My Experiences Fasting During Advent

Today is the Feast Day of Saint John of the Cross.  In researching more about him, I came across the quote above and felt it to be very applicable and timely to where I am spiritually in this Advent season.  A few weeks ago, I mentioned the importance of fasting during Advent, and this is the first time in my life that I have actually tried putting this into practice specifically in preparation for Christmas.  I had never thought about fasting during Advent before, and I really wanted to try and make it a priority this time around—to ready my heart so that I may more aptly appreciate the blessings of Christmas.  I think Saint John of the Cross’ quote about purifying yourself of attachments speaks so perfectly to what I have been learning this Advent season.

One lesson I learn every time I fast, and which I am learning once again, is how very weak I am.  Actively choosing to abstain from certain goods during Advent has shown me just how attached I am to these goods.  There have been many times since I made the commitment to my fast that I have made excuses, been unable to refrain from partaking of the good, and even gone so far as to think to myself, God will understand.  And in a way, he does!  God understands that these goods are good (because he created them!) and that we have a desire for them (because that’s how he created us!).  God created us to gravitate towards the good and share in the blessings that he gives to us and to the world.  But God also calls us to prioritize Him above all good things, and fasting from minor indulgences this Advent has called to my attention my attachment to these goods, and shown me how the very littlest of my attachments can end up standing between me and God.  My simple little promises I offer to God are broken simply because my appetite for them in that moment is greater than the promise I made to God.  Now, God doesn’t look at me, weak and hungry, and abandon me because I have abandoned my fast.  Fasting isn’t so much about winning merits for myself, but rather about mortifying my passions. The fact that I cannot stay firm to my commitment to say no to certain goods as an offering to God, shows me how I am in need of both his mercy and that I need to evaluate how my appetite for certain goods can at times control me.  When we fast from things that are good, or refrain from partaking of things we know are particularly harmful to us, we do so in an effort to realign our priorities.  Through continued practice of fasting, I am learning that my flesh and self-control are wild, and need to be ordered properly.  Fasting is a reminder that though all of the sweets, treats, and indulgences may be good, they are merely a small fraction of the Good of God and the fulfillment that we ultimately receive in him alone.  Ordering my passions properly allows me to be more open and free spiritually, and prepares me for the times that I am tempted in bigger and more sinful ways.  

Something new that I am also learning by fasting this Advent is the connection between fasting and longing.  (I see now why the Church calls us to fast during Advent.)  While I long for Christmas to come so that I can partake in the goods that I gave up, this fast is teaching me what the Advent season is really all about: having longing in our hearts for the Lord.  During these five or so weeks until Christmas, fasting is moving me to develop within my heart a sense of longing that can only be truly fulfilled by the Summum Bonum (or, “Ultimate Good”), God himself.  Much like the longing I remember as a kid, so very excited to open presents on Christmas morning, I am beginning to realize what true longing during the Christmas season is all about.  Yes, I long for those goods that I have actively chosen to give up this Advent, but in giving up these goods I am reminded first and foremost of the Good of Christ’s love—the good that came with his entering into the world, humbly and free of all worldly attachments, in the manger in Bethlehem. Fasting is teaching me what it means to see the goods of the world “spiritually” and to “understand what is certain in them.”  Abusing them, and consistently indulging in them to the point of enslavement is not why God created them or us.  He created the goods for us to share in them, but more importantly to point us to his own sweetness–to him who is the Supreme Good itself.  

How is your fast going this Advent?  Comment below!  

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He Lights the Ways We Do Not Know

It’s been a while since I have written.  A big event occurred recently in our lives, and in these last few months I felt God calling me to stop talking and just listen and be with him.

I’ve hesitated sharing this, because it is so deeply personal, but as time goes on I’ve learned that it’s harder to move on and talk about other things when this is really on the forefront of my heart and mind.

A couple of months ago we unexpectedly found out that we were expecting another baby.  Overtime the news was met with excitement, but to be honest, it wasn’t our first reaction.  Before finding out, we had prayerfully discerned to wait a bit longer in between babies.  Though we knew we were both open to life and also wanting more children, the second line on the HPT nonetheless caused me to burst into a puddle of self-pity and fear.  I was afraid of many things, but looking back most of the fear came in feeling the loss of certain silly and selfish goods.

Lord, I’m finally sleeping through the night!

 My body is looking like it used to again! 

I was about to buy a new well-fitting bra! 

I’m beginning to exercise, 

am almost done nursing, 

and my hair just stopped falling out! 

I was immediately confronted with all of these emotions that conflicted with our very pro-life and God-knows-best way of living.  I was frustrated when I found out I was pregnant.  Frustrated and scared.

The question I kept asking God was, God, don’t you know my heart?  Don’t you know that I am just not ready yet?? And our Lord answered me in a way I hadn’t expected.

He sent me an image of his mother.

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When this image came to my mind all I could defiantly think at first was, “Lord.  I am not Mary.”

Mary’s yes was so immediate—she was so ready to accomplish the Lord’s will.  Even if it meant possible personal persecution, the loss of her marriage, and that her image might be compromised in the eyes of everyone around her.  She said yes without reservation: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord.  Let it be done to me according to your word.”  And I felt so very far from being like her.

However, as I began to think of this image of Mary I slowly realized what God was really trying to tell me.  God doesn’t ask us to rid ourselves of the feelings and frustrations we have when something hard occurs in our lives.  He doesn’t want us to just get over it.  He wants us to bring those fears and frustrations to his feet and seek out what he is trying to teach and give to us in and through these events.  I think in giving me the image of his mother, Jesus wasn’t telling me to just get over my feelings.  He was calling me to dialogue.  This is precisely what it means to “ponder” things, and the very response Mary had whenever something good, challenging, and especially painful happened in her life.  The Lord was telling me, “I am here.  I see you, and I know your heart.  Trust in me.

So I began to trust.  I began to look around at my life, and through him, began to shed my fears and realize all the beauty around me.  Sure, things can be hard in raising children; there are lots of tears, fits, and obstacles to overcome. But through all of that, there is so much more beauty—the kind that comes from pouring yourself out completely in love for another.  All the kisses, growth, smiles, laughs, warm embraces, milestones, celebrations, all of it—even the craziness—is worth so much more than all the things I initially feared losing.  My kids fill my heart with joy that is overflowing, and more than that the love I have for them has transformed me into a much better version of myself.  It is all so very good.

When I told my husband the news, his response was an enormous support for me.  Part of me expected him to fall into that puddle I found myself in, but he was so quick to remind me how awesome our kids are and how a new baby means more to love.  His fears were similar to mine, but we worked through them together and his overall support washed away so many of the fears I had.

What I also began to remember is that the biggest part of being open to life is realizing that the creation of our children is not in our hands alone.  We are merely co-creators acting in participation with the God who is the very author of life.  Joe and I signed up for this when we got married: we vowed to allow God into our marriage, and to be open to his will for our lives and the lives of our children.

From that point on whenever those fears began to creep in again, I tried to remind myself of this. God is with me, he knows my heart, he has a plan for me and for the life of this baby.

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­­­I didn’t know it at the time, but God was calling me to fall on this reminder of his love in a deeper way than I could even imagine, and to take a journey with Mary that I never prepared myself for.

As time went on in the pregnancy and as me and my husband began to both settle into the idea and excitement of it all, I tried to go about things as normal as possible.  What was strange this time, though, was unlike with my previous pregnancies I wasn’t tired, sick, and I wasn’t a horrible grouchy monster.  This is a good thing, right?  No, I knew something was off because the one side-effect I did have was a whole lot of cramping.  As the days went on I found myself in the awful habit of continually checking for blood or any sign of complications.  Weeks went by and I began to think I was being crazy.

7 weeks into the pregnancy my fears were confirmed when the bleeding began.   I was forced yet again into a wave of fear and worry.  Since the bleeding was minimal and there wasn’t much a doctor could do, I decided to wait a couple of days to see if it would subside.  I resolved to pray, hope, and try to cease worrying, but when the bleeding hadn’t stopped I went to the doctor’s, sure that they would tell me I had lost the baby.  I lay on a cold recliner, halfheartedly making small chat with the nurse, waiting to hear the awful news.  Then I saw it for myself: the baby’s heart beating strong!  The nurse told me that the baby was almost 8 weeks old, and explained to me that bleeding can be very normal and not to worry too much because the baby’s vitals looked great.  It was great news, but as the bleeding increased a little day by day, so did the worry.  I wanted the bleeding to end…and when it did, it was in a way I wasn’t hoping for.

Every Thursday I lead a women’s bible study and the topic of the class this year is God’s divine Mercy.  That Thursday morning, I had no idea what was coming my way or how much I would have to rely on his merciful love, but God primed by heart through the witness of the women in my group. They spoke so beautifully about how God has worked in their lives, and how they were called at times to say yes to him (even during hardships), and embrace him (even when life presented challenges and pain).  As soon as class was over I knew I had to head to the ER, because as they talked of God, I began passing clots.  I sobbed the whole way to the hospital, knowing this visit to the doctor would be different.  On my way, though—as scared as I was—I felt both God and Mary present with me.  I think from the very beginning of this pregnancy, God was calling me to trust in him.  He was showing me what it means to whisper in my own heart the prayer Jesus prayed during his agony, “Lord, let your will be done,” and the similar inner prayer of Mary as she clutched her breast watching her son die before her eyes.  He doesn’t cause suffering and pain—they are a part of our fallen human condition—but we have the freedom to extend these sufferings to his hands, so he can transform us through them and help us rise again.  I felt in that moment, through all the pain, my call to trust him and fall at his feet.  As I tried my hardest to summon Jesus’ words for my own, I felt him whisper back to me: “I am here.  I see you and know your heart.  Trust in me.”

We lost our third baby on October 6th.  We named the baby Francis.

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This is so very hard to talk about and let alone write about. I sit here with tears streaming down my face as my beautiful kids play in front of me, so unaware that they have a sibling now with the Lord.  Some day when they are old enough we will share this news, and take them to where we buried the baby, and we can explain to them that despite our fears and anxiety, we chose life.  And what’s more, we can explain to them that when we were confronted with death, we were met with God’s merciful love, and faith in what is to come.

It is so very hard to talk about my reservations with being pregnant, especially after losing the baby.  How can I admit such an awful thing, and also explain how my soul aches at the thought of never being able to hold and kiss this baby?  All of the things I was afraid of pale in comparison to the life I wish was physically here now.

I wrestled for weeks over whether or not I should share such personal details, but I decided to go ahead because, besides miscarriage being taboo itself to talk about, I think it’s necessary to share what trust in God sometimes looks like: it’s not always easy, especially when things don’t go according to plan. I am talking about this now because I want to share how God’s love was present throughout all of this, despite my hesitations with his plans for my life.  I want to share how he was so very patient with me and showered me with compassion when I wanted to shout, yell, and pound my fists when things didn’t go according to my plan.  Through learning to trust in him, I can find the joy in this loss despite the pain—which I don’t think I could do without his merciful love. I am very thankful for this particular journey he asked me to go on, because through it I think he called me to a deeper level of trust, and also because I believe with all my heart that this baby is with him—we now have a little saint and piece of our family in heaven watching over us and praying for our family.

I will leave you with a passage from Isaiah 42, which spoke to me not long after our loss occurred.  I pray that this scripture remains carved on my heart in the future, and I hope that it brings you solace in your life when you need it, too:

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Strengthening Prayer through Lectio Divina

I think that everyone can admit to having difficulty with praying at one time or another. Finding time to pray can seem like a challenge, and distractions can often leave us feeling overloaded and frustrated. Oftentimes it’s tough to focus, difficult to quiet the world, and hard to approach God, which in turn makes us feel as though prayer is for someone else—for the contemplatives and saints who easily open their minds and hearts to God.

It is important, though, to remember that prayer is not a luxury. It is a necessity. Through prayer we raise our minds and hearts to God out of love, and as Bishop Robert Barron says, “we long for him as he longs for us.” Prayer is ultimately a response of love to a God who waits for us and deeply desires to enter into communion with us.

If you have any negative feelings associated with praying (for whatever reason) or if you currently feel pretty good about your prayer life but still long to go deeper, below are a few tips to help strengthen your prayer life. These tips are based upon the traditional practice of lectio divina, or “divine reading,” which is a means of reading scripture that prompts us to rid ourselves of our own agenda in approaching God, and open ourselves to what he wants for our lives. This type of prayer has touched me personally because it has allowed me to get out of my own head and abolish my preconceived notions of what my prayer life should be, and enter more deeply into a living relationship with the Lord.

Tip #1: Before You Begin, Prepare

If you are having trouble praying, ask yourself how you approach prayer. Do you prepare, or do you just slide right into it hoping for the best? Avoiding structure will set you up for failure. Everything that produces fruit and success requires work, and in order to be productive in that work you need a plan. If you don’t have structure, this creates an environment that can prove to be more chaotic than fruitful. Establish a place and a time for your prayer. This is absolutely necessary because it forces you to prioritize prayer. Sure, prayer throughout the day (on your way to work, as you do the dishes, as you interact with other people) is a wonderful means of opening up your life to God, but in order to engage in a dynamic conversation with him, you have to make a daily appointment with him. Figure out the time of day that works best for you and the time you are most prime to listen and give of yourself. Also, find a place that you can get comfortable in and that you enjoy going to. Have all of your reading material there ready to go, and make it a special time set aside for you and God each day. If you do this, the distractions that usually bombard you as you try to get organized and settled before you even begin to pray will dissipate

Tip #2: Read the Word

Invoke the Holy Spirit to enter into your heart and your prayer, then “take up and read” so that God may speak to you. Take your time in reading a set passage from scripture. Get a sense of what it is saying and listen for words or phrases that strike you.

One of the great things about our faith is that our Church lays out the universal and daily readings for us in the liturgy of the mass. The easiest way to go about picking your scripture passages is to find a source that provides the official texts of the daily mass for you (e.g. The Magnificat or The Word Among Us). If you do this, you will avoid having to randomly choose which passage to begin with, and you will receive the added bonus of partaking in the communal prayer of our universal church.

Scripture is the optimal material because it is God’s living Word itself (hence the name “divine reading”), but I’ve found that the use of other materials also works well (such as reading the lives of the Saints). The key here is to read the material slowly and carefully, listening so that what you are reading sinks into your heart.

Tip #3: Meditate

This call for meditation is not so much an emptying of the mind (which is the goal of many modern forms of meditation), but rather a filling of it. Our minds are structured and made for truth, so this stage is a call to actively listen to what is occurring in your reading.

This is where you should ask yourself questions about the passage you read. For example, you might ask: What is Jesus doing? What kind of environment is he in? Does he approach someone, and if yes, how and why? What was the person’s state like when Jesus approached? How did they respond to Jesus, and were they visibly changed after their encounter with him? Place yourself in the stories with Jesus and with those closest to him. Be with Mary as the angel Gabriel approaches her in the Annunciation. What do you think she was feeling? Excitement? Nervousness? Awe? Put your hands on Jesus’ shoulders as he prays in agony in the garden. Be awake with him while all of his close friends are sleeping nearby. Share in his sufferings and in his willingness to obey the father, despite the pain. Hide with Peter as Jesus’ persecutors closed in on him. Think of the shame that he felt when he denied him. Does this remind you of the moments you have denied Jesus in your life?

If you are reading about the life of a particular Saint, pause in the moments where you feel inspired by them. Ask yourself why that particular instant made you laugh or smile, or even cry. Were you moved by something they did? Why? What was it about their action that moved you?

Engaging in the material this way will make the life of Christ present to you personally, which is key for developing an intimate relationship with him.

 Tip #4: Prayer: Conversation with God

Most of the time people want to skip the first three steps and jump to this fourth step. However, they are important for setting up a lively conversation with God. If we merely tell him what is on our hearts without listening to him first, we cannot really have a conversation with him. Subject matter and content are both vital because they set us up for dynamic conversation with God.

This is the stage where you can open up dialogue with God! Now that you have listened to his Word and/or meditated on his life, you have a great platform (inspired by God himself) for diving into a dynamic conversation with him! Tell him what moved you, and explain to him why you related to those moments and how they touch you personally now. Let your inspired heart speak to God! Bring him your joys, troubles, and concerns. Use the passages you read as a springboard for conversation with him.

Tip #5: Contemplation

After you have read, listened, and spoken with God, take the time to “be still and know.” Realize that he loves you. Understand that he wants to fulfill the deepest desire of your heart: your longing for true and authentic peace and joy. Rest in knowing that he is a merciful father; a God full of love and compassion for you. He loves you and he knows you.

This is the point where you let go of your own ideas, plans, and meditations and simply be still in his presence. Here, we open ourselves up at the deepest level of our being to God who speaks within us.

Tip #6: Resolution

Once you have gone through all of these steps, make a resolution based upon your reflection and engagement with God. Was God moving you to make a change in some area of your life? Resolve to convert your heart to him through action. As you listen to him daily, make a concrete resolution based upon your dialogue with him, and let the inspired words move your heart.

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Receiving the Word: He Will Set the World on Fire

Jesus said to his disciples: I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing! There is a baptism with which I must be baptized, and how great is my anguish until it is accomplished! Do you think that I have come to establish peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. From now on a household of five will be divided, three against two and two against three; a father will be divided against his son and a son against his father, a mother against her daughter and a daughter against her mother, a mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. Luke 12:49-53

Jesus’ message today runs deep for all of his believers. In Scripture, fire is frequently associated with God. He often appears in the Bible in the form of fire as an image of his love. Here, Jesus reminds us of his desire to spread the heat of his love, but despite his longing to fill us, the world is not yet blazing. We still lay on soppy beds of straw, drenched by our sins and our attachments, unable to be set aflame.  We must remember, though, that it is not God who impedes his flame from fanning alive within us. Oftentimes we make it hard on ourselves.

I’ve been reflecting on this for the past few days because I was humbly reminded of the weakness of my prayer life recently.  I tried to fast, for the first time since lent, and it did not go very well. My attempt at fasting wasn’t without motivation or reasons. I went into it hoping to lift up my small sacrifices in prayer for a family who is in desperate need of prayer.  Yet as the day wore on—through both forgetfulness and also appetite for those things I was giving up—I found myself over and over having to recommit myself to my small sacrifices. My attempt at fasting ultimately had me feeling like such a failure and so weak.  How is it that saying no to such small things was so hard for me when the desire to offer them was so strong?

Today’s gospel is all about fire, unrest, and division—three things we all try to avoid at all times. We desire to stay cool, sitting lukewarm and comfortable in our attachments that bring us a low-grade contentment at all times. We cry when it is “too hot” outside, and lament when “we don’t have anything to eat.” We desire to have peaceful and uncomplicated days, and we fill our cups to the brim with both small and large satisfactions to make things just a little bit easier and more pleasant for ourselves.  We avoid talking about the hard truths of our faith, steering clear of confrontation.  We keep quiet and run from tough conversations with friends and family, afraid of fights and fallouts.  What we forget, though, is that nothing great is ever achieved without sacrifice. If my daily goal is to satisfy my own soul with both small and large indulgences, how can I ever offer myself—my nothingness—as something that God can truly transform and use?  The Baptism that the Lord speaks about–the Baptism that incorporates each one of us into God’s Kingdom–wasn’t brought about easily.  Jesus suffered much on our behalf, but he did so that we might obtain a glory that is beyond our own reach.

God wants to completely consume us with the fire of his love, but for us to be consumed by him we have to allow him to purify us of our attachments to things that are not of him. We cannot be filled completely with him, if we allow other things to take his place. In order for his love to burn within us, we must allow that fiery love to refine us. It requires us to pay attention to those things that impede our enflaming, and trust in him as we begin to weed out these attachments with his help. It necessitates that we evaluate ourselves frequently. Are we able to properly order our attachments or are we so weak that even small sacrifices require a tempering of the heart?  Are we really truly ready to be refined by the flames of God’s love, so as to be transformed into a living fire?

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If you don’t feel yourself alive with the fire of God’s love, ask yourself where your attachments lie. If you want to burn deeper still and allow yourself to be completely consumed by him, continue to filter those attachments and order them under the one true good. When we allow ourselves to be emptied of attachments that weigh us down, we allow the spark within us to fan into flame; we become light enough to be immersed in the fire of God’s love—a fire that is all consuming and burns deep. Then, when that fire is ablaze in our hearts, we will be filled with the strength to overcome both small and large sacrifices, sufferings and trials, and offer them over for the good of the Kingdom.

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When You Find it Hard to Pray…

There was a long while in my life where prayer felt like a chore to me.  It was something I felt like I needed to do, but not something I really truly wanted to do.  I would get frustrated with my prayer life because it felt stale, and it always felt like I was merely treating God as a genie in a bottle (i.e. God please grant me these wishes).  I didn’t really love to pray, and often found myself frustrated because when I would pray I would have to continually call my mind away from other things and back to God. It felt like God was far away and I was trying to raise myself to him, but I’d get distracted or tired and couldn’t fully engage.  I also often found myself frustrated because I felt that I wasn’t very good at prayer (like the Saints who were so holy and could easily slip in and out of ecstasy in prayer), and each time I sat down to pray the majority of my time was spent trying to find the perfect way to pray.  I think this is why so often prayer felt like more of an obligation to me.

When I would look at the lives of the Saints and read how prayer was so very important to them, I began to wonder what separated my stale and obligatory offerings to God from their holy prayers. The Church says that we are also called to Sainthood, so surely we must be able to lead prayer lives like them, right?

What I began to learn, and am continuing to learn, is that prayer is a movement stemming from a heart in love.  It is not us who initiate love of God.  God’s initiative of love always comes first, and our own step is always a response.   What I didn’t realize is that prayer is not me offering myself to God as a sort of gift, but rather God calling me to him, to share in his gift. 

This deep inner desire we feel to offer ourselves to God through prayer doesn’t come directly from us, but from God.  It is him, whispering in our hearts to come to him because he is our Creator, which means he loves us first.  Just as he so loved us and shared his very life with us, so much more does he desire for us to be in communion with him.   Even though we get busy and forget our Creator, or actively hide from him to avoid opening ourselves to him in vulnerability; even if we chase after good and pleasurable things and treat them as our highest goods or accuse God of having abandoned us…our living God tirelessly calls each of us to that mysterious encounter known as prayer. 

So when you think to yourself, I must pray now because that is how I show my love for God, try remembering that it is not you who is initiating this engagement.  God is.  God’s love is poured out for the sake of his beloved, and just as a good wife or husband engages most lovingly in conversation with their beloved, so God does with us.  God’s love is full of tender compassion, like a loving Father who watches over and cares for his children.  God comes to us asking, How are you?  How was your day?  Tell me your troubles.  Give me your joys.  He wants to fully participate in your life, and he calls out to you through that quiet tugging in your heart that moves you to open dialogue with him.  This is what prayer is.  Even if you find yourself distracted and pulled away for some reason, the surge of love that moves you towards God is what matters.  God isn’t moved by anger because other thoughts pop into your head or something pulls you away.  He is moved in love by your effort to draw near to him.

Prayer is thus a living relationship.  This is why prayer is so very important, and why, when we look at the Saints we see people who had deep and intimate communion and friendship with God.  They understood that this living relationship is what engaged their hearts.  Through their words and actions, through their prayer, they were responding to God’s call to enter into a loving communion with Him—our God and Father, who is so very real.  Through prayer, we enter into the living relationship with the Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  This is why prayer is such a gift.

The Catechism says that the life of prayer is the habit of being in the presence of the thrice-holy God and in communion with him. (CCC2565)  The key word here is “habit”: habits are routine behaviors that are developed through repeated practice.  Thus, the only way we learn to pray, is by doing it.  You cannot come to know what prayer is or even come to love prayer if you don’t practice it.  Remember,

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Two things are presented to us in this reality: that having a prayer life is absolutely necessary, and also that prayer is essentially simple.  The more essential an activity is for living, the simpler God seems to have made it.  You don’t need to teach a human how to breathe; we begin to breathe on our own.  As you begin to pray and make it a daily priority, praying will not only become easy, but it will become a great joy–like the satisfaction you get when you take in a deep breath of air.  God’s love envelops us, and when we respond out of love and enter into his love through prayer, our vital relationship with him will grow and flourish.

Whether you find it easiest to engage in this dialogue with God through liturgical prayers, spontaneous movements of the heart throughout your day, song, meditative prayer, lectio divina…the type of prayer is not as important as the goal of prayer: to offer yourself out of love to God,  enter into his presence, and deepen your relationship with him.  If you’ve found it hard to pray, try approaching it as a call to communion instead of an obligation.  God wants to be present in our lives, and we have the amazing opportunity to approach him through prayer.

 

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Cleaning House (Day 4)

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In thinking about the many different ways that we can bring God into our home, my thoughts always gravitate first and foremost towards prayer.  I mentioned in the last post how important it is to allow God to enter into our homes and to make it a priority for our homes to reflect our faith, but if we don’t “clean house” within ourselves and allow God into our hearts, opening the doors to Him in our physical dwelling is going to be a lot more difficult.  I can see in my own family that there are many things that we could be doing together to strengthen our bond with God, but it’s hard to make leaps as a group when we forget to work on ourselves.

If we want to invite God into our homes and respond in faith and love to His call (especially as a family), we have to open up our own selves to Him in prayer.  I mentioned before that I have been trying to strengthen my prayer life, and as a result, I have been forced to call to mind the ways that I have failed in the past, and the reasons why I have failed.

One of the main reasons I end up abandoning my prayer life is that I get discouraged.  I am learning that I end up dealing with my prayer life very similarly to another important aspect in my life: exercise.  I grew up a fairly athletic person and quick to catch on when I begin exercising, and I love working out and eating healthily.  I love pushing my body and learning that I am capable or pushing it, and I really do like it when I am focusing my attention on eating better, rather than ordering a pizza and calling it dinner.  Despite that, when I begin to get passionate about diet and exercise, the passion dies out after about a week.

Why does this happen when I so desire to better myself? 

It’s because I want quick results.  With exercise, I get extremely frustrated when my (unrealistic) expectations aren’t met.  If I don’t see results fast…I quit.  It’s not a despair thing…it’s more that my endurance, patience, and perseverance aren’t there.  I don’t have the patience to work and wait for results, but rather give up and settle into complacency.  I don’t have the endurance to push myself until I actually see results, but fall back into my normal routine of rarely exercising.  I don’t persevere, but rather think to myself, “Well my body isn’t that bad anyways. I’m fine where I am at!”  Then I neglect diet and exercise altogether, and quickly lose all the excitement I built up to get fit and get healthy.

I see that the similarities are uncanny with regards to my prayer life.  I feel God calling me close to him, and I get excited and passionate about responding to that and about strengthening my relationship with Him.  However, this spark merely fans into a small flame and then dies out.  I always tend to fall back into my regular routine of praying on the go, or really–not praying at all.  I am realizing now, (and have often been too prideful to admit), that the reason my prayer life fizzles out over and over again is because I get really frustrated when I don’t feel God talking back to me and moving me.  I get anxious when I don’t feel like I am changing for the better, or don’t feel like I am becoming saintly–holy.  I want results, and I want them fast.  I want my “spiritual flabbiness” to transform overnight.

I can’t help but laugh at myself at these unrealistic, and really, self-centered expectations.  Much like exercise, prayer takes training.  We don’t become holy overnight; we don’t transform into saints in a day.  I love what Peter Kreft says about this.  He says, “Spiritual life, like physical life, grows gradually, like a plant.  It cannot be made, or constructed, all at once, like a building.  We cannot go ‘faster than grace’.”  I love that: “We cannot go faster than grace.”  Just like I want to outrun diet and exercise and get straight to the six pack abs and Jennifer Anniston-like arms, I want to skip the daily training in prayer and get straight to the shining face and Mother-Teresa like effect.  Kreeft then goes on to suggest ways to fix this attitude.  He says to remember: “Patience concerns time.  It does not demand an instant gratification, [and] patience concerns failures.  It expects and deals with failures.”  So, if you are struggling with something similar to this, remember to be mindful of time, and don’t get discouraged with your failure. Be patient–God wants to transform you, but He does all things on His time, not ours.

Another reason I feel like I fail in my prayer life, is because I fail to make it a priority.  If we have something important going on in our lives—something so vital that to we really want to remember it—we write it down.  We schedule our times around that important thing, and we make time for it.  I know it sounds like a funny concept, but I am learning that actually making an “appointment” for prayer is extremely beneficial in the fight to sustaining a prayer life.  Write down your time, and maybe even write down what you desire to pray about.

Also, something helpful in beginning to pray is to remember 4 main ways to pray:  1) Praise and thanksgiving.  Starting prayer with praise and thanksgiving to God is a great way to begin you prayer time.  It puts your mind in the right place by calling you to truth: God is so good and SO good to us.  Be thankful to Him for your lives and all that He has blessed you with, and it will bring you peace.  2) Sorrow for our sins.  Calling to mind our sins is vital for prayer, too.  When we come to God with an honest heart and desire His forgiveness for the ways in which we have failed, He will respond in love, kindness, and mercy.  We could all use those three things in our lives—most especially from our most Good and Loving Father.  3) Petitions.  Becoming a mother really opened up my eyes to what it feels like for someone to truly be dependent on me. When my son needs something and asks for it (or rather squeaks for it), it is my biggest happiness to provide for him and to give him what he needs.  How much more will God do that for us?  We rely wholly and completely on God, whether we know and acknowledge it or not, and He desires to gives us all that we need.  That’s not to say that He will give us everything we want–just as I don’t let my son have the things that are harmful to him–but He wants more than anything for us to be happy and have peace.  Though we can find pieces of happiness apart from God, we will never find true happiness if we don’t rest our hopes and desires in His hands. Lastly, 4) Adoration.  Spending time worshiping and adoring God is of the highest kind of prayer.  It is an acknowledgement of His power, and it is resting in awe of His goodness.   Practicing adoration is the most beautiful prayer because it removes the “me” from the equation, and focuses solely on the “I AM.” A great way to remember these 4 things is to write them down.  Have a prayer written out and add to it as you see fit.  I’ve found that it is extremely helpful in strengthening prayer life.

Remember what Saint Josemaria Escriva says:

jose maria I hope that this might be helpful, because it has surely helped me.  I get lost sometimes and discouraged in my prayer life when I fail to devote time to God, and I am trying to work on my endurance and perseverance (all with the help of God’s grace).  May we all respond God’s call to grow close to Him through prayer!

God Bless! –Lauren 31 days bigger

Choosing the “Good Portion”

refined by prayer real

 

Lately, the practice of prayer has been in my head and my heart. As an RCIA teacher, one thing I have learned is that if you want to “talk the talk”, no one is going to listen to you if you are not “walking the walk.”  Now, that is not to say that I have ignored my prayer life all my life, or that I feel obligated to strengthen it just because I am teaching the faith—I feel like prayer has always been an important thing for me—but I definitely feel the call right now to dig even deeper in my prayer life, and to come to know and love Him more intimately than ever before.

For me, a lot of what I have always dubbed as my prayer in my life is what you can think of as the “Martha” stuff (see Luke 10:38-42).  I have always, always been a busy body—I have to have something to do, and am the master (ok, more like, “master”) of multi-tasking.  Even when relaxing I’m usually busy folding laundry or making plans for the week.  So much business.  Yet, even in all this, I have always talked to God in my head while doing these things—there’s always been an ongoing dialogue with Him in all this.  (Or maybe it is more real to call it a monologue, with a very patient and quiet God listening on the other end of my chatter).  I have never had a problem being the Martha, and I am sure most of us relate more to her than to Mary.

One thing that I forget in all of this, is exactly what Lk. 10:40 describes: “But Martha was distracted with much serving.”  That is such a funny sentence, considering one of the main themes of Christianity is serving others, and loving them above yourself (see Philippians 2:3-4 as an example).  I have always loved serving others (most especially my family).  For me, the little means of serving my family have always been a blessing and great sign of love.  Folding my husband’s socks and putting his clothes away are not mundane tasks, but have always been my way of lightening his load—it has meaning and purpose, and because of that it becomes an act of love instead of a meaningless task.  Doing the dishes doesn’t so much come from my desire for cleanliness itself, but rather the peace that comes with it (it is much easier for my husband and I to relax in a clean home vs. a messy one).  Creating an environment for peace in my home has always been a priority for me, for I’ve learned that where there is peace it is much easier to love.

I can just picture the scenario: Martha has the incredible opportunity to welcome Jesus into her home, and she is so excited by this opportunity that she busies herself in preparation.  I can only imagine her anxiety!  Whenever I have people come into my home I make it a big priority to make sure they feel as welcomed as possible: I clean the house; sweep the floors; make sure there is food on the table.  I can only imagine the restlessness in trying to prepare for the Lord’s coming! I know that I would be on my knees looking under the refrigerator for grime, scrubbing the toilets, making my best meal.  I get anxious even thinking about it…

Yet here in this scripture, serving is referred to as a “distraction”.  A distraction?  How can serving be a distraction, when it is a sign of love?

We find the answer in Mary’s response to the Lord’s coming.

Where Martha felt the need to prepare for the Lord’s coming (to wash the dishes, put away her laundry, clean the countertops, cook a nice meal for him), Mary felt the presence of the Lord’s coming.  Where Martha busied herself getting ready for the Lord, Mary sat down with the Lord. As scripture says, she “sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching.”

Mary was enraptured and captivated by his love.

I picture a different scenario with Mary: Mary too is excited by the news of the Lord’s coming.  I picture Mary trying to help Martha, yet she gets distracted in anticipation.  She picks up a rag to help her sister, but cannot help herself from running to the window again and again to see if he has yet arrived.  When he finally walks through the door, she sees him and she falls at his feet.  She desires so greatly to just be in his presence.  She knows the importance of getting ready for the Lord, but she also recognizes that just being in his presence is the highest priority.   

How much beauty is there in resting in the presence of God, in taking the time to choose the “good portion”, as Jesus calls it! This is exactly what I tend to neglect and forget in my prayer life.  I forget to take the time to be at peace with God, and to practice being in his presence.  This is another level of prayer—the level which recognizes a real and living God who desires that we come to him, to communicate with him, and to rest in his peace.

He calls us to himself all the time.  I know it and I even feel it when I busy myself with my “to-do” list.  I hear the Holy Spirit whisper in my ear, “stop, and come to me.”  I can feel him calling me to prayer in a deeper way, yet often I shush him out, and continue on with what I am doing, reasoning with him that this is my way of loving him.

Yet, I have experienced those times when I respond in faith to that call, stop what I am doing, and put myself in his presence.  That is when my closeness to God is strengthened the most.  It only takes that stopping.  It takes me stopping what I am doing, stopping my worrying about the things I need to “get done”, and focusing solely on my prayer to God in that moment.  Jesus says that the “good portion will not be taken away” from us.  He reminds us in this story that all the “stuff” we have to get done, all of our business, all of this doesn’t matter in the long run.  Sure, it  matters in the here and now, and surely there are things that we do need to get done, but spending time with Him and being in his presence is something that will never leave us.  This relationship we develop with God is sustaining, and will go on long after anything here on earth.

As Peter Kreeft says, “Stop being Martha; if you don’t, you cannot be Mary.  You cannot sit at the Lord’s feet while you are running around on your own feet.  You cannot hear him if you are frothing at the mouth and fussing at the fingers.  You cannot look unless you first stop; you cannot practice the presence of God if you are just too busy for him.”

Stopping is the first step towards strengthening your prayer life.  If you hear the Lord calling you, or maybe even recognize that there is too much static going on in your life and head to even hear the Lord’s call, stop what you are doing.  Take the time to sit, and be still.  Practice his presence.

May we all be a little more like Mary and seek to be in the presence of God.

–Lauren

 

 

 

Refined by Prayer

passion-jesus-in-gethsemane

I think a lot about my goals in life, and most of what I come up with are pretty simple (or at least they sound simple on paper):  I want to be a good (no, great) wife and mother.  I want to maintain a beautiful and cozy home and serve my family with love, patience, and kindness.  I want to be a good friend and daughter.  I want to serve my church and somehow use my gifts to bring people closer to God.  I want to use the gifts that I have been given in my education to share the greatness of our Lord, and to inspire people to have faith.  I want to be good.  I want to be holy.

If you know me well, you probably know that I am far from the holiness that we find in the Saints we love and the people we revere as blessed.  I have a mouth on me that just runs willy nilly, I am extremely sensitive (which stems from my pride—I hate to feel stupid, and I have an extreme sensitivity when people challenge my faults), I think too much about how I present myself, I am impatient, needy, sometimes obsessive, I watch too much t.v. (the plethora of pop culture facts which reside within my head is nothing short of ridiculous)…the list goes on and on.  But I realize, within this mess that is me is the calling from God to be great nonetheless.  I take great comfort in the fact that God calls the weak of heart.  He calls those who are messy, and who need work (i.e. Jacob the liar and thief, Moses the murderer, David the fornicator, Peter the unsure one, etc.).  I get excited that I could be, that I am among this list, simply because I am a child of God. None of us are perfect, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be working towards fulfilling the best possible versions of ourselves (through the grace of God, of course).

I’ve been thinking a lot about what is lacking in this journey to holiness for myself, and I recognize easily and clearly my weakness in this calling.  I know deep inside that in order to obtain this holiness that I am striving towards, I need to know God and love God more than I know and love anything else in this world.  I need to see him—to recognize that He is “the Absolute Reality, Infinite Perfection, more massively real than the universe itself and more worthy than all the ideals together ever conceived by all human minds.” (Peter Kreeft)  In the consistence of calling my mind to this, I may realize that there is nothing, nothing, more important than Him.  He needs to be first—not just as an idea—but He really and truly needs to be placed as my number one priority above all things.  Just as I need to foster love and communication within my relationships here on earth, I need to do the same (more urgently) with my relationship with God.

How does one put God first, most properly? Through prayer.

Peter Kreeft, in “Prayer for Beginners” (which I highly recommend) beautifully says the following about prayer:

“Praying keeps your soul alive because prayer is real contact with God, and God is the life of the soul and the soul is the life of the body…prayer gives truth to our mind (because it puts us in the presence of Truth itself), goodness to our will (because it puts us “on line” with God, in love with the God who is love and goodness itself), and beauty to our heart (because it plunges us into the heart of God, which is the eternal energy of infinite joy).”

I think it is clear enough that everybody everywhere is seeking these things in one form or another.  Everybody desires goodness.  Everybody is seeking the beautiful in life.  Everyone is on the pursuit of happiness.

Still, there is so much anger and hurt in our world, and where people do succeed in finding happiness, if it is apart from God, it is fleeting.  We are all made for something more, something divine—we are all “restless, until we rest in God.” (St. Augustine)

Prayer moves us towards God, because prayer is the response in love to God’s calling.  Prayer is love, because it “seeks out God’s presence, to seek intimacy and union with” the God who made us and loves us. We can find no greater happiness than that which we find in our God, and we draw near to him through prayer.

Because I am going to start making some changes for the better in my own prayer life, I thought it might be a great thing to share those steps that I find helpful, my thoughts on prayer, and those things that I find inspiring (like Peter Kreeft’s book) with you all that read my blog.  I am going to share these through a series of entries called “Refined by Prayer.”  I hope to start soon, and I hope that if you have struggled or are struggling with prayer, you might feel God’s call and begin strengthening your relationship with him through prayer today.

God Bless and thanks for reading!

Lauren