stupid thing we just stubbed it on (Drat it! Drat it to heck!). All suffering, and certainly the very big and calamitous sorrows of life and of the world, has that effect on us—the entire world is defined by my grief, by this evil, by that sorrow.

Aside from personal sufferings and sorrows, those who are involved in various types of social activism have to be vigilant about this. Yes, there are great evils happening in the world, like abortion (for example). But… the whole world is not defined by this evil. Countless men and women welcome their children into life, even in difficult circumstances, and even in the most tragic wrong choices women make to have an abortion, the mercy of God is poured forth in unstinting measure.

There is always a bigger reality, in other words. And it is praise and thanksgiving, rapturous ecstatic praise that opens the door, at least, to that bigger reality, allows us to stand in whatever pain and evil we find ourselves in and not be overwhelmed by it. Allows us to see that God is—that God is bigger, that God is acting, that God is in the end victorious over it all. Praise is our looking to him and growing radiant, our tasting and seeing the goodness of the Lord, our faith in his deliverance of the poor. It is utterly and essentially central to a healthy, whole spiritual life.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Where in the World is Fr. Denis Lemieux?

So... not blogging so much these days, am I? I'm taking an unscheduled week off from the blog, folks, as upon my return to MH from the prairies I diagnosed myself with an acute case of the tireds.

Basically, my brain is as close to flat-lining as it can be and still maintain automatic functions like breathing, and my creativity is absolutely null. So... no blog for the week.

For those who know me personally and may worry about me a bit... don't. It's just been a very busy and full winter-spring season, and my fatigue level is perfectly natural and normal. I will be back on the block, and the blog, Monday morning sharp with a fresh round of psalms, mandates, examens, round-ups and much, much more.

Meanwhile... all the best to you... and if you're desperate to read my words, don't forget to pick up a copy of Idol Thoughts, today!

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Little Way on the Prairies

So, I left off on the blogging for a few days – my week at the St. Therese Institute in Bruno SK was very blessed and wonderful, but also very full indeed, and by the latter days of the week, my energy was pretty much taken up by the life and work there.

I normally do a ‘this week in Madonna House’ wrap-up around the weekend, but since I wasn’t at MH at all, I would rather talk about STI and what I experienced there. I don’t usually highlight places I go and things I do on this blog, but I would like to share a bit about this remarkable place.

The St. Therese Institute for Faith and Mission has been operating since 2007, in a former Ursuline convent in Bruno SK, about one hour west of Saskatoon. It has two aspects, the School of Faith and Mission, and the Healing and Growth Center. I was involved with the first, and so will only mention the second. The Center runs healing retreats and prayer ministry throughout the year, and I have heard nothing but good about it.

I was involved with the school of faith and mission, and was wildly impressed with it. This is a nine month program for young adults of intensive faith formation. As of a year ago, it is a two-year program, although the majority of the students only do the first year, and it is complete unto itself.

The young people live in community. They have a series of courses throughout the year on Catholic doctrine, Scripture, apologetics, spirituality. They have a vibrant life of prayer—morning prayer and Mass, adoration and rosary, praise and worship every day. They have personal individual spiritual and pastoral guidance and accompaniment.

The spirituality is very much the Little Way of St. Therese, with a healthy dose of MH spirituality (Poustinia and People of the Towel and Water are part of the core curriculum). Jim Anderson, the director of the school and a long-time friend of MH, explains that St. Therese teaches us what to live; Catherine Doherty explains how to live it. There is also a strong Ignatian component to the formation, with significant formation on the principles of discernment.

This was my second year out there, offering a week-long class to the second year students on the theology of liturgy and worship. The first six months of the program they have longer ‘semester’ style courses; the last three months they have intensive week-long ones. The first years, for example, had a seminar on ecumenical dialogue and apologetics. This coming week, the first years will have the first of two weeks on Ignatian discernment; the second years will have adult catechetics.

It is a wonderful place! The spirit is lively, joyful, free and fun. The students are a very impressive group—the second years who I was with were engaged, serious, thoughtful, and very sharp.

There are many great things happening in the Canadian Catholic scene right now – CCO, NET ministries, the Companions of the Cross, the Franciscans of Halifax, just to name a few (and, ahem, Madonna House plugging away with our Nazareth life in the midst of them all). But add to the mix St. Therese Institute—a prime example of the New Evangelization, and a serious formator of young Catholics seeking to be part of the New Evangelization. It can easily grow and accommodate many more students than they currently have (about 35 this year between the two years), and I just wanted to share with my blog readers this fine formation program for young Catholic adults on the Canadian prairies.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Putting An End to Nonsense.

After taking a break from it last week for Easter, I do want to get back to the Pope’s examination of conscience for the Roman Curia, even though it is starting to feel like a long time ago (years and years ago, in internet time). I am a stubborn contrarian, though, and have the weird idea that things don’t cease to be relevant because they were spoken or written sometime before last week. The speech continues to be a good examen for all of us for our lives.

We are up to disease number twelve out of fifteen. This is the “disease of a lugubrious face. Those glum and dour persons who think that to be serious we have to put on a face of melancholy and severity, and treat others – especially those we consider our inferiors – with rigour, brusqueness and arrogance.

“In fact, a show of severity and sterile pessimism are frequently symptoms of fear and insecurity. An apostle must make an effort to be courteous, serene, enthusiastic and joyful, a person who transmits joy everywhere he goes. A heart filled with God is a happy heart which radiates an infectious joy: it is immediately evident! So let us not lose that joyful, humorous and even self-deprecating spirit which makes people amiable even in difficult situations. How beneficial is a good dose of humour!”

Now, let’s be clear here. The Pope is not talking to people who are undergoing real trials and sorrows and grief, callously enjoining them to ‘cheer up’. He certainly is not referring to people suffering from clinical depression. Nor is he thinking of people who simply have somewhat grave personalities, who tend to be more often serious than not.

Pope Francis is not an idiot—obviously he knows that there is real suffering and affliction in the world that can weigh a person down severely. He also knows that it takes all kinds to make a world, and that those of a more melancholic temperament in fact make a great contribution to the human experience.

That being said, I think we all have experienced what he is really talking about here, which is less to do with real sufferings or inborn temperament and more to do with a choice to assume a grim and pessimistic attitude towards life, a glum and dampening attitude adopted out of some ridiculous idea that ‘this is what serious people are like.’

It is the element of artifice, of show, the kill joy spirit, the person who walks into a room where people are laughing and having a good time together and sees it as their principal job to put an end to that nonsense—this is what Pope Francis is talking about, I think. And the good Lord knows this can certainly be present in church circles, though not only there for sure.

But even for those who do have naturally melancholic temperaments, there is a need to choose joy—real joy is not after all a matter of personality and emotional bubbliness, but a matter of faith and hope. Is Christ risen from the dead? Are we redeemed by His love poured out as blood? Is the victory won? Is anything we say we believe actually, you know, true? Then perhaps we could crack a smile once in a while, eh?

It is a bit difficult for me to write about this, since I don’t actually suffer much from melancholy and I certainly have never experienced depression first hand. I do tend to have a natural ebullience of spirit, and (as those who live with me suffer from as much as enjoy) a lively sense of humour. It is difficult to write about struggles one does not personally have. Pope Francis himself, in an earlier period in his life, seems to have had this struggle himself, and had a reputation for being a dour, severe cleric (this is hard to believe given his present demeanour and mien, but I have heard this from multiple sources).

But whether this is something you or I have to grapple with or not, the bottom line is that truly Christ is risen, that the victory against sin and death and evil has been won (appearances to the contrary, I will acknowledge), and that those of us who count ourselves as Christians have a duty to reflect the joyful truth we believe in our words, our behaviour, our countenances. Not as a fake thing we have to pretend (Put on a happy face! Smile, though your heart is breaking!), but please God as something that comes out of our real conviction about the true nature of reality.

Such is the duty of a Christian who wants to preach the Gospel with his or her life, and so we have to be vigilant about this disease of glum severity and ‘sterile pessimism’. Let's put an end to that nonsense, and take on the serious business of joyful Christian witness in the world.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Not A Question of Clowns

Arise — go! Sell all you possess. Give it directly, personally to the poor. Take up My cross (their cross) and follow Me, going to the poor, being poor, being one with them, one with Me.
Little — be always little! Be simple, poor, childlike.
Preach the Gospel with your life — without compromise! Listen to the Spirit. He will lead you.
Do little things exceedingly well for love of Me.
Love... love... love, never counting the cost.
Go into the marketplace and stay with Me. Pray, fast. Pray always, fast.
Be hidden. Be a light to your neighbour’s feet. Go without fear into the depth of men’s hearts. I shall be with you.
Pray always. I will be your rest.
The Little Mandate of Madonna House
Be poor, childlike – It is time to resume the Tuesday stroll through the Little Mandate, the words given to Catherine Doherty as the essential spirit of Madonna House. Today we come to the last two words of the second paragraph, ‘be poor, childlike.

Personally, I have always struggled a bit with the spirituality of childlikeness. Being the youngest child of a large family, I grew up chasing after my older siblings, and definitely internalized the belief that ‘bigger is better’, that being a grown-up is simply the way to be. Don’t they get to have all the fun?

At the same time, I don’t have a lot of natural ‘playfulness’ or whimsy—the approach to childlikeness one sometimes encounters that involves acting like a child (clown noses and frolicking and all that) does not get very far with me. Teasing and repartee aside, I am basically a serious person. I admit that those who know me personally may be snorting in derision right about now – ‘Teasing and repartee aside? What else is there, ever, with Fr. Denis?’ Hey, I’ve got layers, folks. Lots and lots of layers.

So I have always had to approach this childlike business from a serious standpoint. What does it mean to be ‘childlike’ in the spiritual sense, in the sense that naturally pairs it here with being ‘poor’? Catherine’s favourite prayer, which we print up on cards, was “Give me the heart of a child, and the awesome courage to live it out as an adult.”

Why awesome courage? What is it about being a child that requires awesome courage in an adult? That prayer is the key to this business, I would suggest. And what that key delivers up to us is the word ‘trust’.

It is the essence of spiritual ‘adulthood’ (not maturity) to seek to live life by one’s own terms, one’s own ideas, one’s own power. Children, by definition and irrespective of their virtues or lack thereof (they ain’t all angels, as any parent will assure us), cannot do that. A child is dependent; a child lives under the authority of and in a sense at the mercy of his mother and father or other guardian. A child is weak, poor, and must trust, for there is no other option.

It is one thing for a child, particularly a small child, to live that way. Natural, even, and it is a terrible sadness to see a child who has lost his trust of the adult world too early, due to some great calamity or abuse. But the Little Mandate is addressed to adults—adults who know what the world is like, know how perilous an affair life can be, know just how difficult it all is to make it in this world.

And… choose to live in that same place of trust, of dependence, of abandonment to the ideas, terms, dispositions, power of… Another. This is all one with the littleness and simplicity that immediately precedes it in the Mandate. To make room for God and to approach the demands of the Gospel directly, squarely and without compromise requires us to have this childlike spirit. And being adults with this spirit, it does require awesome courage from us, because we know just how much it will hurt us to open ourselves to that level of divine life and charity and Gospel values.

It is not a question of ‘send in the clowns’, this childlike affair. It is a question of ‘send in the Spirit’, Lord, and don’t hold anything back. Letting God have his way with us. Choosing to care for little else—nothing else, really—than that. That’s where it’s at, and that’s a pretty serious business, after all.

But joyful, too, and ultimately it is light and fun and a bit silly—finding out that we really are those children of God who can rest in His heart and not take ourselves too too seriously. And that’s the story of the Mandate, so far.