Monday, April 19, 2010

True Conversions No. 1: Mary Karr

Lit: A Memoir
Mary Karr
Harper: New York, c. 2009
400 pp. US$ 25.99
ISBN: 978-0-06-059698-9

One of the most interesting phenomena of our time from my perspective is that “a pesar de todo y en medio de todo”/”in spite of everything and in the middle of everything”—people continue to join the Catholic Church. At our parish alone this Easter, we welcomed 47 new Catholics—30 adults, teens, and children (no infants) were baptized at Easter vigil; an additional 17 were received into the Catholic community from other Christian denominations. In the Diocese of San Diego as a whole some 1400 neophytes joined the Church. Nationwide in the US, more than 100,000 people enter the Catholic Church annually. A pretty good indication, from my lights, that in terms of Church membership and attendance, there’s a fair amount of two-way traffic—people are leaving (no news), but other people are joining as well (pretty big news for us Catholics, I’d say). How come?

While I have a few hunches from my own pastoral experience as a Franciscan and as a priest, I’m also fascinated by the number of our contemporaries who have been willing to step forward and articulate their own conversion stories. Nearly two decades ago, I found myself sitting in an audience in San Francisco as author/ poet Annie Dillard spoke about her own unlikely embrace of Catholicism. The information was received with embarrassed silence followed by surprised gasps and giggles by her generally well-heeled and well-read listeners. There was no applause. I hadn’t know about that part of Ms. Dillard’s life, but she made it clear that her faith was important to her and that it illuminated her own artistic search and expression. I liked that in her. I still do.

That was then. More recently, I’ve become aware of a whole slew of “true conversions” stories appearing in print media– almost a sub-genre in itself. I find these tales of personal discovery fascinating. Why would someone choose Catholicism—especially now—especially given the media coverage of the sexual abuse scandals, in particular? What’s going on here? How is the Spirit moving in our time? What is s/he saying to us? What continues to attract intelligent and committed people to this faith community, while other equally intelligent and committed people appear to be leaving in frustration, bitterness, and contempt? I’d like to reflect a bit on some of the stuff I’ve been reading lately. It is, after all, all about ‘vocation’—listening for the clear, calm, gentle voice of Someone (maybe God?) inviting us into a deeper experience of love and community. In spite of, and in the middle of all the ‘stuff’ that goes on in our lives.

Writer Mary Karr can best be termed as a “memorist”. Her first works-- The Liars Club and Cherry—were both bestsellers. The former concentrated on her rough and tumble childhood in Texas. The latter dealt with her adolescent struggles. Karr’s third and most recent memoir, however, focuses on her spiritual journey and her unlikely path of conversion from, what-- Alcoholism to Catholicism? (Would it be fair to describe it as kind of a shift from one kind of‘religion’ to another?) So how did she get from there to here?

On the other hand, why not look at things in reverse—how did Mary Karr make her transition between here and there? “Time arcs back,” the author notes in the very last chapter, “carrying me in it.” She is visiting her mother—an aging, cantankerous, absolutely charming professional prevaricator and ingrate. Karr stumbles across an underlined passage in her mother’s Bible—Psalm 51—(“the hanging psalm”). The thing is, this is the very passage her spiritual director has prescribed for Karr’s Lenten reflection. She reflects: “… it feels as if God once guided my mother’s small hand, circa 1920-something to make two notes I’d very much need to find seventy years later—a message that I could be made new, that I am – have always been – loved.”

Karr’s conversion story ‘ends’ in its’ ‘beginnings’—the jagged trajectory that her life has made “arcs backwards” from love to Love. In between is all the ‘stuff’ that happens or that we make happen in our own stumbling, bumbling way. In Karr’s case the arc passes backwards and forwards through childhood misery, adolescent longing, youthful experimentation, catastrophic relationships, and toxic dependencies. In between and among all this, one is able to discern some slender, yet surprisingly firm threads of sustaining hope, stubborn discipline, and sustaining friendship and love. “A pesar de todo y en medio de todo,” she discerns presence of a loving God in her life, partly through the means and medium of her chosen call, the written word.

Where does the Catholic part come in? Maybe it was just some kind of crazy luck or random choice, but I think not. Again, my funny bone tells me that with Karr it may have been a matter of things “fitting”— the narrative of her own suffering and redemption coalescing with that of our own collective history and struggles. They fit. They fit well enough for her to embark on the path and serious business of making a faith choice and commitment to a specific community of worship and service. Whatever happened, it is clear that the point of entry into the faith experience for Karr was every bit as much through her pain as it was her brain. As she expressed it in a PBS radio “Fresh Air” interview: "I thought faith was a feeling. My intellect told me this was insane. The only way I was able to do it was through practice," she says. "[I'd] been trying to get sober and not really listening to the ways you're supposed to do it, and somebody said 'pray on your knees every day for 30 days and see if you stay sober.' And I just saw it as, like, self-hypnosis or like talking to yourself."

Karr’s journey is not unlike a lot of our own stories. What makes her tale particularly striking and convincing, though, is her gift of honest expression— by turns blunt, blue, raw, or reflective, yet ever relentless. Her seemingly constant and continuing collisions with crushing realities. Her ultimate deliverance from multiple and cumulative experiences of pain and suffering-- through successive dead ends to eventual recovery and spiritual awakening. Read the book for the details. It’s not always pretty, but it’s really real. Just like life.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Jesuit Advice in a Franciscan's Life

Discerning the Will of God
An Ignatian Guide to Christian Discernment
Timothy M. Gallagher, OMV
Crossroad Publishing: New York, c. 2009.
ISBN: 987-0-8245-2489-0
$16.95, 160 pp.

Personally, I struggle a lot with decision-making. It doesn't come easily or naturally to me. It never has. Recently, though, I needed to make a decision—a really good decision—about an important matter in my life. And I wanted to get the best help and advice available. My spiritual director (a Jesuit, by the way) suggested this text, which I took along on a recent trip to read, study, and reflect (upon). I was looking for a practical, step-by-step guide which would lead the reader through the discernment process-- hopefully without too much stress or discomfort (!).

Timothy Gallagher’s guide to discernment in the Jesuit tradition clear, rational, user-friendly, and methodical. But it was not Gallagher's methodology which I found most helpful. Rather, it was his basic insight that the foundation for any and all good decision-making is an “awareness that God has created us out of love and ceaselessly offers that love to us.” The recognition and acceptance of that Love leads to a “consequent thirst for communion of wills with the One who so deeply loves us.” Peter, one of Gallagher’s spiritual directees, states things succinctly. Peter reports that at the age of eight, he approached his father saying, “Dad, everything we learn in church and everything in the Bible comes down to just one thing, doesn’t it? …. That all God wants us to do—all the time—is to ask him what he wants us to do, and then do it…. Instead of asking ourselves, ask God.”

Imagine. Good decision-making, for the Christian, has its foundation in our relationship with a loving God. For the adult, it is “the experience of ourselves as loved sinners, loved in our failures, faults, woundedness, and pain—loved in a way that frees us to seek moral newness and so creates a heart ready to discern.” (p.41)

The necessity of basing one’s discernment upon a foundation of love—God’s love (intimate, personal, and abiding)—transforms one’s experience of the ensuing process.Gallagher goes on to speak of the “disposition,” “means”, and “fruit” of discernment. And he provides a clear and accessible road map of the distinct and discrete “modes” of discernment provided in the writings of St. Ignatius of Loyola.

I was surprised by a couple of other aspects of the book as well. For one thing, Gallagher quotes extensively from the reported experiences of his spiritual directees over a thirty-year period. A fair number of these anecdotes are from women and men contemplating priesthood or religious life. This is particularly helpful and accessible to those on the path of vocational discernment.

The other surprise I experienced was Gallagher’s reference to several Franciscan sources. He refers for example, to an account of a Secular Franciscan, Blessed Peter Pettenaio, who reports his vision of Christ walking into the cathedral of Siena, surrounded by a throng of saints, each of whom tried (unsuccessfully) to place her/his foot into the footprint of the Lord. At last, the only one to succeed in the task was Francis of Assisi (Atta boy! That’s our guy! Whadda way to go, Francis!)

A more revealing and relevant reference, however, is the experience of Francis’s own clarity in eventually discerning his call: “Immediately, exulting in the Holy Spirit, he cried out: ‘This is what I want, this is what I seek, this is what I long to do with all my hear!’” (I Celano). Isn’t that the kind of clarity, focus, and determination most of would really like to have in our own lives?

This is a very good, practical, and user-friendly guide to spiritual discernment. It is not enough in and of itself, however, as the author wisely cautions. To be complete the process requires a disciplined commitment to spiritual practices (prayer, spiritual reading, reception of the Eucharist, silence) and the help and assistance of a skilled spiritual director. By the way, it was a great help to me in my own recent decision-making.//