Losing Power with Judith Snow

Judith Snow. selfconscious.ca

“Jennifer,” who regularly comments on this Blog with profound insights, left a comment this morning on yesterday’s post. I just had to share it with all readers, it is so rich. I also appended a brief interview with Jean Vanier, who, as for Jennifer, is a personal hero of mine. Thank you, Jennifer, for opening up the mystery of “almsgiving” (literally, mercy-giving) for us this Lenten day, radiant in the life of Judith Snow. May she rest in the peace of the new creation.

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During grad school and after I left, I earned money by working in two group homes for adults who had developmental and intellectual disabilities. I had been profoundly moved by the writing of Jean Vanier, specifically, “Becoming Human”. I completed a diploma in the field of social work pertaining to people with such challenges. During that time I crossed paths with an unforgettable woman named Judith Snow. She was an incredible advocate for people living with profound disabilities, especially those who couldn’t use words to communicate. She herself was born with a type of dystrophy that left her quadraplegic and very tiny her entire life. She was incredible, intuitive, brilliant…a force. While she extremely intelligent, because of her physical limitations and the era she was born in she grew up with the unique experience of being surrounded by other children who were profoundly intellectually disabled. She was a keen observer and dedicated herself to learning how to communicate her silent peers. She took me under her wing for which I am so grateful. (Here’s her bio from when she had an art exhibit at Canada’s premier museum: https://www.rom.on.ca/en/about-us/newsroom/press-releases/whos-drawing-the-lines-the-journey-of-judith-snow). Sadly she passed away suddenly a few years ago. Huge loss to this world!

From Judith I learned (or at least she tried to teach me) soulishness. I don’t know how to call it. It’s that kind of uncomfortable silent being with another until you “get”one another deeply without talking. She taught me to really feel in my bones the lie of utilitarianism in determining the value of a life. I understood through the people she introduced me to what Vanier was speaking of; I learned the inherent worth and dignity of every life as a bearer of God’s image. These people were heralds of light in this world that is too quick to discard and objectify others

This morning I came across this reflection from B16 that I thought encapsulated the truth of our identity in this vein.

Pope Benedict:
The Enlightenment was sated with demands for morality. It sought to reduce religion to morality. But morality was even further reduced—this time to utilitarianism, to the concept of human well-being. Morality was the measure of the useful, and immorality, accordingly, of the foolish. The definitive and decisive factor for the individual, and in particular for his well-being and happiness, was not feeling good, but being good. Man is not made greater by a promise of autonomy, but smaller, for he is truly himself only when he transcends himself. He belongs more truly to himself when he belongs to God than when he wants to belong only to himself. Morality cannot mean that we ourselves determine what seems useful to us and to the world; on the contrary, it must be a listening to the words of God in the words of creation. We must not and we may not adjust creation to our own liking so that it will be serviceable to us, for in that way we destroy the world and ourselves with it—we have experienced this in our own day. To listen to the words of God means to conform ourselves to God. When we become conformable to him, creation continues to be good and we ourselves become good. The Lord himself has come to meet us and his commandment is simple: that we conform ourselves to the truth. It is his commandment that we correspond with the love he has offered us, and all his commandments are but signposts directing us to the secret of love and so to the foundation of truth. Morality lives thus from the mystery, from the manifestation, of the love of Jesus Christ. When it is separated from this mystery, it becomes fanatical and narrow. When it loses its relationship with this mystery, it becomes just a compulsion in man; and how inhuman morality can become when it is just a compulsion to force hope on the world—of that, too, we have had ample experience in our day. From: Homily for May 16, 1985, in Ordinariatskorrespondenz, no. 15, 1985

Saint of Gentleness

[re-post from 2012]

Nothing is so strong as gentleness, nothing so gentle as real strength. — St Francis de Sales

St. Francis de Sales is known as the “saint of gentleness.” He himself had an angry, even explosively angry temperament, and had to work hard at exercising gentle patience both with himself and with others. He came to a profound insight, through his own inner struggle, into the importance of not doing violence to the many “bruised reeds” and “smoldering wicks” (Is. 42:3) both within and without. He counseled countless spiritual directors and Confessors to correct and reprove others, when necessary, with a firm and patient love, and never with impatient anger. He famously said, “A spoonful of honey attracts more flies than a barrel full of vinegar.”

But he was most celebrated for his counsel to gentleness in dealing with distractions in prayer, or in facing the dark realization of one’s own sins, weaknesses and failings. After counseling many hundreds of men and women, he could see how crippling were the effects of a self-recriminating response to one’s own many imperfections. Such a strategy, he said, only serves to cripple hope and weaken one’s loving devotion to God. Beating oneself up transforms genuine spirituality into a nursery for compulsive wound-licking and chronic nit-picking judgment of others’ faults. Such an incurved ego makes one unable to assume Christ’s “other-centered” posture of love.

Once he wrote to a woman who was terribly discouraged by her constant distractions during prayer,

If the heart wanders or is distracted, bring it back to the point quite gently and replace it tenderly in its Master’s presence. And even if you did nothing during the whole of your hour but bring your heart back and place it again and again in our Lord’s presence, though it went away every time you brought it back, your hour would be very well employed.

When I came across de Sales in the early 90’s, his approach really changed my mindset in a significant way. My poor habits, repeated sins, easily distracted mind and fickle emotions often brought me to a grinding halt of discouragement. But with his gentle approach — to use a C.S. Lewis image — what were once only dark alleys leading to even darker cul-de-sacs became a Wardrobe that opened out from the narrow press of musty and stifling shadows into the bright and spacious world of Narnia. And though Narnia is still frozen in the grip of winter, hope burns fiercely bright there; for in Narnia, the Lion of Judah, once slaughtered by our sins on the Altar of Sacrifice, refuses to repudiate us in irrevocable justice, but instead embraces us in the gentleness of forever mercy.

I shared this “de Sales” insight with a Camelite nun I met on a retreat, and she said something like this:

Oh yes, I also love his advice. It’s only when I realized that God’s primary relationship with us is gentle mercy that I was really able to combine the quest for perfection Jesus commands (Matt. 5:48) with the reality of my fragility. The harder you try for purity, the more dirt shows up. I always thought that’s why Luke’s parallel version (Luke 6:36) of Matthew’s “be perfect as your Father is perfect” was “be merciful as your Father is merciful” — because they go together. Mercy, perfection.

I once thought perfection and my frailty were opposed, with perfection seeking to remove all of my frailty, my faults. But then I came to believe that they are a two-sided coin. Our limits can become a frame for the artwork that is our life. Just like any great piece of artwork needs to have defined limits to contain and focus the Artist’s intent to create a new expression of His genius. Mercy does not do violence to our frailty, but gilds it in honor with His own beauty. That’s what St. Augustine’s “happy fault of Adam” means to me, that mercy turns my junk into beauty. The logic of the Cross.

Perfection is when you’re finally able to offer God, with equal confidence and gratitude, your weakness and your strength as a full palette in service to His artwork. What a relief.

Never say you are too busy for Him

[re-post 2014]

My secret is very simple: I pray. Through prayer I become one in love with Christ. I realize that praying to him is loving him. — St. Teresa of Calcutta

When I worked with the Missionaries of Charity, they taught me four things.

First, without prayer you lose the capacity to bring lasting hope to others because you have pulled your anchor out of the immovable Rock.

Second, without prayer you lose the capacity to bring enduring love to others because you have ceased to receive that love from its inexhaustible Wellspring.

Third, without prayer you lose the capacity to bring Jesus to others because you have ceased to know Him, and have settled with only knowing of Him.

Fourth, without prayer you lose the capacity to lead others to trust in God because you no longer trust Him. You only spread cynicism, discouragement, doubt and despair.

Yes, you can’t give what you don’t have. No prayer, no God. Know prayer, know God. No wonder St. Teresa of Avila reminded her Sisters so often that the devil has no better strategy for bringing us down than to lead us away from prayer, as he knows well that when we are prayer-less, we are powerless and alone. But when we pray, the evil spirits tremble in terror as we — made royal priests in baptism — permit God’s redemptive power free entry into creation and unleash the triumph of the Cross.

Once when she was in the outhouse, St. Teresa tells us, she was praying and the devil appeared to her, furious that she would not cease praying even there. With her sharp wit, she replied to him, “Don’t worry about that, what goes up is for God, what goes down is for you.”

Or there’s the 4th century story of a desert monk in Syria who, in a vision, saw a demon urging another demon to go and awaken a sleeping monk to torture him with dark thoughts. And he heard the other demon say, “I cannot do this, for one time when I awakened him he got up and burned me by singing psalms and praying.”

To reinforce the primacy of prayer in the work we did, the Sisters had this quote from John 15:5 framed in my room, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”

The Sister who was my supervisor left a handwritten note in my box my last day there, “Be faithful to daily prayer, Brother Tom. Cling to God. Fill yourself with Him so you can give food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, love to the loveless, hope to the hopeless, faith to the faithless. Never say you are too busy for Him. Carry within you the Kingdom everywhere you go and speak often to the indwelling King. God bless you.”

St. John the Brutal

Lord, you return gladly and lovingly to lift up the one who offends you, but I do not turn to raise and honor the one who annoys me. — St. John of the Cross

For today’s feast of St. John of the Cross, I will simply share with you my favorite passage in all of his work. Which I have framed. He wrote this as a “counsel of perfection” to men who had joined the Discalced Carmelite Order and were still novices. When I first read it as I was writing my dissertation, I was left breathless. Reading it gave me a whole new view of life, of life’s challenges, and what it means to allow the call to holiness to shape your relationship to every person in your life, especially the most challenging.

To make it my own, I have over the years bracketed the word “monastery” and replaced it with whatever challenged place I am in life, e.g. marriage, family, work, school. I have shared this before, but I hope, as it does for me, it never grows old for you.

…engrave this truth on your heart, and it is that you have not come to [monastery] for any other reason than to be worked and tried in virtue; you are like the stone that must be chiseled and fashioned before being set in the building. Thus you should understand that those who are in [the monastery] are craftsmen placed there by God to mortify you by working and chiseling at you. Some will chisel with words, telling you what you would rather not hear; others by deed, doing against you what you would rather not endure; others by their temperament, being in their person and in their actions a bother and annoyance to you; and others by their thoughts, neither esteeming nor feeling love for you. You ought to suffer these mortifications and annoyances with inner patience, being silent for love of God and understanding that you did not enter [the monastery] life for any other reason than for others to work you in this way, and so you become worthy of heaven. If this was not your reason for entering [monastic life], you should not have done so, but should have remained in the world to seek your comfort, honor, reputation, and ease.

My first spiritual director was deeply shaped by St. John’s work. When I would share with him my trials and tribulations, he would frequently say something to this effect, “Good. Now remember what John teaches us. If you want to discern God’s will, start by identifying people in your life that bother you most. Who irritates you most? Behold your God! They’re your first vocational call! I can infallibly say that these are God’s clarion call to you: ‘Love these and then you will be ready to do my will elsewhere!’ That’s the real test that you’re serious about this Jesus thing.”

Oh yeah, like “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:27-28).

Servant of God Dorothy Day, who also loved St. John, said something similar: “I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least.”

So I blame it all on St. John.

Brutal.

A Small Step

Mustard seed

By thinking that everything is black and white, we sometimes close off the way of grace and of growth, and discourage paths of sanctification which give glory to God. Let us remember that a small step, in the midst of great human limitations, can be more pleasing to God than a life which appears outwardly in order, but moves through the day without confronting great difficulties. — Pope Francis

My sagely grandfather once wrote me in a letter, “Never be discouraged by your shortcomings, Tommy. Use them to stretch your soul. Remember, your greatest virtues are not those that come naturally but ones nearly impossible to perform. Holding a sharp tongue once far surpasses in worth a surplus of easily spoken kind words. Cracking a feeble smile from a dim soul to lift an ignoble lout vastly outshines the outpouring of exuberant joy from a bright heart lavished on a cheery friend. Value the difficult good things in life most. Every day, your next best step.”

That’s writing.

So often people who strive to live a life of faith share with me a deep exasperation over their inability to do all the good they wish, pray as they would hope, forgive as they must, be patient as they desire, and so on. They are hemmed in by a thousand limits, internal and external, and become discouraged, frustrated, angry, guilt-ridden. I understand this so well. Yet the beauty of our God! Revealed for who-He-is in a cradle and on a cross, He is irresistibly drawn to small spaces, inconvenient circumstances, tiny mustard seeds. He, lover of the Widow’s Mite, dances over fitful acts of faith, hope and love. He is absurdly pleased with our pathetic nothings, born of heartfelt sincerity, steeped in reckless trust, all the while surrendered to His boundless mercy.

I know a Catholic woman with lots of children who felt for years like she was a failure in her spiritual life because of her inability to make any significant time for focused prayer or to muster any meaningful feelings of devotion when she finally found time. She said guilt and anger became her primary spiritual disposition toward God. Then she met a contemplative Carmelite nun in Rhode Island to whom she confided her struggle. She said the nun floored her when she said, “What God gives to me in 6 hours of prayer a day, He gives to you in the few minutes you consecrate to Him. The joy He takes in my silent contemplation is exceeded by the joy He takes in your harried frustration, given over to Him. Your desire to please Him renders all of the walls around you into an iconostasis.”

What.

The woman said to me, “Those words are what I call my ‘Get out of jail free’ card. I was let out of my prison of guilt that day.”

This made me think of 4th century Church Father, St. Gregory Nazianzen’s tender words, “God accepts our desires as though they were of great value. He longs ardently for us to desire and love Him. He accepts our petitions as benefits as though we were doing Him a favor. His joy in giving is greater than ours in receiving.”

So when you feel most useless, helpless, feckless, aimless, wrap it up in faith, light it up with hope and send it up with love into the Heart of God. But be ready. Out of that pierced Heart floods a raging fountain of mercy, and mercy takes no prisoners.

‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gained,
To bow and to bend we will not be ashamed,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come ’round right.

“For I am compassionate” — Exodus 22:26

In honor of today’s readings at Mass, a few of my personal favorite quotes.

Just as love for God makes it possible to love our neighbor, love for neighbor makes it possible for us to love God. This was a mutually reinforcing mode of love by which Christians achieved perfection in virtue. For [St.] Maximus this perfection was virtually synonymous with divinization. People become like God and assimilate themselves to God according to the extent to which their love of neighbor imitates divine compassion. — Susan Wessel

I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least. ― Servant of God Dorothy Day

[God the Father said:] Your love should be sincere. You should love your neighbors with the same love with which you love me. Do you know how you can tell when your spiritual love is not perfect? If you are distressed when it seems that those you love are not returning your love or not loving you as much as you think you love them. Or if you are distressed when it seems to you that you are being deprived of their company or comfort, or that they love someone else more than you. From these and from many other things you should be able to tell if your love for me and for your neighbors is still imperfect and that you have been drinking from your vessel outside of the fountain, even though your love was drawn from me. But it is because your love for me is imperfect that you show it so imperfectly to those you love with a spiritual love. — St. Catherine of Siena

Such are the souls of the saints: they love their enemies more than themselves, and in this age and in the age to come they put their neighbor first in all things, even though because of his ill-will he may be their enemy. They do not seek recompense from those whom they love, but because they have themselves received they rejoice in giving to others all that they have, so that they may conform to their Benefactor and imitate His compassion to the best of their ability; ‘for He is bountiful to the thankless and to sinners’ (cf. Luke 6:35). —  St. Peter of Damaskos

The question of bread for myself is a material question, but the question of bread for my neighbor is a spiritual question. — Nicholas Berdyaev

There is your brother, naked and crying! And you stand confused over choice of floor covering. — St. Ambrose

If in my life I fail completely to heed others, solely out of a desire to be ‘devout’ and to perform my ‘religious duties’, then my relationship with God will also grow arid. It becomes merely ‘proper’, but loveless. ― Pope Benedict XVI

Tempted by Good

[re-post from 2015]

A few scattered thoughts today taken from old notes I have from a series on discernment I taught back in the 1990s.

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A Missionary of Charity Sister at the Gift of Peace home for the homeless and dying in Washington, D.C. once shared with me something she said Mother Teresa taught the M.C. Sisters. I’ve always found it helpful:

The devil very often tempts the good with good things, so that good people, distracted by things they should not be doing, compromise the few good things they should be doing. So instead of doing what they’ve been called to do well, they do many good things God never asked them to do, and poorly.

I am convinced from personal experience that the greater part of good discernment is not discerning what to do but what not to do. Frequently in my experience that’s the origin of burnout, bitterness and disillusionment among good-willed people who are not careful to observe limits and remain in them. Many lurking motives drive people’s departure into diversionary good-deeds that exceed healthy limits, including: (1) fleeing from emotional pain in other parts of life, (2) being driven by guilt, (3) fear of confronting others with a “no” or (4) the compulsive need for approval and praise from others.

That’s why the “discerning life” is crucial, which daily examines not only what good should be done, but why it should be done and what good fruits one should look to see. According to Fr. Jordan Aumann, good fruits especially important to see include the enhancement of one’s primary vocational commitments, peace and joy, while bad fruits include distraction from one’s primary vocational commitments, inner restlessness, confusion, obsessiveness and doubt. While the virtue of zeal (passion in doing good for God) keeps us in hot pursuit of excellence, the virtue of meekness (recognizing and embracing one’s limited role in the Body of Christ) resists the temptation to always be restless, unsettled, unsatisfied with the limits of one’s present life-mission; always itching for “something else.” Surface-skimming dilettantes, who balk or flee at the first sign of adversity, opposition or boredom, fail to recognize and seize the opportunities to sink deep roots of virtue into the present moment.

Opportunities for greatness, like the commandments of God, are never far out of reach for the meek:

For this commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up for us to heaven, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it. — Exodus 30:11-14

Years ago my spiritual director said to me:

Over the years I have moved from doing more than I should, to being content with doing all that is possible, to simply embracing what I’ve been called by God to do. And I discovered that, beneath my evasion of God’s will was not just pride but sloth.

As I was unfamiliar with what sloth meant in that regard, he shared with me St. John of the Cross’ words on sloth. This vantage, he said, helped him immensely in his growth embracing the “reality God,” as he put it, and not the “fantasy God.”

Since [the slothful] are so used to finding delight in spiritual practices, they become bored when they do not find it. If they do not receive in prayer the satisfaction they crave for after all it is fit that God withdraw this so as to try them — they do not want to return to it, or at times they either give up prayer or go to it begrudgingly. Because of their sloth, they subordinate the way of perfection (which requires denying one’s own will and satisfaction for God) to the pleasure and delight of their own will. As a result they strive to satisfy their own will rather than God’s. Many of these beginners want God to desire what they want, and they become sad if they have to desire God’s will. They feel an aversion toward adapting their will to God’s. Hence they frequently believe that what is not their will, or brings them no satisfaction, is not God’s will, and, on the other hand, that if they are satisfied, God is too. They measure God by themselves and not themselves by God, which is in opposition to his teaching in the Gospel that those who lose their life for his sake will gain it and those who desire to gain it will lose it.

Beginners also become bored when told to do something unpleasant. Because they look for spiritual gratifications and delights, they are extremely lax in the fortitude and labor perfection demands. Like those who are reared in luxury, they run sadly from everything rough, and they are scandalized by the cross, in which spiritual delights are found. And in the more spiritual exercises their boredom is greater. Since they expect to go about in spiritual matters according to the whims and satisfactions of their own will, entering by the narrow way of life, about which Christ speaks, is saddening and repugnant to them.

Holy Spirit, lead me in the way of your will…