Not Another Motivational Post

It’s that wonderful time of year when everyone feels like they’ve got a fresh start and are making new resolutions and bringing a renewed sense of focus into their lives and determining to make 2020 the best year ever… and then there’s me.

Sometimes I feel like a Type A person trapped in a Type… W… body: I love the idea of GTD (Getting Things Done), and I love writing lists and planning schedules, but as soon as I have to live that stuff out, I freeze inwardly, grab my phone and/or coffee/chocolate, and sit on the couch and try to pretend the world does not need me. This is not the kind of person I want to be, but somehow that’s where I am. Maybe it’s connected with my GAD (Generalized Anxiety Disorder), I don’t know. I do tend to find myself visiting the Sahara of Overwhelm and the Great River of Denial quite frequently.

This year, I didn’t do the New Year Thing: I didn’t reflect extensively on the past year–heck, I couldn’t even remember the first half of the past year!–and I didn’t even try to make a resolution. Life ticked on as usual, with me barely treading water most days, although occasionally lucking out with an Amazing Day of Energy (can I tell you how much I love those days? sometimes I think I would be a seriously amazing mum if I had energy).

But I am always seeking improvement, list or no, and my health, both mental and physical, has become a sort of holy grail I’ve dedicated myself to seeking the past couple years, as I see it as essential to serving my family better (tiny cute faces make for good motivation). Today saw my first time stepping foot into an alternative health clinic primarily based on TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) and seeking–gasp–acupuncture.

As the acupuncturist assessed the state of my health (weak, weak, weak–uniformly weak!), identified the root of my problems as my diet that has caused an inflamed and irritated gut incapable of absorbing sufficient nutrients, and left me to “get some rest” with a bunch of tiny needles sticking out of my body at various points she determined as salutary, I had some quiet moments to reflect and pray.

All my life, I have largely tried to ignore my body. Thirsty? I’m not going to drink a glass of water until my lips are cracking. Sore tummy? Just ignore that. Pain? Best to ignore that, too, unless it’s completely interfering with my life. I just did not have TIME to look after my body. Sports were for people who didn’t have to get As. Eating was something to be done without thinking overly much about it because that’s either being too picky or wasting precious time that could be spent doing other things. As for emotions, those are what we learn to control. I did not want to be self-absorbed or a difficult person. Push through it. Be the hero.

It struck me that, throughout my life, I have only “listened” to my body when it became absolutely necessary: when my gallbladder needed to be removed, when my son died and my emotional world turned pitch black, when I had a panic attack while driving on a busy highway. I have been the complete opposite of gentle.

Gentle.

I had not thought I would lob onto a single word for the new year that is forgotten by the next, but this one slapped me in the face, so to speak. I need to learn to be gentle, foremost with myself. I need to be gentle with my body, listen to its pleas and respond fittingly. I need to be gentle with my spirit, and allow myself to fail in everything save turning to God. I need to be gentle with my emotions, and give them more acknowledgement.

Gentleness is an aspect of respect. I was not respecting the body God gave me, nor the person He made me. Ultimately, I have not been respecting Him and His glorious designs. I have been treating my body like a neglected workhorse, and it’s starting to revolt by giving out on me.

Gentleness is giving room to God, giving Him space to act.

In some ways, we don’t live in a very gentle era. The pace is fast. The expectations are high (although often misguided). There is an emphasis on having the best of you-name-it, as quickly and efficiently as possible. Information comes instantaneously through the internet, and we complain if it takes us twice as long as we are used to to get somewhere. If you’ve ever done a walking multi-day pilgrimage, you’ll have experienced something of the kind of pace people must have experienced in days of yore. It’s hard, very hard, but it’s gentle. Much like Christ promises His yoke is easy and His burden light: it requires effort, but it feels like that which we are made for. Very rarely, I’ve met someone who seems to have a special grace that sets them apart from this world of rush and bother. They seem to see every moment as sacred, even the pouring of tea, and treat it as such. Their outlook on life is exceptionally gentle. They have goals, but they are not so much driven in the sense of self-propelling as in the sense that they’ve handed the wheel over to the Lord. If I have any goal in life, it is not ultimately to be the sort of person who has accomplished everything on my list of Ideal Me; rather, my goal is to be this kind of person, no longer driven by ambitions but pure trust in God.

I’ve chosen a patron Saint for my new Polaris virtue this year: St Francis de Sales. I hope I might get the chance to read and re-read some of his writings as well, but at the very least, I trust he will intercede for me.

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.

Coloss. 3:12

Teetering on a brink, an answer comes

Last night, my husband and I had the opportunity to talk a little, and we discussed the day’s homily and got onto the topic of the Narrow Gate Christ speaks of, and how the purifications of Purgatory are reportedly more painful than any purifications we might endure in this life, and this brought me to a place of frustration I’ve been heading towards for some time now:

“I’ve been trying to become a saint since I was something like twelve years old, and look at me! I’m still impatient, still moody, still irritable, more irascible than ever, and I still crave the regard of others! For all my striving, I don’t seem to be getting very far. It’s like there is a delicate balance of making an effort and relying upon God’s grace, and I can’t strike it. Recently, I just feel like giving up trying. Maybe the secret is to nag God: hey, God, I need more grace because, as you can see, I’m still pretty pathetic and not getting anywhere, so if you want me to become a saint, you better give me a lot more help!”

Shortly thereafter, we acknowledged the hour was late and we should go to bed, and on my way, I picked up one of the most densely inspirational books in the way of Christian living that I know, My Daily Bread, written by the Confraternity of the Precious Blood. I flipped through and landed upon the following – it was a bit of a tollelege moment, if you recall St Augustine. Each chapter begins with the (imagined, yet arguably inspired) voice of Christ, followed by a reflection, followed by a prayer.

“Son, the grace of devotion is not just a holy feeling, nor is it a religious mood. It is an intelligent attachment of your will to Me and to whatever I command or desire of you.

2. This is a very great grace. I will grant it to you if you will make a sincere effort to turn your back on whatever hinders your spiritual progress. You must empty your heart of all useless interests in order to make room for Me.

3. Often it is such a small matter that prevents one from obtaining this grace. Misguided self-interest cuts many people off from this glorious gift.

4. I desire you to have this grace. It will make you loyal to Me in all things. If you do not have it yet, it is because you have not yet prepared your soul for it. Pray for it and labor for it. Gain control of your feelings and unreasoning desires by acts of self-denial and self-sacrifice. Above all, begin a determined battle against the outstanding faults in your daily life.

5. With this grace of true devotion, you will find many things easy which now seem difficult and impossible. You will never again lose sight of My power, wisdom, and love, and you will consider it a privilege to follow My Will.

THINK: If I make a firm and persevering effort to abandon my foolish love for unnecessary distractions, God will give me the gift of devotion. From then on, I will no longer depend on feelings or moods, but will follow God’s Will intelligently and faithfully even when I do not feel like doing so.

PRAY: My loyal and loving Saviour, you lived an earthly life of devotion to Your Father’s Will. By self-giving action You made reparation for my many acts of disobedience to His holy commandments. By self-giving action You also proved Your love for me. You gave me an example of true devotion. Grant me the grace of true and solid devotion to You, so that I may prove my love for You by self-giving. No matter how I may feel, let me do only what is pleasing to You. I desire not only to avoid all sin, but also to do many little extra things for Your sake. Make my devotion like Yours – a constant self-offering which will prove my love beyond all doubt. Amen.

My Daily Bread, Confraternity of the Precious Blood (1954), Book 2, Ch. 13

It can be hard to find a good spiritual director. I’ve had the guidance of a number over the years, and only one felt like a perfect fit for me, and he I only enjoyed the companionship of over the course of a three-day retreat. Jesus has not left me orphaned, though. When I was a teenager, I prayed that if He would not send me a spiritual director, then would He please send me the books I need when I need them and guide me thus. I have often noticed Him answering this prayer, and this was surely yet another instance.

I need to continue striving, but I need to refocus. I need to assess my life objectively, and I need to do things the way God wants me to do them rather than the way I want to do them, for my will’s discernment is still often clouded by “misguided self-interest.” In the past few months, it’s become clear that I need to make time to be alone, something that used to be easy but with three children is a challenge. I’ve started taking Saturday mornings to myself while my husband minds the kids, and it’s been a wonderful time to recollect myself and look objectively at my life and try to bring some intelligent order to it. I suspect my next sabbatical should be devoted to my spiritual plan of life.

New Year’s Focus: Praise

On December 31st, the Ghost of Facebook Past revealed to me that over the past decade that I’d been on Facebook, two recurring New Year’s resolutions have been to cut back on anxiety and to cut back on Facebook. Now, one charming aspect of having a relatively poor memory is that I frequently experience surprise; I suppose I could find it humiliating, and occasionally I do, but more often than not it’s refreshing, perhaps especially because in other areas of my life I exhaust myself with my tenacity. So on New Year’s Eve, as I was warming up to rise to the traditional invitation to change my life for the better, much to my surprise and horror and amusement, I discovered the same old resolutions hanging up from years past like wives in Bluebeard’s closet.

Moreover, unlike those noble folks who resolve, say, to exercise more in the new year and spend New Year’s Day jogging, the Ghost returned to me on January 1st to reveal that I had failed in my resolutions on the very first day.

OK. Assessing the situation, I can see that neither my own strength of will (or lack thereof), nor my pleading with the Lord to pour out His grace on me, nor even my determined resolutions made quasi-public for the sake of accountability are getting me anywhere. It’s time to fight my demons with a new tactic:

Praise.

As the Catholic Church tends to focus more on the Sacraments and rote prayers, I haven’t had a great deal of experience with the spiritual practice of praise beyond the Glory Be and the Praise and Worship songs that were sung at the youth retreats I sought out since I was a teenager, and that my soul felt some attraction to but my intellect and musical taste often recoiled from. Indeed, it is largely thanks to those retreats led by NET Canada that I was taught to have a conversational relationship with God, something my soul thirsted for. I knew about praise but I didn’t really practise it. Probably the closest I came to it was in Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, when Jesus sits on the altar in the form of the Eucharist and we just sit in silence, gazing at each other in love (this is really quite impossible to describe to someone who hasn’t experienced it; the first time I encountered Adoration it seemed very strange indeed).

Recently my husband and I moved to a new home only steps away from a parish run by the Companions of the Cross, a congregation of priests whose charism is charisma: they are the charismatic branch of Catholicism and place a strong emphasis on healing and praise. When we first arrived at the parish we marvelled at the almost jarring marriage of the sort of enthusiasm in music and preaching that we associate with our Protestant brethren with the incredibly beautiful solemnity of the altar attended by incense and Gregorian chant that we associate with pre-Vatican II Catholicism. We quickly fell in love with our new faith home, however.

Driven by the desperation severe physical pain can bring (yay, gallbladder!), I attended a healing service our church offered in the fall. There I had an experience unlike any in my life hitherto, replete with speaking and singing in tongues, but I was also given my first real lesson in praising God.

Now, for all that I’ve benefitted from the laid-back culture of my upbringing on the West Coast, I’m a somewhat uptight individual. Catholicism’s structure suits me. I thrive on rules and obedience comes easy, relatively speaking. I also embarrass easily. Raising my hands up to the Lord in the sight of others, daring to sing whatever harmonies might come to my head without a score and at the risk of hitting a wrong note, letting tears fall in public, and just letting myself relax my grip in general are all the sort of actions that my pride is constantly patrolling to keep in check. And I think a lot of my anxiety stems from this need to feel like I’m in control. So waddya know, the Lord seems to have led me to a parish that offers me what I would call an Ignatian antidote, namely, to combat an error, practise its opposite (this is not wisdom that was confined to Ignatius by any means, but it was in an Ignatian environment that I first studied it objectively).

The antidote to my anxiety, I believe, is praise. It is also, I suspect, the antidote to much of my pride. Score! Two great hurdles in my life to be combatted with one and the same resolution!

What is praise?

I want to differentiate between praise and other holy activities such as petition and thanksgiving. It’s good to ask God for what we need and to thank Him for all He’s given us and all we trust He will give us. However, praise is different. It is, essentially, using our words to express our delight in someone and our admiration for him.

Upon reflection, I do this a lot in my life — I praise my husband and children constantly. Aren’t you wonderful! How are you so handsome/cute? You are so good! You are so loving! You are so precious! How kind you are! How thoughtful! You are the best husband/*name-of-child* in the whole world! I am so blessed to have you in my life! It’s a habit I learned from my mother, and it does a lot to build relationships up. Moreover, if I force myself to praise someone when our relationship is suffering, it does a lot to strengthen and renew the relationship. It recognizes the inherent and essential goodness of the other.

How often, though, do I praise God? You are wonderful! You are merciful! You are all kindness! The source of all happiness! I adore you! I bless you! I praise you! And so forth.

My mother-in-law, when I shared with her the events of the healing service, shared with me a story from one of her Christian encounters: that a man who was resolved to praise God in everything was at a fancy dinner and spilled a drink across the white linens and even on the hostess’ dress. In response, he praised God for allowing the humiliating episode to happen. The hostess at first was, understandably, a little put out, but in the end his witness to the love of God attracted to her convert to Christ, too.

This story inspires me: first, the man’s first response to disaster is praise; second, he makes his praise public. My response would have been to let the event affect me negatively, and I certainly would not have first praised God openly. While I’m not ready to introduce the latter into my life, it’s high time I embraced the former. When minor disasters strike in my life, my response is to panic, cower, run, rage, despair — anything but calmly accept, trusting that God is in control. When I look at my current state objectively, I see that I’m rejecting a lot of opportunity to grow in the love of God and others, simply by my failure to praise Him in all things.

This year, then, in the attempt to give greater glory to God and to overcome those obstacles that hold me back from becoming the person He made me to be, I intend to practise praising Him in all things, but especially in those moments that I’m tempted to despair or grow despondent, or when I feel a surge of anxiety.

I will recount the steadfast love of the Lord,
the praises of the Lord,
according to all that the Lord has granted us,
and the great goodness to the house of Israel
which he has granted them according to his mercy,
according to the abundance of his steadfast love. – Isaiah 63:7