Better than Chocolate

Lent has rolled around again. I missed Mass on Ash Wednesday, for which I should probably feel more guilty than I do, but I’ve given up candy, as well as chocolate in all forms, and I’ve begun on online retreat called “An Ignatian Prayer Adventure.”

I missed Mass because of scheduling and personal knowledge of my limitations. An early morning Mass works well for the average working person, but is difficult for an individual who works a 2-10 p.m. shift, and becomes more than just difficult when said person is my age and would not be able to sneak a nap between Mass and work. I went to Mass the evening before, though that didn’t involve ashes, and trusted God to make allowances more righteous believers might be unable justify.

As for the retreat, I suspect I will remain engaged in it after Lent and Easter have passed. I found myself stuck on the second day of Week One for three days. The meditation was based on Psalm 139, which has long been a favorite of mine, but I found God using it in a new way — to shift the kaleidoscope of my self-image in a way which allowed me to experience his love in an even more intimate manner than I had previously known. One night, I found myself on my knees in humble gratitude. At this rate, I’ll probably wrap it up in time to welcome the newborn Christ child months after Easter.

As for chocolate, I am beginning to suspect fasting from chocolate isn’t going to be the sacrifice it’s been in the past. As a self-professed chocoholic — it’s one of the basic food groups, isn’t it? — I have to admit that few days pass without chocolate passing between my lips. Sometimes it’s just a plain old Hershey bar with almonds. Sometimes the chocolate has a little caramel with it — or peanut butter — or crispy wafers. Sometimes I treat myself to something a little more special, like Lindt truffles. My latest favorite, though, has been dark chocolate M&Ms mixed with peanuts. (Gosh! My mouth is watering just thinking about chocolate in all it’s wonderful variations.)

But within the past week, painting has become like a drug to me — dragging me into the studio when I should sensibly go to bed or responsibly tackle laundry or wisely spend time in prayer. Hours will elapse before I emerge feeling limp with satisfaction and pleasure. For the first time since I started painting again, my work demonstrates the elements which characterized my portraits in the past — the use of color, the spontaneous brushstrokes, the structured yet organic compositions. Order and chaos. Life. Me in it.

Ecstasy. I — who pride myself on being a wordsmith, who sharpened my skills by writing tightly constructed poetry — am reduced to wordless wonder by this development. When I began painting again, I was willing to accept what came my way. William Stafford, an amazing poet who died in 1993, once told me he didn’t suffer from writer’s block because he just lowered his standards and kept on going. That was my attitude in returning to a craft I had abandoned. I would paint and take pleasure in the process and discover in that the graces God would bring into my life through it.

And there have been graces. The series of leaf paintings I began has become a meditation on community for me. When we see a tree, we don’t take note of individual leaves, but each of them is vital to the life of the tree. In the same way, each individual is vital to the life of the community. Somehow, we must learn to appreciate one another, to see each person’s value, especially the value of those for whom we do not feel a natural affinity, if we’re to be healthy as communities — social communities, economic communities and communities of faith.

That alone would have been enough. But then, between one painting and the next, my work changed. The stiffness and hesitancy departed; the instincts which years of practice had honed beyond skill to personal style returned and I relaxed into a place both familar and exciting. With that, came a new passion that goes beyond the joy that drew me back to art. If I felt alive before, I feel intoxicated now and the sensual pleasure of it is better than chocolate.

I would not have believed anything available to me at this point in life could be better than chocolate, but this is. The irony of the timing is not lost on me. Joy — just in time for Lent. This is an Easter experience. This is grace poured out in the most intimate manner possible. This is new life, and I am grateful.

Terra Sancta

If I were Charles Schultz’s inimitable dog, Snoopy, I would be doing a happy dance today. Nose in the air. Arms joyfully thrown out to embrace the universe. Tail wagging furiously. Feet beating the staccato of blissful gladness.

Yep! That’s what I would be doing. The universe shifted this week and I am so filled with gratitude that I cannot contain my joy.

As much as anything, I’m grateful to God for patience; Father James Martin, S.J., for his book THE JESUIT GUIDE TO ALMOST EVERYTHING; Father Raymond Deisch and Monsignor William O’Connell for their moving “Terra Sancta Prayer;” and my spiritual director for affirming the movement of the Spirit in my life.

I’ll begin with Part I: God. More than a decade ago, after a painful church meeting, I went into the sanctuary to pray and ended up crying. I crossed my arms on the back of the pew in front of me, laid my head on my arms and cried out to God, “I don’t know what to do.” I felt a hand on my shoulder and heard a voice say to me, “It’s together we’re the Body of Christ.” I lifted my head, intending to pour out my heart to the compassionate person who had taken pity on me …

… and found myself alone. In the church. With the phrase I’d heard repeating itself in my head like a scratched record (which younger readers will undoubtedly find to be an obscure reference). Together, we’re the Body of Christ.

That’s pretty straightforward and Scriptural. “As a body is one though it has many parts; and all the the parts of the body, though many, are one body, so also Christ. Now, you are Christ’s body, and individually parts of it” (I Cor. 12:12,27). I knew God was trying to tell me something, but didn’t quite know how to live it, especially since I was a Democrat in a predominantly Republican state and the bishop, who I strongly suspect of being a registered Republican, had thrown his weight behind Republicans running for office through the expedient method of suggesting Catholics must consider one issue only when voting (which, by the way, is not the official position of the Church).

I got into the bad habit of Magisterium bashing whenever I observed evidence that Church leaders were indulging themselves in a cafeteria approach to the Church’s teachings in an effort to promote specific political candidates and agendas. Not only was I not working to build up the Body of Christ, at that point, I was also feeling divided myself. On one hand, I was nourished by the grace of the sacraments, especially the Eucharist. On the other, I was becoming increasingly more disenchanted with the way the Church’s social justice teachings were being ignored or shunted to the side.

Fast forward ten difficult years to Father Martin and the Terra Sancta Prayer. The prayer was written when the Rapid City Diocese decided to purchase an old monastery and convert it into a retreat center. At the time, I didn’t live in the diocese and just happened to be visiting the weekend the prayer cards were handed out. I found the prayer to be deeply moving and adapted it for my personal use. It became the way in which I opened my daily devotions.

“Heavenly Father, at the burning bush, you called to Moses to remove his shoes because he was standing on sacred ground. Daily you call us to remove from our lives all the obstacles that distract us from doing your will. Please remove from me all spiritual blindness. Renew my walk of faith with your grace, rekindle joyful hope and ignite a love of giving. I ask this, as in all things, in Jesus’ name and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.”

An odd thing happened. Instead of becoming nearly meaningless, as can easily happen with oft-repeated prayers, the prayer began to speak to me on deeper and deeper levels. I found myself lingering over it, dwelling on its phrases. One day, a question popped into my mind: Was taking off one’s shoes a common practice in sacred spaces or was God asking Moses for a small act of obedience as a sign of faith?

At the time, the obedience issue had been looming over my prayer life for months. At a retreat, I’d felt strongly that God was calling me to learn obedience and humility. What exactly was that supposed to mean in terms of my life? I found an answer in Father Martin’s book, THE JESUIT GUIDE TO (ALMOST) EVERYTHING.

He described the experiences of Jesuit priest, Walter Ciszek, in Russia following World War II. At the end, he summed up what Father Ciszek had learned: “God invites us to accept the inescapable realities placed in front of us. We can either turn away from that acceptance of life and continue on our own, or we can plunge into the ‘reality of the situation’ and try to find God there in new ways. Obedience in this case means accepting reality.” Again, the question for me was: How do I live this?

The morning I found myself considering the Terra Sancta prayer in terms of obedience, I found I also knew what inescapable reality I was being called upon to accept. I choose to remain Catholic, despite my reservations about some of the decisions being made by Church leaders, despite invitations from pastors of other Christian churches to consider the possibility that God might be calling me to the ministry — in a demonination which ordains women as well as men.

I knew then the Catholic Church is the inescapable reality I was being called upon to accept, that magnificent work-in-progress with all its warts and pimples, wisdom and grace. I knew I had to stop Magisterium bashing — which is not to say, I needed to stop entering into dialogues about some of the issues when the opportunity presented itself. I simply needed to learn to be more circumspect and respectful in those discussions. (Father Martin’s Facebook page is a great aid in helping me learn to do this, so maybe I should have mentioned that I’m grateful for him twice instead of just once.)

Out of this practice, the most amazing grace was poured into my life. God opened to me a favorite passage of Scripture in a new way. I have loved I Corinthians 12 for years … and years and years … since God (I think) spoke to me using that imagery. But when I heard it at Mass recently, suddenly I knew truly that together we are the Body of Christ.

I don’t have to accept the political paradigm which has invaded the Church, the conservative vs. progressive mentality which has so tragically split the Church. I can adopt as my own the paradigm that God provides through his living word — the glorious and gloriously intricate body with all it’s many parts. I do not have to see myself as the sacrificial Democrat in the den of Republicans. I can see myself as the foot who advocates for peace and justice while loving with a whole heart the head whose single-minded passion is preventing abortions in this country.

St. Paul goes on to say in Chapter 13 of I Corinthians, “At present, we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face. At present, I know partially; then I shall know fully, as I am fully known” (v. 12). And that’s the simple truth which must give us the humility to respect the call God places in each heart.

We don’t know the full picture. However, we can know that together we are the Body of Christ and we can ask God for the grace to live that simple truth more fully.