Losing the Masks this Lent

I was reading something that Marilyn Monroe wrote and it really resonated with me.

Monroe wrote, “I’m finding that sincerity, and to be [as] simple and direct as I’d like, is often taken for sheer stupidity.”

There is truth in her words. Sincerity and simplicity are not often-prized in modern times.  Rather, from the time we are small, we are taught control – which often claims sincerity and simplicity as its casualty.  We are taught to control our words, deeds, actions, goals, and dreams.  We are taught that we can control our destiny and our entire world.

As we grow and realize that this is not actually always possible, we develop masks to cover those places where we feel less adequate or where we feel afraid.  Nearly everyone develops these masks.  There is a multi-million dollar industry built on the sale of self-improvement books that teach us how to project power and confidence in the boardroom – and every other area of life.  They teach us to “pretend until you become” and “fake it until you make it.”  They teach us how to survive by putting on masks of power and of control.

Yet, despite our best efforts to maintain control, hardships still arise.  As much as we may try to project confidence and control our destinies with positive thoughts and illusions of power, difficult things still happen.  How is one to reconcile this?

The problem with “masks” is that this mentality, this projection of control, completely closes the door to God.  If we try to control everything and mask those things we fear we can’t control, we leave no opening for God to work in our lives.

Yet, whether or not we admit it to ourselves, God knows our minds and our hearts: LORD, you search me and you know me: you know when I sit and when I stand; you understand my thoughts from afar. You sift through my travels and my rest; with all my ways you are familiar. Even before a word is on my tongue, LORD, you know it all.” (Psalm 139)

God knows what is under our masks.  It is in this place of sincerity and simplicity that God works without hindrance.  He is at home in our unabashed fears and in our unencumbered happiness.  St. Therese of Liseaux, contemplating ways to get to heaven, spoke of her “Little Way.”  It is a way of simplicity. In St. Therese’s “Little Way,” there are no masks – just overflowing love for her Creator, the desire to please Him in her every deed, and an openness to receiving His gifts.

One of the most common ways that God helps us to “lose the mask” is through illness and other hardships.  Countless saints, including St. Therese, St. Francis, St. Faustina, St. Padre Pio, and St. Ignatius, all learned through illness.  St. Ignatius lost his health in battle and during the long and painful months of recovery, came to the realization that he was not in control.  He dropped the masks of wealth and power that he had inherited at his noble birth.  It was during this time, that Ignatius wrote his famous prayer of surrender to God, the Suscipe.  This prayer represents a total offering of the self to God.

Suscipe

Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my entire will,

All I have and call my own.

You have given all to me.

To you, Lord, I return it.

Everything is yours; do with it what you will.

Give me only your love and your grace, that is enough for me.

 

The more I pray this prayer, the more I realize how completely counter-cultural it is. The Suscipe represents a return to authenticity and simplicity – a removing of the masks before God. Essentially, what we are saying when we pray it is, “Here I am, Lord. I realize that I am dependent on you for every breath.  I offer myself to you totally and completely. I surrender my mask.”

In Latin, “suscipe” means “to receive.”  The beautiful paradox is that the more we give to God, the more we ourselves receive.

Perhaps because it presents an opening for God to work in our lives, each day I pray it, I also think of different things I should be handing over to God.  I offer whatever is weighing on me and whatever is making me happy that day.  As I pray it, I often find concerns that I didn’t even know were there rising to the surface of my consciousness.  I hand these things over too.

Praying the Suscipe almost always gives rise to further prayer which, for me, generally goes something like this:

Lord, I give you my joys, sorrows, victories, defeats, pains, consolations, and everything in between.  I give you my imperfections. 

Lord, please sort it all out. You know what’s best for me.  If it is your will, Lord, replace my fears, sorrows, and sufferings, with your love, joy, and peace.  Let me not hold onto things that weigh me down but let me hand them over to you. You are my strength in weakness. 

Even my dreams and aspirations – you may have better ones for me.  Let me not hold too tightly to these.  Keep my eyes and ears open to your designs for my life.  I am an empty vessel.  Fill me with whatever you choose – words, deeds, actions – according to your will, not mine.

Help me to see you at work in my life, Lord.  Open my eyes, my ears, my heart to recognize all of the ways in which you are working in my life throughout the day. 

Allow me to accept your love.

Allow me to accept the gifts you want to give me.

Allow me to accept the abundance of your gifts. 

Allow me to use these gifts you give me in word and deed for those around me too. Work through me in all things for your greater glory.

Praying the Suscipe creates a sacred space in our souls where we ask that “perfect Love” to “cast out all fear”; a place where we allow His mercy and His love to permeate our beings. It is a place where we come to the profound realization that, in the end, and every day in between, He is really our only strength.  In our weakness, He does make us strong.

This Lent, give Him your masks. Give Him all the fears that they cover.  Be weak in Him and let Him make you strong.

This Lent, open yourself to the Love that He is dying to give you.

2013: An Extraordinary Year

As I sit by the tree and review my journal, I realize what an extraordinary year 2013 has been for my family.

I have no lists of accomplishments to present. I’m sure there were some, but that’s not what strikes me about this year.

In April, on the eve of my birthday, my mother called and told me she had cancer. Less than two months later, my father was diagnosed with cancer also.

Interestingly, for over a year before my parents’ diagnoses, I had felt God’s constant and close presence. Not just in prayer, it was a constant, and I just knew I wasn’t alone. I wondered many times why I felt His presence so closely.

In retrospect, as I look back over year, I see that this awareness of His presence was an answer to one of my long-time prayers that when my parents’ “time came,” He would give me the strength to get through it. Indeed, I had incredible strength, peace, and presence of mind that was far beyond anything I could have gathered from within myself this year.

My mother’s surgery in June was extremely high risk. The doctors thought it would be a long surgery with many complications – if she made it through.

I prayed with a confidence instilled by this Presence. And, I asked everyone I knew everywhere, and everyone they knew to pray for my parents. I also asked all of my favorite saints to intercede too.

So here’s what happened. My mother made it through the surgery in an hour and fifty minutes instead of the maximum of five hours they had allowed for the operation. She was off the ventilator within two hours instead of two days. The surgeon was able to do the surgery laparoscopically instead of the full open abdominal surgery he was fearing he would have to do. And, she went home the next morning at 11 am instead of going to short term rehab for weeks.

It was so funny when the doctor came out of the OR – he looked so surprised at the outcome. He said “he just couldn’t believe how well it went.”

My mother had just three sessions of radiation to ensure that all of the cancer was gone and has been declared cancer-free.

When my father was diagnosed with cancer a couple of weeks later, the doctors gave him weeks to live. It was an aggressive cancer and a huge tumor. The risks were so high that he couldn’t even find a doctor to operate.

Then, a doctor came along visiting his ENT office and said he would go ahead and try the surgery. “What was there to lose?” he said. He scheduled the surgery for the fourth week in August.

The third week in August, a week before my father’s surgery, my son had an appointment with his neurologist. At age 3, he had been diagnosed with epilepsy. At age 6, he had been diagnosed with dyslexia. At this appoinment, we would hear the the results of his yearly EEG (a test of electrical activity in the brain). I expected to hear the same results we had been hearing for the past five years. I expected to receive a couple of prescriptions for anti-seizure medication and I had the “Seizure Action Plan” school paperwork ready for him to sign.

The neurologist sat us down and told us he had the results from the EEG. Without much ado he said, “there is no abnormal electrical activity on his scan.” I was floored. “What?”, I said. “He is not epileptic anymore. He has been cured.” Those were his exact words.

The funny thing was, I had just been saying in prayer the night before, “you know, Lord, I really believe you can heal him. I’ve been praying for five years for this. I know you can, so why haven’t you?” Then I prayed and asked Padre Pio to intercede. “I know that He can do it, can you please ask Him to heal my son?”

And, the next day, the doctor said, without any ado at all really – “He is not epileptic anymore. He has been cured.”

I wanted to cry and do a jig at the same time.

I also wanted to go to adoration and drop flat on my face and say, “Thank you, God!” And that’s exactly what I did that night.

A week later, my father underwent surgery for the huge Sarcoma in his head. My father’s surgery was difficult. He teetered on the edge of death for two weeks in the hospital.

The whole time, I continued to ask everyone I knew to pray. Deep down, I knew he was going to be ok though.

Three weeks later the biopsy came back on his tumor. What had been a huge sarcoma was now classified as “pre-cancerous.” He needed no chemotherapy or radiation therapy at all.

This time around, I wasn’t at all surprised.

The next week, I touched base with my son’s speech and reading therapist who had been helping him with his dyslexia. She recommended that we stop seeing her because she said she saw no need at all for her services anymore. His speech was perfect and he was reading and comprehending above grade level. He scored 98% on reading comprehension of the standardized tests. Today, he is at the top of his class. He just got a big award for reading – only the third in his class of 18 to get this award.

So, as we wrap up the year, here are my conclusions based on my “Year in Review:”

1. There is true power in prayer
2. God is really present and hearing our prayers
3. Miracles can and do happen

1. There is real and true power in prayer

I have been proud. Like many people, I have prayed only when up against the wall. And, in all honesty, I have to tell you, I was a doubter. I generally need to see data or at least a “track record” to believe. I weigh the data and then come to a logical decision.

Well, I’ve got my data, I’ve got my “track record,” and I believe. I wish I wasn’t a “doubting Thomas” but I am so glad He “met where I was at.”

So many times I have said, “I’ll pray for you,” when I didn’t actually have time to do anything for someone. Praying seemed too easy. I felt like physical labor must be required to actually help someone. Don’t get me wrong – offers of physical labor can be extremely helpful – cooking a meal, offering childcare, running errands, etc. Now though, I realize that praying is actually really helpful too. It’s not a matter of – “well, all we can do now is pray.” It is the first and last thing we should be doing and it’s way more helpful than any help I could offer because it calls down the God of all creation to help out the person who needs help. What could be more helpful?

The saints knew this. All of them spoke about the power of prayer. St. John of the Cross said, “In all our necessities, trials, and difficulties, no better or safer aid exists for us than prayer and hope that God will provide for us by the means He desires.”

The twentieth century Swiss theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar, succinctly sums up the power of prayer. “By leaving everything in God’s hands, the love that bears all things carries us further, it achieves more in the extreme suffering of not “being able to go on any further” than in potent, self-assured action.”

2. God is really present and hearing our prayers

Who, at times, hasn’t asked in prayer, “God are you really there? Can you hear me?”

Throughout the bible, we hear people wondering if God is there and if he is hearing their prayers. In Psalm 22, David says, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” Even Jesus, on the cross, says the very same thing (Matt 27:46).

After this year, I can’t doubt that God has heard my prayers and the prayers of everyone I asked to pray during these ordeals. God isn’t a figment of the imagination or a literary figure of the past. God is real and present and hears my prayers.

It wasn’t just my prayers though. There were people praying all over the world for my parents. Dozens of priests were praying and offering prayers and masses – in at least 8 states, in London, and at Lourdes. I’ve heard also that people from all over the US were praying as well as people from France, England, Ireland, Spain, Italy, Brazil, The Philippines, Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Egypt, and Burundi.

My friend Marcia, said her mother from Brazil was on a pilgrimage and was praying in a small church in Italy and thought of my mother so she started praying for her. She called Marcia and asked when the surgery would be. It turned out that she thought of my mother and was praying at the exact time that my mother was in surgery.

Over the past few months, my co-workers, who are from all corners of the globe, have asked many times how my parents were doing. They have said that they even had their families “back home” praying for my parensts. As I recount to them how well my parents are doing, almost every person I’ve told has said “praised be to God” in their own language…Arabic, Kurundi, Amharic, Tigrinya, etc. My colleagues also come from many different faith traditions. It struck me that Catholics, Evangelical Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and followers of even more religions around the world were all praying for an intention together and praising God. Isn’t that beautiful?

3. Miracles can and do happen

I can’t deny that what happened in my family this year was miraculous. My mother’s doctors, my father’s doctors, and my son’s doctor were all surprised. The outcomes were not at all what they expected. They can’t scientifically explain why things turned out the way they did.

I have great confidence that, if it’s God’s will, he will perform miracles if asked. I do not think miracles are meant to be extraordinary occurences because Jesus said, “whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive” (Matt 21:22).

St. Augustine said, “God is not a deceiver that he should offer to support us and then, when we lean upon him, should slip away.”

Our hopes and prayers our limited by our own finite nature but God is infinite and omnipotent. We would do well to expand our expectations of God beyond the box of our limited minds. St. Therese of Lisieux, who had very little formal education but was granted the grace of great knowledge of God said, “We can never have too much confidence in God; as we hope in him so shall we receive.

St. Patrick too, a victim of human trafficking and a man who knew a lot about suffering and miracles, said, “Turn trustingly to the Lord. Put your faith in him with your whole heart, because nothing is impossible to him.

In fact, every saint seems to know this secret that we are apt to forget – God offers all of us infinite love every moment of our lives and, included in this love, is the well-being of all we hold dear. For our part, we need to trust him – drop all defenses and completely trust him. When we “drop our defenses,” it enables us to see God’s love in action outside and above the finite projections we had for the outcomes of each situation. God’s love is always there for the taking. It is we who reject it, or limit it, or just can’t recognize it. Just think – we could be living in this love every single moment if we so choose.

So, as I look back at this extraordinary year, my “takeaway” is that, going forward, I’m not going to worry. I’m going to bring it to God in trust and actually trust him. I know, deep in my bones, that He’ll take care of it and it will all work out the way it should. I’m going to heed Padre Pio’s words – “Pray, hope, and don’t worry!”

Join me on my faith journey

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In the past few years, a lot of life has happened and I’ve done a lot of walkin’ on my faith journey. I hope you will walk along with me as I journey on.

I was looking at the calendar today and saw that St. Teresa of Avila’s feast day is fast approaching on October 15th.  She’s one of my favorite saints.

Let me tell you how we first met.  Here’s what she said:

Nada te turbe,
nada te espante;
todo se pasa,
Dios no se muda.
La paciencia todo lo alcanza.
Quien a Dios tiene nada la falta:
solo Dios basta.

Oh, wait.  Let me translate:

Let nothing disturb you,
Let nothing frighten you,
All things are passing away:
God never changes.
Patience obtains all things.
Whoever has God lacks nothing;
God alone suffices.

OK, I know this all sounds strange.  Let me tell you more.

I first heard this excerpt from St. Teresa’s poem, “Nada te Turbe,” a year ago today.  I had never really known much about her prior to this.

On that day, I learned that my father’s kidney disease had progressed and that he would soon need dialysis. He was completely opposed to dialysis but, without it, he would die.

I tried to convince him that dialysis would be okay but he would hear nothing of it.  So, I went to church to pray. I prayed that, if it was God’s will, that my dad’s kidneys would get better so that I could have him around a little longer.  I prayed so hard.  It felt like “life-or-death” praying.

When I got home from church, I opened an e-mail that my father, who didn’t know I was at church praying for him, had sent me while I was there. It was the link to a beautiful musical setting of the “Nada te Turbe” on YouTube.

The words of the song seemed to be a direct answer to my prayer at church.  “Let nothing disturb you, let nothing frighten you.”  I was so disturbed and frightened.  When I heard these words, I felt such a sense of peace.  The next line kind of scared me more though – “all things are passing.”

“Oh no,” I thought to myself, “there’s my answer.”  “All things are passing.”  Yet, over the weeks to come, when I prayed about my father, I still felt such peace.  A peace that seemed to say that everything would be okay.

Over the next couple of months, I kept seeing excerpts from this poem everywhere – at work, on Facebook, on the internet, and on the brochure shelves at the back of our church.  Every time I would see the poem, I would get such a sense of peace.

After a few months, my father returned to the doctor.  The doctor was surprised by the lab results.  He asked my father what he had done.  My dad asked him what he meant.  The doctor said his kidney function had not only not gotten worse, it had improved.  My father said, “we all prayed.”  Today, my father is still hanging on at the same stage.

In my heart, I feel that God heard my prayer that afternoon and asked St. Teresa to comfort me.   Now, when I pray, I always ask her to remind God of my prayers too.

Nada te Turbe video: www.youtube.com/watch?v=HMiyHknj3Rg

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