“Beauty ever ancient, ever new” – Part 2

My soul doth magnify the Lord

+JMJ

Describing the moment of a realization is always difficult, especially when it is a story of a conversion. How can I describe those first times, when I began to meet Christ with the realization that He is real, – not just an idea but a real Person? The feelings that accompany this – surprise, the sudden certainty that comes from faith, followed by amazement that this could REALLY happen, that God is REALLY that loving, and that all this is real… is actually real! And of course the amazing joy and love that’s beyond anything you’ve ever imagined – a love that truly satisfies and makes one thirst for God like the Psalmist who said: “As a hart longs for flowing streams, so longs my soul for thee, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God?” (Psalm 42). “How lovely is thy dwelling place, O Lord of hosts! My soul longs, yea, faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God… For a day in thy courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness.” (Psalm 84).

I came to university with the same sort of views I had in high school. My faith in God wasn’t very strong – I even wrote an essay against His existence, simply because it was “easier” to argue with the knowledge that I had – something that I’m ashamed of to this day. I took another philosophy course in university, though it had an atheistic emphasis on it. This annoyed me, but I was not strong or knowledgeable enough to counter it. However, I considered myself a Christian, an Eastern Orthodox, though I never considered that fact that I was not practicing. I had not received the Eucharist a second time, after my first Communion, and had only been to Confession once – which afterwards gave me a sudden shock of realization about my sins, which I had mostly hidden from the priest. For the first time in a while, I felt that I was in fact, a sinner, that my sins had gravity and were not as light as I had thought, and this terrified me.

I did not pray much, or at all, and spent most of my time worrying about academics or the fact that I felt very lonely on campus. My belief in God was more in my mind than in my heart, and even in my mind, it was not strong. I went through a time of doubts of God’s existence, which was a real crisis for me and I worried incessantly over it on a vacation day with my family.

As I didn’t have many friends on campus, I had much time to myself. I had been reading CS Lewis’ “Narnia” books, and was delighted to find that the university bookstore had more books by him. They were of course, his apologetic books on Christianity. While reading “Mere Christianity”, I finally understood what the purpose of salvation was – that we were to become “new men”, as he had termed it, that it was a transformation, and I understood that Christianity is not partially true, but is THE Truth, with a capital “T”. He explained it very clearly and I’m thankful for God using these books because it was what I needed. I began reading all the CS Lewis books I could buy and finally the faith made sense to me, and my sense of assurance about it was stronger.

Sometime that year, I was in the student centre and was approached by two girls. They were from the Protestant group on campus called “Campus for Christ” – and they asked if they could ask me some questions. I said yes, somewhat reluctantly, and they asked me about my spiritual background and views. I identified myself as an Orthodox Christian and explained some things I had learned about salvation. The girls invited me to their weekly meeting. I don’t remember what I said… but it stayed in my mind, and I think in the next autumn, I went to my first ‘weekly meeting’ with Campus for Christ.

Here was something new as well. As I did not attend church, I didn’t have much experience of prayer or worship. Faith for me was mostly an intellectual understanding that I agreed with, but I wasn’t sure yet how to put it into practice. I did not pray much, and I still lived in much sin. As I came to the weekly meetings, I saw a new side of it all – here were others who believed in Christ and who seemed so enthusiastic about what they believed in, and they not only prayed and praised God but it seemed to bring them happiness. I was kind of shy, at first, to sing the ‘praise and worship’ songs, or to show any sort of emotion – but the personal element in the words began drawing me more into the more personal side of a relationship with God. Up to this point, I had faith in God and perhaps some personal experience of prayer – but I began to understand more of His love for me. It was like going deeper into the phrase that had so touched my heart as a child – “I love you dearly”.

As I began to encounter Christ more, He became more real, not just as Someone I believed in, but Someone that we could actually know, even delight in. It was a relatively new concept – a two way relationship with God. I could speak to Him, sure… but Him communicating His presence to me? The perceptible presence of His love (what Catholics would call consolation or sweetness in prayer) – was something I didn’t know about. I was again so touched by how much God loves us, and could hardly think of anything else. I still had many faults, and sins, but I began caring about this more. I was also too attached to the consolations, but my love for Christ began to grow.

Even though this happened to me in the context of Protestant worship services, I believe it is simply an experience of coming closer to Christ. This type of grace still came through the Church, unknown to me, and ultimately helped lead me towards the Church. It would be incorrect to say that because it happened at a Protestant event, it means that it is wrong to be Catholic, rather it shows that God was always somehow acting in my life. It would also be incorrect to say that because it happened in a Protestant setting, and not a Catholic one, it served no purpose – because God uses the situation we are in, and although I did not yet have the Sacraments, God helped me to find Him and then lead me further to help me find the Church and the Sacraments when I was ready. I see now how He’s used many things in my life to bring me to Himself and to the fullness of truth. I believe that the Catholic Church is true, yet I do not discount the experiences of God I had as a Protestant. God reaches down to us where we are.

As I consider the experience of a soul encountering Christ, the words of St Augustine come to mind:

“Late have I loved You, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved You! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for You. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which You created. You were with me, but I was not with You. Created things kept me from You; yet if they had not been in You they would not have been at all. You called, You shouted, and You broke through my deafness. You flashed, You shone, and You dispelled my blindness. You breathed Your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for You. I have tasted You, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for Your peace”.

I have wondered about how this happens… ultimately, faith is a gift. The realization that God loves us, is also a gift. He can use various ways to help us realize that. As we read about His love in Scripture and spiritual books, He could use those occasions to reveal His love. As the person realizes this, they respond… the faith becomes more personal, not just an idea of a collection of teachings (which might appear burdensome), but a way to get to know Christ, Who the soul now sees not only as a historical Person who lived 2000 years ago, but as Someone alive today – not only alive, but communicating with us. This is a huge realization and very life changing. I used the songs we sang at those meetings to help me to respond back to Him and tell Him that I love Him, and that I give Him my heart. Now I see that doctrines, correct interpretation of Scripture, is very important – and we shouldn’t forget about these things. Our faith is BOTH a relationship and a religion. Religion is simply how we live out this relationship in our lives. But in order for it to make sense, the relationship needs to be there, because our faith is not primarily about ideas but is about a Person – Jesus did not say that He would only show us the way, He said that He *is* the way.

GK Chesterton put it all very simply: “Let your religion be less of a theory and more of a love affair”.

If anyone is looking for some inspiration to begin (or continue) relating to Christ in a more personal way, I would highly recommend learning about the Sacred Heart devotion. For example, there is this website, which explains the elements of the devotion and also contains these beautiful poems: http://sacredheartdevotion.com/love-poems/  Sometimes just by reading or hearing such words, our hearts begin to open up more to God’s love, which He so eagerly desires to show to us. From that point, we only need to receive it and respond. Have you thought about this, how much God longs for you? Perhaps this is a new concept, perhaps you’re not sure about it – how could God long for anything? why for us? but His love is much more personal than we had dared to hope… maybe we believe, that God loves humanity – but in a general sort of way. Maybe it’s unclear what His love means *for us*. Yet He loves you as if you were the only person He had created. He waits for you, like how someone would wait for their beloved, only even more than that. If you are not sure, try to ask Him to show this to you. The prayer for more faith is answered if we are ready to receive it and if we seek it.

God is not impersonal. We have a God whose Heart was pierced for us. We have a God who would say “I would create the universe again just to hear you say that you love Me” (words to St Teresa). God is our Treasure and our greatest happiness is to be loved so much by Him.

I also invite anyone to read these beautiful words on how Christ thirsts for us

(image credit: http://holycardheaven.blogspot.ca/

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My journey to Jesus and the Catholic Church: Part 1

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+JMJ

It has been roughly four years since I became Catholic. As I ponder that point, it does not seem that long to me… sometimes, I still almost call myself a “new convert” and realize that perhaps this is not the most accurate term to describe me. In any case, I have decided that “it’s time” to write my conversion story. It seems almost funny to do this 4 years after the fact, and I have written one before, but these years have given me further perspective that I didn’t have at the time. Maybe now I can tell my conversion story more completely.. Of course, it’s impossible to capture everything, and I can’t say every detail. But I wanted to do this to thank God for everything He has done. I dedicate this to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary, for God’s glory.

I grew up non religious, yet it seems to me like God used all the moments I heard about Him as a child. I remember my mom teaching me the Our Father, or giving me a children’s book of stories about Jesus, or my dad trying to paint Our Lord at Easter. I even had a dream about Our Lord as a child in Jerusalem. These instances affected my imagination and I had some sort of secret “link” to Christianity that I kept in my heart… I remember one particular time, when Jesus was mentioned, I would become thoughtful, retreat, almost like someone had uttered a secret and trespassed into something that was too personal for discussion. I’m not sure if I’m remembering correctly, but this comes to mind.

I still consider that even at an early age, I was introduced to Christ, without knowing much of who He is. Then, there were some encounters with Christian doctrines that I did not understand. In middle school, I was given a Bible – one of those Gideon Bibles with a red cover. As I read the Bible, I came across the concept of hell. This was a relatively new concept, and it was scary. I began fearing going to hell, as I thought of various things I did that I was ashamed of. I would stay awake at nights, worrying and feeling a sense of anguish, and feeling trapped – I did not understand much about forgiveness. However, I felt my conscience ‘awake’.

I decided also to pray every day to God. However, my prayers were mechanical – said only to “get it done”, with a hope that if I do this, perhaps God would not give up on me. Eventually, I stopped praying. However, God did not give up on me or stop working in my life. I see now how He used everything to bring me to Him. During those years in middle school, I had some struggles. I forget when exactly this occurred, but there was something that helped me to come to God on a more personal level. My mom had given me a book by an evangelical author with little reflections for every day. I don’t think she knew that it was about Christ – it was the type of book picked up in a card shop. As I read little quotes from it, there was one that touched me very deeply. It was one phrase in it – written as if God is speaking, saying “I love you dearly” – that caused me to cry every time I read it. I needed this and did not know it… when things were at their worst, I would read it, or even just remember it, and this concept – that God loves ME – was so new, so moving.

However, this was not the only influence in my life. Through the influence of some tv shows and other things, I began to feel an interest in various other religions and new age practices. I remember that I also believed in reincarnation at a point in my life. At this earlier time, I was specifically drawn to some form of Druidism and researched it on the internet. I even hoped to join – but somehow, I did not. I still believed in God, though I did not think of Him very much. At the time, my family began moving towards Christianity and baptism. My dad had decided to be Baptized, and I was excited for him, though I didn’t know much.

At one point, I came to the Eastern Orthodox church. I remember it being completely different from anything I had seen ever… all the gold, incense, candles, – it was very beautiful, like being in another world, or rather having a glimpse into something still remote and full of mystery. I was told by my dad that if I light a candle and say a prayer, God would answer it. I lit a candle and said a prayer… Probably my first ‘real prayer’. In my child’s heart, I believed the statement and had confidence in my prayer being answered. Though it was something rather important and unlikely, God did answer it soon after! Later, my mom and I were baptized together in the same church.

We had received instruction from the priest, however I did not understand everything. I was looking through my old diary a while ago, and found a journal entry about my baptism… I had written, that when I would be baptized, there would not be any danger of me going to hell. While it’s true that a person would go to Heaven if they died after Baptism, if they commit any mortal sins since then, then they’ve left God and need to confess their sins. I still remember my Baptism.. my mom and I wore white robes and were fully immersed in the water, as is the practice in the East. It was beautiful and after my Baptism, I don’t remember having an interest in the non-Christian religion any more, though I erred in many ways after a while.

At one point when I entered high school, I had joined the choir, but only came once or twice to practice. I only joined because I was interested in singing professionally. I was very ambitious and had many career plans. However, I did not think much about God. In high school, I became immersed in whatever was popular for girls that age – makeup, worries about what your peers thought, hopes for popularity (in my case, hopes that were completely dashed – much to my distress, as I was shy and never popular).

In the last years of high school, I took a course on Philosophy. I was a kind of a relativist in a way.. I looked down on Christians as being too simple, and didn’t believe that Christianity is the whole truth. I had some ideas that were true, but also this pride, and I wanted to exalt myself above others. I prided myself on the grades I received in Philosophy, the books I read, my essays, etc, – I also tried to support God’s existence, and sometimes argued for Christianity, but I downplayed it being the complete truth. God for me was more philosophical than personal…to me, He was an interesting idea, rather than a person who loved me. I talked about Him much, but not so much to Him.

~To be continued

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St Mary Magdalene

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+JMJ

I am reading a great book about St Mary Magdalene called “Mary of Magdalene in the Visions of the Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich” (TAN). It includes quotes about St Mary Magdalene from Blessed Anne Catherine’s “The Life of Jesus Christ and Biblical Revelations”. The quotes describe visions that Bl Anne Catherine had of Jesus’ life, that can help us to go deeper into the Scriptures. The entire book is available online in public domain and I’ll quote from there with page numbers so anyone can find them. However if anyone is interested in a book specifically about the Saint I really recommend the one from TAN!

While reading, I was especially struck by how much St Mary Magdalene loved Our Lord. For example, there is this quote:

“On the Sabbath Jesus taught in Lazarus’, and then all went to walk in the gardens. Jesus talked of His Passion and said in plain terms that He was the Christ. His words increased His hearers’ reverence and admiration for Him, while Magdalene’s love and contrition reached their height. She followed Jesus everywhere, sat at His feet, stood and waited for Him everywhere. She thought of Him alone, saw Him alone, knew only her Redeemer and her own sins. Jesus frequently addressed to her words of consolation. She was very greatly changed. Her countenance and bearing was still noble and distinguished, though her beauty was destroyed by her penance and tears. She sat almost always alone in her narrow penance chamber, and at times performed the lowest services for the poor and sick” (Vol 3, pp.275-276).

The book describes her conversion from a worldly life to that of a penitent. I was really touched by the accounts of her anointing Jesus. One thing that I found very beautiful was her boldness. It was quite a brave thing to do for a woman at that time who was known to be a “sinner” – as Jesus was asked, why He allows her to touch Him. But St Mary Magdalene continued to love Jesus and followed Him everywhere. It’s so beautiful how she only thought of Him and only saw Him. Often while reading the lives of the Saints, we are inspired but at the same time wonder, – can we really love like this? St Mary Magdalene loved Jesus exceptionally, much more than I do, but one thing that’s encouraging about her is that she loved Him like this even though she had a sinful past – and her life really shows the effect of submitting to God’s grace.

This next quote describes St Mary Magdalene’s second conversion, after she had fallen back into sin. At one point, soon after finding repentance again, St Mary Magdalene was suffering from doubts about her forgiveness. After running through the streets, she ran to Jesus and began weeping and asking if there is still hope for her.  She was being tormented by despair. Although the others looked scandalized and asked Jesus how He could stand this woman any longer, He showed her mercy:

“When Jesus returned to His inn with the disciples and some of the Pharisees, and while they were taking some refreshments standing, Magdalen escaped from the holy women, ran with streaming hair and uttering loud lamentations, made her way through the crowd, cast herself at Jesus’ feet, weeping and moaning, and asked if she might still hope for salvation. The Pharisees and disciples, scandalized at the sight, said to Jesus that He should no longer suffer this reprobate woman to create disturbance everywhere, that He should send her away once and for all. But Jesus replied: “Permit her to weep and lament! Ye know not what is passing in her” – and He turned to her with words of consolation. He told her to repent from her heart, to believe and to hope, for that she should soon find peace. Then He bade her depart with confidence.” (Vol. 3, pp. 125-130)

This account really shows Jesus’ mercy and patience. He didn’t send her away, but encouraged her to trust in His forgiveness. What I appreciate about St Mary Magdalene here is that although she was suffering from feelings of despair, she still ran to Jesus and did not run away from Him… she still went to Him to ask for pardon and to ask if there was still hope for her. I think this is a good example for anyone suffering from despair – to not run away from God, but to run towards. It’s also evident here that in her repentance, St Mary Magdalene didn’t think of anything else and was concerned about nothing but finding forgiveness. She showed so much contrition. Later, she found Jesus again:

“The instruction over, Jesus went to a retired place, whither Mary herself and Martha led Magdalen to Him. She fell on her face weeping at His feet, her fair flowing loosely around her. Jesus comforted her. When Mary and Martha had withdrawn, she cried for pardon, confessed her numerous transgressions, and asked over and over: “Lord, is there still salvation for me?” Jesus forgave her sins, and she implored Him to save her from another relapse. He promised to do so, gave her His blessing, and spoke to her of the virtue of purity, also of His Mother, who was pure without stain. He praised Mary highly in terms I had never before heard from His lips, and commanded Magdalen to unite herself closely to her and to seek from her advice and consolation. When Jesus and Magdalen rejoined the holy women, Jesus said to them: “She has been a great sinner, but for all future time, she will be the model of penitents”. (Vol. 3, pp. 125-130)

In reading the book, I saw that the anointing of Jesus that St Mary Magdalene did was not an isolated event, but that she did this several times, maybe many times. People often did not understand but she did not let that discourage her from showing her love for Jesus. He however always accepted her love.

“It was dust before Jesus and the disciples, preceded and followed by crowds of people, started at last down the mountain of Gabara. Magdalen, obeying only her impulse without regard to appearances, followed close after Jesus in the crowd of the disciples, and her four companions, unwilling to separate from her, did the same. She tried to keep as close to Jesus as she possibly could, though such conduct was quite unusual in females. Some of the disciples called Jesus’ attention to the fact, remarking at the same time what I have just observed. But Jesus, turning around to them, replied: “Let them alone! It is not your affair!” (Vol. 2, 477-480).

The visions also describe another time when St Mary Magdalene anointed Our Lord. This was when Jesus went with three of the Apostles to Bethel and stayed at a house. Lazarus and his sisters were there too; seemingly after Lazarus was raised from the dead.

“As Jesus was sitting on the edge of the fountain, Magdalene came forth from the house and poured over His hair a little flat flask of perfume. She did it standing at His back, as she had often done before. I wondered at her boldness.” (Vol. 3. pp. 582-583).

The book tells of St Mary Magdalene’s first anointing of Jesus, which happened before she completely turned to the penitent life, but was drawn to love Him:

“The Pharisees were in animated discussion with Him when Magdalen, who with her companions had approached the entrance, all of a sudden darted into the hall. Inclining humbly, her head veiled, in her hand a little white flask closed with a tiny bunch of aromatic herbs instead of a stopper, she glided quickly into the center of the apartment, went behind Jesus, and poured the contents of her little flask over His head. Then catching up the long end of her veil, she folded it, and with both hands passed it lightly once over Jesus’ head, as it wishing to smooth His hair and to arrest the overflow of the ointment. The whole affair occupied but a few instants, and after it Magdalen retired some steps. The discussion carried on so hotly at the moment suddenly ceased. A hush fell upon the company, and they gazed upon Jesus and the woman. The air was redolent with the fragrance of the ointment. Jesus was silent. Some of the guests put their heads together, glanced indignantly at the Magdelen, and exchanged whispers. Simon Zabulon especially appeared scandalized. At last Jesus said to him: “Simon, I know well of what thou art thinking! Thou thinkest it improper that I should allow this woman to anoint My head. Thou art thinking that she is a sinner, but thou art wrong. She, out of love, has fulfilled what thou didst leave undone. Thou hast not shown Me the honour due to guests”. Then He turned to Magdalen, who was still standing there, and said “Go in peace! Much has been forgiven thee”. (Vol. 2, pp. 477-480).

To put it shortly, I’m very inspired by this book. I love St Mary Magdalene’s boldness, how she was not afraid of losing human respect as she showed her love for Jesus, and how she hoped that He would accept her though others did not. I love her Jesus still accepted her and forgave her, and helped her to become a Saint. This also gives me hope because I can relate to being a sinner. I think her life really shows us that no matter what our past was, we can love Jesus greatly, as long as we don’t place boundaries on our love or are too timid or fearful.

St Mary Magdalene, pray for us!

Here is some information about her

(If anyone is interested in learning more, the book is available for sale from TAN, or you can find the references in the linked book given above. The book “Life of Jesus Christ and Biblical Revelations” is in the public domain and contains all the quotes).

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