Expectant Love vs. Hyper-Vigilant Fear

Today is the First Sunday in Advent. In today’s Gospel from St. Mark Jesus tells his disciples to be watchful and alert because they do not know “when the Lord of the house is coming.”

Kayla McClurg’s commentary on this passage seems to me a perfect entry into the waiting we experience in Advent. She writes

How differently we experience different kinds of waiting. Awaiting the return of a loved one, or a longed-for new beginning, or a world that works better for everyone, these we can imagine with anticipation and heartfelt longing. Come, Lord Jesus! Quite different they are from the scratching anxiety that comes from dreading what lies ahead—impending surgery, a broken heart, the recognition of failure. Dread sometimes gets attached to Jesus. Fear of ourselves leads us to fear him, and to fear the ‘new day’ he heralds. We keep watch for his return, not because he is our saving grace, the love of our life, but because we dread his disappointment. Hovering in some of us is the fear that it might never be possible to live up to the standard of his love.

The tension between expectant love and hyper-vigilant fear can imprison us in a dark cell of doubt. Oh, we learn to wear a variety of masks, to pretend that all is well with our souls, while the torture squad within stretches us tight between fear and love. Just naming it aloud can be enough to propel us toward liberation. None of us wants to be afraid, chooses it as a life goal, yet we often turn from the bracing wind of our own awakening. We are not alone. Jesus says, the tree bears its fruit, and the watchman keeps watch. We, too, can admit to each other who we are. The fruit of our true selves even yet can emerge. We sleepers can awake. Even our anxieties about Jesus can be brought into the light and catapult us into new life.

Today, with “anticipation and heartfelt longing”, we pray Come, Lord Jesus! Come!

It is Always Thanksgiving

Yesterday we celebrated Thanksgiving Day. Many people gathered with family and friends over tables laden with delicious food.

It is good that we have a day on our annual calendar devoted to giving thanks. However, if we live our lives with the awareness that everything is gift from God, then every day is Thanksgiving Day.

An important step in the Ignatian Examen, something that has been part of my daily prayer for many years, is to review our day in gratitude. Dennis Hamm, S.J., suggests that we “walk through the past 24 hours, from hour to hour, from place to place, task to task, person to person, thanking the Lord for every gift you encounter.” The idea is to notice, as we look back over our day, all of the many gifts we were given over the course of the day. We recall quite specifically all of our gifts and we give thanks.

So, as you recover from a day of merriment (and perhaps overeating), take some time today for a prayer of thanksgiving.

For myself, I will give special thanks for my family today, as we gather this afternoon for the wedding of my niece Brittany – the first of my nieces and nephews to get married!

A Blessing for This Thanksgiving Day

I once before shared a blessing my friend and colleague Jennifer Wright sent to me. I can’t think of a better prayer for this day; it expresses well my wish for all of you as we celebrate this Thanksgiving Day.

May you be with people you love.
May you eat tasty, satisfying food that has been prepared with love and with laughter.
May you reach out to someone outside your immediate circle to share your blessings.
May you be overwhelmed with gratitude for the bounty that you have received.
May you be aware of the depths of your roots in your family and your past and of the infinite potential of your future.
May you repose in utter trust in God’s love for you and God’s amazing, overflowing, creatively stunning intention for good for all of God’s creation.

As I prepare to celebrate this holiday with my family, I wish you and yours a blessed and happy Thanksgiving Day.

And, as you gather with family and friends, I hope you will take some time to revel in gratitude at all that you have been given, and to remember the source of all you are and all you have.

Discerning My Place in the World: Getting in Touch With My Deepest Desires

Yesterday was the fourth session of an 8-session program series I am offering at UST Law School over the course of this academic year on Discerning My Place in the World. The focus of yesterday’s session was the role of desire in discernment.

In the words of James Martin, S.J., “Once we scrape off any surface selfishness, our deepest longings and holy desires are uncovered: the desire for friendship, the desire for love, the desire for meaningful work, and often the desire for healing. Ultimately, or course, our deepest longing is for God. And it is God who places these desires within us. This is one way God calls us to himself. We desire God because God desires us.”

In my talk, I shared Ignatius’ view of desire and talked about the distinction between our deepest desires (what Martin terms holy desire) and surface desires. I also talked about what Ignatius would consider to be disordered desires or attachments.

After my talk, I gave the participants time for silent reflection, after which we had time for sharing both in small groups and in the larger group.

You can access a recording of my talk here or stream it from the icon below. (The podcast runs for xx and there is a short pause early on.) A copy of the the handout I distributed – an exercise taken from Elizabeth Liebert’s The Way of Discernment is here.

A (Very) Long Advent

This morning was the third of the four-session Fall scripture study/prayer I am offering at Our Lady or Lourdes in Minneapolis, titled from Creation to Annunciation. With an emphasis on prayer, and not just study, the series is designed to help us prepare for our Christmas celebration of the coming of Christ. The first session focused on Creation and Fall and hte second on The Promise of the Old Testament.

I titled today’s session A (Very) Long Advent and our focus was the genealogy of Jesus that opens Matthew’s Gospel. I began with some observations about the two different genealogies in the Gospels – Matthew’s and Luke’s before focusing on Matthew. My hope was to help participants understand why Raymond Brown suggests that this one reading in itself contains the essential theology of the Old and the New Testaments. I also think understanding something of this reading, which we hear proclaimed each year at the beginning of the pre-Christmas octave, contributes to our preparing ourselves for Christmas.

You can access a recording of the my talk here or stream it from the icon below. (The podcast runs for 35:35.)

Who Rules My Life?

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the Solemnity of Christ the King. As I’ve said in the past, this is a relatively new feast day in the Church, instituted by Pope Pius XI in 1925 as a reaction against secularism and nationalism.

Leaving aside all the references to “king” and “kingdom” in the Bible – of which there are many – and all of the various descriptions of Christ as “king” in documents such as Quas Primas (which instituted the feast day), we are invited today to ask ourselves a simple question: Who rules my life?

I’m not a big fan of kingship imagery. Pictures of Jesus sitting on a big throne with a crown on his head and holding a scepter don’t do much for me.

But, I can, without any discomfort, ask myself: Who rules my life? To whom to I pledge my ultimate allegiance? To whom do I pledge my life?

The answer to that question (in whatever form it is asked) is clear: Jesus Christ.

For me, the celebration of Christ the King is an acknowledgement that – by my choice, and not by any physical or legal force – Christ rules my life. It is Christ to whom I pledge my life. It is Christ’s judgement of me counts in the final analysis – the one before whom I will have to stand and give an account of myself.

In truth, anyone who calls himself or herself a Christian ought to acknowledge that truth every day. But it is good to have a day on which we recommit ourselves as a community to the reality that it is Christ that rules our life.

Spiritual Direction

Yesterday I shared the column I wrote for the Our Lady of Lourdes parish bulletin on discernment. Fr. Dan Griffith, the pastor at Lourdes, asked me if I would also write a piece on spiritual direction, on the thought that many parishioners might not be familiar with it. So here is my column that will appear in this Sunday’s bulletin:

I’ve been a certified spiritual director for about a decade and I’ve been in spiritual direction myself for longer than that. Since, despite the fact that spiritual direction has been part of the Catholic tradition from the earliest days of the church many people are unfamiliar with the practice, I thought it might be useful to say a little bit about what spiritual direction is and why it is something that can be of benefit to anyone who is a person of prayer.

Spiritual direction is an ongoing relationship in which someone meets with a trained and experienced spiritual director for the purpose of becoming more attuned to God’s presence in their lives. In their book, The Practice of Spiritual Direction, William Barry and William Connolly describe spiritual direction as “help given by one Christian to another which enables that person to pay attention to God’s personal communication to him or her, to respond to this personally communicating God, to grow in intimacy with this God, and to live out the consequences of the relationship.”

Despite the use of the term “direction,” a spiritual director is less a director, in the sense of providing directive programs for spiritual growth, and more of a spiritual companion, to persons on their own spiritual journey of self-discovery. “The spiritual director”, Thomas Merton wrote, “is concerned with the whole person, for the spiritual life is not just the life of the mind, or of the affections, or of the ‘summit of the soul’ – it is the life of the whole person… A spiritual director is, then, one who helps another to recognize and to follow the inspirations of grace in their life…” (When people ask me the difference between counseling and spiritual direction, I respond by telling them that in counseling the agent of change is the counselor; in spiritual direction the agent of change is God. The spiritual director’s job is to facilitate the encounter between the individual and God.)

From the Christian perspective, the God in whose image we are made is Trinitarian. That is, within the very nature of God is an eternal celebration of loving communion. This centrality of the communal or social dimension to who we are means we have a yearning to share our stories with each other. One woman in spiritual direction said of her experience, “What a wonderful luxury, to spend time each month just on my journey, my issues, examining my relationship with God.” Another observed “I never had a safe place to talk like that – to be affirmed in my relationship with God.”

If you are interested in learning more about individual spiritual direction, feel free to be in touch with me by e-mail at sjstabile@stthomas.edu. You can also leave a message for me at the [Lourdes] parish office, where I usually can be found during the day on Fridays. And if you are interested in finding a spiritual director, although I have only some limited availability to take on new directees at this time, I can recommend other spiritual directors in the Twin Cities.

Discerning With God

I’ve frequently mentioned Our Lady of Lourdes, the parish in which I direct RCIA and do a lot of adult faith formation. I’ve written several pieces for that parish’s bulletin. This one, on discernment, appeared in last Sunday’s bulletin. Since I thought others might benefit from it, I share it here:

Discerning with God
Over the last couple of weeks, we’ve been encouraging you, as part of our stewardship focus, to engage in a process of discernment around how you are being called to share your gifts with our parish community.

I intentionally use the terms “discernment” rather than decisionmaking. Doing so reminds us that exploring what our gifts are and how we are being called to use them is a dialogic process between us and God. Elizabeth Liebert, in her book The Way of Discernment: Spiritual Practies for Decisionmaking (a book I highly recommend), defines discernment as “the process of intentionally becoming aware of how God is present, active, and calling us as individuals and communities so that we can respond with greater faithfulness.” Thus, the term discernment implies a prayerful process of determining how God is inviting you to use your gifts. Of determining with God what is your authentic calling.

That means several things. First, since this is about God’s call and not our own individual preferences, we must be open to surprises. Open to the fact that God sometimes calls us out of our comfort zone. Open to the fact that God may be inviting us to use gifts we haven’t even recognized we possess.

Second, discernment is not a one-shot deal (or even an annual deal – something we think about only when our parish asks for a stewardship commitment), but a life-long process. We need to have sensitivity to the fact that God may have different plans for us at different times. That can be difficult because it means that the best one can ever say is I am where I am supposed to be right now, but I need to be open to the fact that God may want me to do something else at a different time. This is important to keep in mind because we often have a tendency to stick to our prior decisions, making it easy to ignore signs that it is time to move on. Change is never easy.

Third, although this is doubtless already clear from what I have said, to say that discernment is a dialogic process with God presumes that we are regularly (daily, I hope) taking time to be with God in prayer. I think that is worth emphasizing because we all have a lot of things occupying our attention and “fitting in” time for prayer requires intentionality. If I want God to help me see the path forward, I need to give God a chance to communicate with me. If you have been a little lax about your prayer lately, this is a good time to re-commit yourself to making time in your daily schedule for God.

I think about my own experience as I share these thoughts about discernment. Eight and a half years ago I was happily settled in New York teaching at St. John’s Law School and on the adjunct ministerial staff of a Jesuit Retreat House. Moving to Minneapolis was not at all on my radar screen, and so when the offer from St. Thomas came, I engaged in extended prayer. Ultimately I was confident that this is where God wanted me to be. Leaving my family, my friends and my retreat house was not easy. Trading New York City for The Twin Cities was not easy. But I was confident in my discernment process and now, in my eighth year here, I have no doubt about God’s wisdom in encouraging this move an I am delighted with where my ministry has taken me.

I engaged in another discernment process last year as I was planning to walk the Camino de Santiago. The result of that process is that after 21 years of law teaching, I have now stopped teaching, so as to devote full time to the spiritual formation and retreat work I do – some at Lourdes, some at the Law School and some in other places here and elsewhere. It means making a lot less money than I made teaching law, but I have prayerfully concluded that that is how God wants me to use my gifts.

That’s some of my story. What about you? Where is God inviting you? And, more importantly, what are you doing to remain open to hearing that call?

Remember that if you are struggling with how God is calling you, Fr. Dan, Deacon Thom or I are available to speak with you.

Knowing When to Say No

It has been a very busy week. Sunday I led a session of Bible Prayer/Study before the 11:00 Mass at Our Lady of Lourdes, and after the 11:00 taught an RCIA class. Monday evening I gave a talk at the third session of the monthly program Christine Luna Munger and I are doing at St. Kate’s designed to help people deepen their experience of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. Yesterday morning I offered a development morning for spiritual directors at Sacred Ground on Learning from Ignatius. Today I will give a talk at Weekly Manna at the law school, after which I will introduce my friend Rabbi Norman Cohen, who will be the speaker at one of our Mid-Day Reflections. Then tomorrow morning I will facilitate a Spiritual Listening Group and I haven’t yet looked at the Friday schedule. (And that is in addition to seeing a number of directees and working on several other projects, etc.)

I love what I do. I am enormously grateful that I am given the opportunity to minister in places like UST Law School, St. Kate’s and Our Lady of Lourdes.

The fact that I love what I do, however, makes it so very easy to do more than is healthy. It is so tempting to want to say yes to every ministry opportunity that arises. Combine my love for what I do with the tremendous need in the world and “no” does not fall easily from the lips.

But I have learned that I do need to set some boundaries. I have come increasingly to recognize that that no is not a bad word. I still don’t say it all that frequently, but the word comes out in situations it would not have done so several years ago. Part of it is the recognition that I need more time to “be” rather than “do.” Part of it is wanting the freedom to spend more time talking with friends and acquaintances in a relaxed way (rather than fitting them into a small open block in my calendar). And part of it is my increased confidence that I am loved by God without doing anything, that I don’t need to constantly “do” to justify that love.

Do you know when to say no? If not, it might be worth spending some time reflecting on why it is hard for you to do so.

Promise in the Old Testament

This morning was the second of a four-session Fall scripture study/prayer I am offering at Our Lady or Lourdes in Minneapolis. The series, titled from Creation to Annunciation is designed to help us prepare for our Christmas celebration of the coming of Christ. In our first session last week, we focused on Creation and Fall. My talk addressed the Genesis account of creation (and what it reveals about God’s plan), the entry of sin into the world, and God’s response to sin – the decision to incarnate.

This week’s session focused on The Promise of the Old Testament. That is, I spoke about the messages of three of the Old Testament prophets: Isaiah, Micah and Malachi, with an emphasis on Isaiah. Each of the three illustrates God’s promise: Though the people have wandered far from what God envisioned for them, God constantly invites them back. The repeated structure of the prophets is judgment and promise, judgment and hope. This is illustrated so well in the early part of the Book of Isaiah, which opens with the Book of Judgment. Yet, even as God is harshly castigating the people for their sins, God invites (as God does continually) “Come now, let us set things right.”

My talk also focused on our need to be active participants in “preparing the way of the Lord,” and on our call to be prophets.

Following my talk, we had a period of silent reflection, followed by some sharing. (That is not part of the recording.) I ended by encouraging the participants to spend time praying with the prophets this week. (Part of what we are trying to emphasize in this series is the value of praying with scripture and not just reading it as an intellectual exercise.)

You can access a recording of the my talk here or stream it from the icon below. (The podcast runs for 39:03.)