Sunday, August 24, 2008

Saints, Beads, and Me

St. Catherine of Siena, in her book, The Dialogue, tells us,” For just as you can better see the blemish on your face when you look at yourself in a mirror, so the soul who in true self-knowledge rises up with desire to look at herself in the gentle mirror of God with the eye of understanding sees all the more clearly her own defects because of the purity she sees in Him.”

When I began to say the rosary, the gentle glow reflected from the mirror of my Savior’s glory began to open my understanding of who I am in Him. This “self-knowing,” often mentioned by St. Catherine, becomes clearer when we see ourselves from Christ’s point of view.

My Protestant faith tradition is as plainspoken as a mid-west farmer, and my prayers are spontaneous, simple and modeled after the tradition I found in the Holy Scripture.

I praise God for His goodness, greatness, and glory. I repent of my sins, petition Him for my needs and for those of others, and I gratefully acknowledge His loving kindnesses. And I trust Him to answer my prayers. I know I am welcomed into the Father’s presence by the grace given me through the sacrificial blood of His beloved son, Jesus.

And because of my confidence in the Father’s love, and in His desire to answer, I never thought to question my method of prayer . . .

Until I set about to say, “Hail Mary, full of grace. Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen.”

Long before I became a Christian, I dabbled in philosophies and meditation techniques of Hinduism and Buddhism, calling their gods and founders “Lord.” To my shame, I equated the Lord of Glory with them. Perhaps it is the memory of that sin that causes me to shy away from the rosary’s Marian petition. Or, perhaps my Protestant upbringing and formation makes me uncomfortable to address my prayers to someone other than the Trinity.

Whatever the reason, as I pondered the Hail Mary prayer, I realized anew that my prayer-life is as much worship as it is simple communication. Until then I had never thought much about how I prayed. But now, our Lord’s instruction to His disciples to guard their attitudes while they prayed (Matthew 6) became His instruction to me.

What was my attitude in prayer? For me, prayer is a piercing of eternity through the help of the Holy Spirit. It is a response to the Lord’s invitation to enter into His presence. It is the opportunity to have the same mind as Jesus toward the Father.

Yet Rich assured me that a prayer to any of the Saints in heaven is not like prayer we make to God. Rather, it is like asking a brother or sister in Christ here on earth to pray for us. Prayer to Saints is more a petition – a request. It is not worship. He told me the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church states very clearly, that worship is restricted to the Trinity alone.

Looking for more information, I picked up a book from Rich’s stack of Catholic books. I learned the rosary is a set of prayers (petitions) to the Blessed Virgin, the mother of Christ. I also learned that the rosary was developed to encourage lay people in their Christian faith. Prior to the rosary’s “invention,” Christians recited a series of prayers, such as the 150 psalms or repetitions of the Lord’s Prayer (Paternosters) as a daily devotion.

I also listened to Catholic believers talk about the rosary, and I developed an understanding that prayers directed to the Blessed Mother are really said in reverence for her Son. In petitioning Mary for help, Roman Catholics believe she is eager to respond, and because of her special relationship with Messiah, she has a unique and singular access to Christ.

This Catholic concept is a mystery to me.

However, as I grew in my understanding of Catholic faith-tradition, I thought if the Father welcomes someone who prays to Him through the Blessed Mother, who am I to object? Likewise, if I feel I should refrain from any such communication and He welcomes my petitions to the Trinity alone, who am I to question?

Nevertheless, the more I thought about these mysteries the more I realized I was already participating in them. For many years, as the occasion would arise, I had cried to the Lord that He might choose someone to pray with me. I asked for His help because of the many times I had heard others tell how the Holy Spirit prompted someone to pray for a particular missionary in need. In fact, many times I also had felt prompted to pray for someone who later confirmed he or she had been ill or in trouble. So as I pondered what Rich told me about Catholic thought on the Communion of Saints, and what I had experienced about prayer, it seemed reasonable that the Saints in heaven who cheer us on (Hebrews 12) might indeed be praying for us and with us.

For conscience sake, I still could not address this glittering congregation, but I realized I could ask the Lord to have one of them pray for me. And because I was helping Rich in the sixth grade Sunday school class where we were studying patron saints, (a special saint who is chosen by a Catholic Christian as a special prayer partner), I decided to choose one for myself, too.

When I committed myself to pray the rosary that summer of 2006, I did not have a clue what a mirror it would be to my soul . . .

Or how doing so would change my attitude about Catholic prayer.

Monday, August 11, 2008

The Little Foxes of Fear

The fear of rejection caused me to isolate myself in early 2005 after Rich was received into the Catholic Church. By the following year, that fear had become a cautious timidity. I warily explored the Mass and Catholic Christianity, trying to ignore the cultural cautions of my Protestant roots. Yet even as I found Jesus so real in the Eucharist, I was plagued by the anxious whirring of the stress of being different – something I was reminded of each Sunday.

Why was I so bothered by this reality? I didn’t know. However, I was constantly reminded that no matter how often I attended Mass or met with the members of the home Bible study, I was forever out of step. I realized I would never quite be accepted within the Catholic culture. I would always feel alien.

It was an uncomfortable place to be.

Yet all the while, Jesus tried to point me toward Himself and His peace.

As I read the devotional book, My Utmost for His Highest by Oswald Chambers, I came across this entry, “Is the grace of His ministering life being worked out through you in your home, your business, and in your circle of friends? Have you been wondering why you are going through certain circumstances? In fact, it is not that you have to go through them. It is because of your relationship with the Son of God who comes, through the providential will of His Father, into your life. You must allow Him to have His way with you, staying in perfect oneness with Him.”

Anxiety, like the little foxes that spoil the vines, had turned my heart from the graces of Christ’s love to a self-ward dwelling on my difficulties.

Even when the Holy Spirit pointed me aright with whispers that the journey of faith often leads through difficult times, I ignored Him. I let the social and cultural stresses I experienced tempt me to be full of worry. Yet, despite my negative responses to Christ’s gentle call, somehow He used my anxiety to prod me toward His loving embrace.

During the following few months, it slowly dawned on me that my sense of alienation was rooted not in my present, but in my past. I had thought I’d left those long forgotten days of alienation behind.

In the summer of 1952, before I turned five, I discovered what it meant to be a social oddity. My sister had several episodes of epileptic seizures which often left her unresponsive, and sometimes without respirations for extended periods. I remember my mother frantically calling the fire department (who acted also as paramedics) each time Jan had an episode. Meanwhile, I was sent across the street to stay out of the firemen’s way. From there I would watch our living room window hoping to see the men who were trying to revive my sister. Standing around me were neighbors from the other apartment houses who, for reasons I still do not understand, berated my mother and accused her of calling the fire department so often because she was seeking attention for herself. Even my best friend’s mother found fault with us. She was a Christian Scientist and did not believe in sickness. When my parents rejected her idea that Jan was not really ill, and that they should stop seeking medical help for her, my friend’s mother would not let her play with me again.

Thus in 2006, as I attended the Catholic Church with Rich, I felt myself alienated once more. The experience was like jumping into the deep end of a swimming pool filled with snakes. So devastating were my memories, I panicked. Yet, Jesus was there with me in the pool among those snakes. His strong arms held onto me, as He gently encouraged me to open my eyes to His reassuring presence there with me. And slowly I realized that He was not going to leave me. He was going to help me.

I discovered later that He would do so though a series of unexpected events.

One Sunday afternoon, I was stressing over some event (which I cannot remember) from that morning’s Mass, mulling over how different I was from the rest of the congregation. I sat at our computer, trying to avoid those nagging thoughts of how useless it was to continue to attend services with Rich.

As I absently surfed the web, looking at nothing in particular, I remembered a comment someone made about Mother Angelica, the founder of Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN). I had listened to Mother Angelica sometimes on the radio. I found the EWTN web address and clicked the link to the opening page. That was when I discovered Mother Angelica was recovering from a stroke. I was saddened by this and I followed the links to the prayer response page—joyful to know there was something I could do for her: I could pray. The site did not ask me if I was Protestant or Catholic. It just asked me to choose the number of prayers I would say for Mother Angelica’s healing. I typed a number and then noticed there was an option to pray a rosary.

For several months prior to this, I had been using rosary beads only to meditate on the various Mysteries (Joyful, Sorrowful, Glorious, and Light). I had found this practice to be very worthwhile and spiritually fulfilling. But when I saw the option to pray a full rosary for Mother Angelica, I wondered how I would be able to do so the “Catholic” way, since much of the rosary includes the Hail Mary and other Marian prayers, which were alien to my experience as a Protestant Christian.

However, I continued to sense the Holy Spirit’s prompting to pray a rosary’s length of prayers for Mother Angelica, and I felt overwhelmed with a surety that, no matter what others might think of me, I was not a misfit, that my place with Rich in the Catholic Church was part of God’s plan for my faith journey. And in a split-second, I decided that if Catholics could say rosaries, I could too. With the click of the mouse, I committed myself to saying 365 rosaries for Mother Angelica’s health.

A moment later, anxiety gripped me. I was assaulted with any number of “what ifs” – such as, What if I am doing something terrible, using a rosary to pray? What if Catholics find out and scoff at me? What if this type of prayer is only for Catholics? What if this turns me into a Roman Catholic?

Fear can generate a long list of reasons why we should not seek to follow Christ’s leading. I ignored the “what ifs. I knew our Father in heaven is pleased when we dedicate ourselves to communicating with Him. So I set out to keep my promised prayers . . . .