Thursday, September 30, 2010

Joy Rising from Pain

When people ask how I am doing in the first few months of postulancy, it is hard to respond with a one-word answer. The way I feel is very confusing and discordant. I want to say to them, "I feel a deeper joy than I have ever felt and an excruciating pain at the same time."

In fact, I am beginning to wonder if the pain I feel is the source of my joy. The two emotions seem so closely connected that it is as if they are layered over each other, snuggling against the other for warmth and the assurance that yes, I am still alive and perhaps more alive than I ever have been.

Maybe this is not exactly a ringing endorsement of my beginning to religious life but I can only be honest.

So, the question is - Where does this pain come from?

The life of a Christian is nothing but a perpetual struggle against self; there is no flowering of the soul to the beauty of its perfection except at the price of pain - Padre Pio

I am experiencing the pain of separation from both the concrete and the possible, the good and the bad.

I feel a deep tear in my heart when I consider all of the different possibilities that I am leaving by the wayside to follow a definite path. Marriage and family being the highest good that religious life calls me to leave behind.

There is also a hole in me that is left from the physical absence of my dear family and the friends I can no longer see and talk to with the freedom of my previous life.

This pain is real and cannot be denied. It is visceral and at times I wince from the way it can wind its way through my body like a serpent and lashes out when something reminds me of my sacrifice.

But my pain does not just come from giving up good things.

We all search for happiness in different ways. It is a part of the human condition that we often search for it in the wrong places and in the wrong ways.

We find happiness in control, in food, in the misuse of sex, in drugs, in alcohol, in lording over others, in misusing power, in basically becoming our own little gods. Without God, we find our own happiness in making our own choices. Like addicts we experience a short flood of happiness from these things that feels real but we have to continually search for our next fix because the things of the world can never lead us to true and lasting happiness.

It may be obvious that I already left this life behind when I converted to Christianity but many of you know what I mean when I say that this way of life always haunts you, beckoning you into the darkness with the idea that you haven't exhausted all the possibilities of sin, that you still don't know all that you are missing.

I have found that the strength of this haunting has become stronger in religious life, not weaker - at least in these first few months. So the pain is multi-layered. It is a pain that comes from many directions. From leaving behind the good, from past sin, from human concupiscence, or as our Catechism calls it "the tinder for sin," and from temptations from the Devil himself.

But, where does the joy come from?

God cannot fill what is full; he can fill only emptiness... It is not how much we really "have" to give, but how empty we are--so that we can receive fully in our life and let him live his life in us.  - Blessed Mother Teresa

The answer to this question is not so ready on my tongue and I think the answer will come over years, not months.

But so far in my journey with God, I  have learned this: He hands us all crosses, but only as a Father. He teaches us how to grow and often the only way to grow is through pain. In my case now, it is necessary to grow through the pain of separation from myself, my friends and family, from sin and from my own desires - the good and the bad.

Right now, by the grace of God I have the strength to say yes to this cross. I do now know if I can hold it for long; I do not know if I can hold it my whole life. This is the pain of my discernment at the moment. I do not trust myself and I must not trust God because I do not trust He will continue to sustain me.

And yet, despite the halfhearted commitment that I am able to make to God today, He is showing me that the fruit of this sacrifice is true and deep joy.  I am emptying the cup of my soul for Him and He is rewarding me with a taste of a joy that lasts longer than the things of the world. It is a joy that points to an eternal joy that we will all experience in Heaven. It is the intense, heated joy that can only come from following God and discovering what He made you to be in the world.

As I continue in the way of the Cross, I thank Jesus for the grace to experience at the same time a little sliver of the joy of the Resurrection. Thank you Jesus!

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Knocked Off My Horse

On his journey, as he was nearing Damascus, a light from the sky suddenly flashed around him. He fell to the ground.  - Acts 9:3-4

I entered a week ago today as a postulant in the Daughters of St. Paul, and today was the first day that I could actually greet Jesus in the chapel with energy and light.

Almost immediately upon my entry I was struck down with a dizzying array of symptoms (literally) and spent most days in bed sleeping the day away and hoping for an end to the confusion and pain.

Things were so bad it crossed my mind that maybe I would not get better and it was the convent life that was making me sick. I imagined returning home, suitcase in hand, searching for Systems Analyst positions in Tulsa and settling in an apartment near Cherry Street, making my way to daily mass and recalling the time "I tried to become a nun" with fondness.

I was dizzy, exhausted, nauseous and had lost my balance, swaying from one side to another, often falling over on myself if I tried to genuflect or do some other necessary movement of the day.

Sr. Rebecca, our postulant formator, made the interesting connection between my symptoms and how Paul must have felt when he fell from his horse on the way to Damascus.  It truly was as if I had been knocked off my horse and could not recover my senses. I was not blind, like Paul was after his fall, but I did feel lost and confused as he must have, wondering when my life was going to begin again.

This connection to Paul made me reevaluate myself, how ready was I for this step in my life? It was not like I was completely off course, like Paul. It seemed like I was calm and collected, following God's will, but was I really?

As I lay in bed passing the hours, I realized one of the possible sources of this mystery illness. This summer, instead of dealing with the terror of entering postulancy I repressed it to maintain a calm exterior. I was not being realistic and facing the unfortunate fact that I was scared.

We all try to be "above" our human feelings at times in our lives. We really want to be ok with life, with another person, with changes and to follow our dreams with courage. But the truth is, we are not always ok. Life scares us. The future is unknown and that is always hard. We are not sure who is going to take care of us. We may be really angry with another person. We are not sure if we are going to be able to handle a situation. We are not sure if we really can forgive and continue to forgive or love someone and continue to love.  But, in the end, as I have learned, it is better to share your feelings with someone.

But first you have to face up to the basic fact that you feel them. I didn't even do that.

I truly was in denial of the fact that I was scared. I really did not want to deal with my fear this summer while I was enjoying time with my family so when feelings of anxiety cropped up I just neatly pressed them back down again.

"I can deal with this later, it's not that big of a deal," I reasoned.

Well, I guess it was. Or at least God thought so. At least it seems like He saw it necessary to put me in bed for a few days so I could deal with it whether I liked it or not.

So, now I return to life as normal and face up to the fact that I am SCARED! I admit it! I am human, I am weak. I cannot live this life without the grace of God and I am completely dependent on Him.

So please, as you go back to your lives today, take a little piece of advice with you. It is better to admit you feel something, than for your feelings to find another way out, morph into Muhammad Ali and knock you (or someone else) square in the face.