Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
November 16, 2009
God shatters our images of him
At Nothing More Beautiful session, teacher Lydia Cristini told how her understanding of God has evolved through experience: Here is her Testimony
When I was first asked to do this talk, I was hesitant and a little fearful about saying yes. I had never spoken to such a large group of people at once before. And not only that, but . . . I'm ordinary. I am a cradle Catholic who was born and raised here in Edmonton - no story of an amazing 180 degree conversion from a life of drugs and debauchery, no degrees in theology or divinity, no miraculous healings or bilocation . . . yet.
What can a 31-year-old high school teacher with an average life say to so many different people that will add to their lives or their understanding of God? But maybe that's just it: I can tell a story of an ordinary Catholic. And yes, this is a big crowd, but, let's be honest, if I'm a teacher, I've got to like hearing the sound of my own voice at least a little bit. However, joking aside, I am humbled to be standing here, telling you my story and I pray that God will guide my words and do his will with them.
As a kind of frame of reference, I'd like to focus on the times in my life that God has broken out of the boxes I've put him in. Several years ago, I read a book written by C.S. Lewis called A Grief Observed. In it, he talks about God being the "great iconoclast," meaning that God is the great "image breaker."
Lewis talks about how his image of God needs to be repeatedly destroyed to allow for a new, more accurate understanding. He writes: "My idea about God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered time after time. He shatters it himself. He is the great iconoclast. Could we not almost say that this shattering is one of the marks of his presence? The Incarnation is the supreme example; it leaves all previous ideas of the Messiah in ruins" (p. 76).
At the time I read it, it struck me as such an interesting and accurate way to look at God. And since then, this phrase has continued to stay with me and I have witnessed this iconoclastic work of God in my own life again and again.
Sometimes the shattering is a painful one and sometimes it is a happy one; sometimes it happens in an instant, and sometimes it takes weeks and months and years. But, every time it happens, it requires my understanding of God to change in some fundamental way.
As I mentioned, I was born and raised in the Catholic Church. My parents took my brother and I to Mass every Sunday, we said Grace before our meals and prayed every night together. My parents even got us involved with the Catholic Family Movement, which, to me at the age of seven, meant that we got together with other families from our church to do things like make our Advent wreaths and Jesse Trees and learn about the true meaning of Christmas.
We were a close family, with many visits to and from my maternal grandparents here in town and our biannual 12-hour drive through the mountains to visit my father's side (in the days before car-DVD players). I'm fairly sure that my parents got some time off from purgatory because of those trips. Like any family, we had our difficulties, but my memories of my childhood are mostly happy ones.
When I was nine, everything changed. My mother died suddenly and our family fractured. My father fell ill and was hospitalized for a few weeks shortly after. We stayed with friends of the family and had nannies for a few months until our grandparents took in my brother and me for the next three years.
My life during that time remained quite unsettled, but I had many people around me who loved me and cared for my needs. By Grade 8, my dad had remarried and my brother and I moved back in with him and our new blended family. The adjustment in those years was a bit rocky, but whose adolescence isn't?
At that time, my faith was my parents' faith. I went to church and I don't remember specifically wanting or not wanting to go (though my parents might have stories that say otherwise). It was just something you did on a Sunday morning.
Then, in Grade 10, our church hired the first paid youth minister in Edmonton. After a little strong "encouragement" from my parents, I ended up getting involved in the youth group that the youth minister started that year.
And it was in this youth group that I had my conversion - God's first iconoclasm in my life. I can't pinpoint the moment, the day or the talk that got through to me. But at some point during that year, our youth minister, Brad, introduced Jesus to me.
After that, Jesus was not just a really nice guy who did amazing things when he lived here 2,000 years ago. Instead, he became someone who is real and alive right now. Even more, Brad told us that Jesus is not only capable of having a relationship with us, but deeply wants a relationship with us. Not only that, but it was fun! Whoever heard of church stuff being fun?!
Brad, our youth minister, also happened to be the director of Our Lady of Victory Camp, a Catholic summer camp in our archdiocese, and he convinced me and many other youth group members to go out to camp in the summer.
I came to love OLVC, the people there and, especially, I grew to know and love God there. It was (and still is) a Christ-centred place with Mass everyday, opportunities to learn and practise how to pray, basic catechesis, and the opportunity to go to Confession. It was a place to be with my peers without pretence or judgement.
But most of all, it was a place that God communicated his love to me through the sacraments, prayer and the friends I made there. It is there, perhaps more than anywhere else, that I have been able to return again and again to be reminded of God's acceptance and love and his invitation to respond.
God uses this place in my life to reset my focus and I am grateful to still be a part of the facilitating team.
The next iconoclasm from God happened at the end of the summer just before my Grade 12 year. I attended a Youth 2000 retreat - a Eucharist-centred retreat with Franciscan Friars from New York as the speakers.
There were over 100 youth with their families camping out at Ephphatha House. They had exposition of the Blessed Sacrament the entire time and talks about the miracle that is the unassuming Communion wafer that we receive every Sunday: the entirety of an omnipotent God - body, blood, soul and divinity, humbled and made vulnerable under the 'disguise' of bread and wine.
My mind was blown. A fire in my heart was lit for Our Lord in the Eucharist. Although it has waxed and waned over the years, it has never completely gone out and it continues to sustain me.
Another type of retreat that I attended in high school was a NET retreat. NET stands for National Evangelization Teams; it is a Catholic organization that trains teams of young adult volunteers to travel around the country for nine months and lead retreats for junior high- and high school-aged youth.
During my Grade 12 year, I was trying to figure out what I should do after high school, as most people do. I felt that I had been so blessed by God that I wanted to give something back. So, I applied to be on the team. The next year, I served on the road on NET USA and then, the year after that, I travelled across our own country on NET Canada.
NET was an amazing experience for me and I encountered many small and large revelations from God over the two years. My relationship with him became more intimate and my prayer life became more committed.
Now there are a couple things you need to know about being on NET.
Number one: it's almost impossible to run away from God there. They pray before everything and sometimes after things too. We prayed before meals, van trips, retreats, small group discussions, team activities, music practice, drama practice, skit practice, sports, games. We even prayed before and after prayer times. God was there, every time I turned around.
Number two: it's also a bit of a bubble. In it, I was constantly surrounded by other young adults who loved God and the Church. Despite and because of these things, NET informed and formed my spiritual life.
My years with them helped me grow in my understanding and love of the Eucharist and Reconciliation. They taught me the necessity of prayer, showed me both the beauty and excitement of ministry, and allowed me to grow in that protected circle of Catholic young adults who loved God and who loved me, despite seeing me at my worst.
Also, I gained valuable skills. For example, I am now able to carry on a 15-minute conversation with an uncomfortable 14 year-old, determined to answer any question I can think of with one word: "yes," "no," "I-dunno," "everything," "nothing," "something?"
The next year, I started university. I entered Education partly because I wanted to change things. My experience of religion class at my high school was not a very positive one.
I was a faithful, churchgoing Catholic youth by Grade 11, but I hated religion class. I felt that it was being taught like ancient history, instead of a relationship that we could have with a living and loving God. So, I prayed about it and thought about it and decided I would go for it, ready to change the world.
Life after NET required some adjustment. I went from living with (and by that, I mean constantly living with) nine or 10 other people in a van to living by myself in a basement suite. I had to figure out what it meant to live out my faith when I wasn't doing full-time ministry.
At one point, I actually found myself questioning my need to pray. Without knowing it, over my two years of NET, I had absorbed the belief that one must pray so that God will bless and help one's ministry and daily relationships. On the road, I saw first-hand the noticeable difference between the days that I did pray and days that I didn't.
But now, I wasn't involved in any ministry. I didn't have teammates constantly around me. In fact, I could go an entire day at university without talking to anyone. So, why pray? Slowly, I began to understand that I don't pray just so that everything in my life will go well, but because God loves me and I want to respond to that love.
Over the next few months, I also got involved in a long-distance relationship with one of my former teammates. Jeremy was a great guy and we had gotten along really well on the road.
I went down to Texas in February to visit him and we began talking about him moving up to Alberta to go to school.
A couple of weeks later, I went down to the States again. But this time it was for his funeral. He had died in a water accident on March 4 at the age of 22.
Now everything was shattered . . . at least for a while. As you may imagine, this was a hard time in my life, especially in my faith life.
Before this, I didn't know that someone could feel incredibly betrayed by God and, at the same time, cling to God for dear life. Just a few seconds were all that had been between Jeremy living or dying - so easily avoidable.
God loved me and comforted me in my grief, but God let Jeremy die. It was here that I felt most viscerally the so-often paradoxical state of our faith: two seemingly opposing truths existing simultaneously. As Father Dave Bittner would put it: "Is suffering bad or good? . . . Yes."
A few months later, on June 24, another teammate from that NET year, Beth, died of cancer after a year-long battle, also at the age of 22. There had been hundreds of people praying for Beth across the country.
This brought even more image-shattering questions: Why hadn't she been cured? What had been wrong with our prayers? I still haven't completely put to rest all of those questions.
DEATH AND DISEASE
However, over the next few months, I came to understand that death and disease are never God's will and that there is a vast and important difference between the phrase "God never gives you more than you can handle" and the phrase "God will give you the strength to handle whatever you're going through."
In the first, the trials in our lives come directly from God and, in the other, God allows the trials in our lives, which are really a consequence of our broken world. It is much easier to love, and more accurate to believe in, a God who doesn't cause our suffering, but instead helps us to endure it and, maybe even brings good things out of it.
In the words of Paul's letter to the Philippians, "I can do all things through him who strengthens me."
I also came to understand that the purpose of prayer was not to change God's mind, but to change my heart.
Despite those difficult experiences, all in all, I really enjoyed my university years. St. Joe's College at the U of A was an amazing home away from home; meeting new people and seeing old friends, going to daily Mass, volunteering at soup kitchens, regular Confession, spending time in prayer in front of the Blessed Sacrament and taking Catholic theology classes.
I was also involved with a Catholic women's household, weekly adoration and a new version of the Catholic student group called the Newman Club. I was blessed to have great friends who supported me, challenged me and helped me grow in my faith life.
After university, I eventually got a teaching job and started in the classroom. I quickly realized that, yes, some religion classes in junior high and high school sometimes don't appear to be wonderful. But I also quickly realized that's because they're hard to teach.
Teaching in a classroom and giving retreats are two very different things and I have found it to be far more difficult to pass on the faith in a classroom of 32 hormonal adolescents who all have different levels of understanding of and beliefs about Catholicism and faith in general.
The overwhelming majority of teachers in the Catholic system do the best they can with what they have. It is a vocation, a way of life, with many challenges.
However, although it is difficult, our mission as Catholic teachers is a crucial one. We have such a gift to have publicly-funded Catholic education here in Alberta. It is up to all of us Catholics not only to ensure its presence, but also to continue to support Catholic teachers in their mission of passing on the faith, as they continue to support the family and the churches in this same mission.
And it is more important than ever in this age of distractions and entertainment to provide our youth with at least one voice that offers them Truth with a capital T. A voice that reminds them they are loved infinitely and unconditionally by the Creator of the universe, a God who gave his life for them.
It has been a few years since I became part of the machine we call the workforce. And now, I find my struggle is daily life.
Strangely, adulthood is not as glamorous and exotic as I used to think it was. I am blessed to have a full-time teaching job where I work with great people and I enjoy it. But the reality is that it is still work. Paying my bills and grocery shopping and cleaning the house and cooking meals can all be enjoyable at times (well, except for maybe paying the bills), but they are not usually exciting.
And this is reflected in my spiritual life. The cocoon of NET no longer surrounds me and the freedom and serendipity of university days are long gone. The iconoclasms and adjustments to how I see God still happen, but are usually not so dramatic, at least not lately.
Instead, I am dealing with the "daily grind" of daily faith. Some of the newness and zeal have worn off and I find myself struggling with seemingly small things like daily prayer. For me now, the triumph of daily prayer is not that I spend hours in it every day, but rather that I don't give up on it completely. Now, instead of going to daily Mass three to five times a week, it is a victory if I go to daily Mass once a month.
This is not to say that I can't spend more time in prayer, or that it is impossible to go to daily Mass more often. It's just that I find it very easy to let the frenetic busy-ness of daily life distract me from God's quiet but insistent call to love and prayer.
Presently, this prayer is the new ground for the constant and slow work that God is doing to break down my shallow conceptions of him.
I've been lucky enough to be introduced to an author named Ruth Burrows, a Carmelite nun from England who has written many books based on her own prayer life and the prayer life of the Carmelite spiritual giants: St. Thérèse of Lisieux, St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross.
Essence of Prayer is the book I'm currently reading and I have to read it slowly because there is a lot to chew on in almost every sentence. In it, I have been reminded that I cannot earn or "attain God" by my good deeds and prayer.
She writes that the "only" thing we should expect in prayer is God himself and that he is the primary actor - it is God who does it in us. He wants to give us his love and because god is love, he wants to give us his very self.
I often have to remind myself to let go of my desire for the reassurances, the emotions, the feeling that I have had a "good" prayer time. Instead, I must remember that my only job in prayer is to make myself present and open to God, using whatever method of prayer that helps me to do that.
In her chapter on distractions in prayer, Burrows writes something that I can also apply to being distracted from praying, in the first place. She says: "My part, that little bit that I can do, is simply never to be discouraged, never to give up even for a few minutes, no matter how disgusted with myself I feel, no matter if I have allowed my mind to dwell on what pleased me instead of looking into the Nothing which faith assures me is my All" (p. 88).
SOURCE OF GRACE
God is the source of everything I am and do and I must go to him in prayer on a daily basis in order to be filled with the grace I need to continue to believe in and serve him. And he continues to insist on breaking out of the neat little boxes I keep building around him so that I can feel like I have him figured out.
This concept and reality of iconoclasm is part of the paradox of our Catholic faith. Although it is sometimes painful and hurts my pride a little to find out that my present conception of God is incorrect and needs to be wider, more colourful and more nuanced, it is also very hopeful.
I don't have it figured out . . . and that's a good thing. As I have often told my students, our limited human minds are simply not able to comprehend the fullness of the beauty of God. And this means that no matter how long I live, no matter how many theology classes I take, no matter how much I pray or read the Bible; there will always be new things to learn, there will always be the possibility of diving deeper, there will always be old images to shatter, there will always be new discoveries of God's infinite and unconditional love.
My prayer for all of us is the same as St. Paul's for the Ephesians in Chapter 3: "I pray that (we) may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that (we) may be filled with all the fullness of God" (3.18-19).
Copyright © 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 -- Western Catholic Reporter
Our mission: To serve our readers by bringing the Gospel to bear on current issues in the Church and in secular culture through accurate news coverage and reflective commentary.