Saturday, February 8, 2014

On Midwesterners and Saints

Copyright 2104, Used with Permission

So, I survived my first midwestern "blizzard" They tell us this is the worst winter here in years. My family's move from Arizona might be to blame. Maybe God wants to toughen us up. For a former desert dweller it was a surreal experience to go outside to knock snow off of a straining tree limb in temperatures that register negative forty wind chill. It is an interesting sensation to fear your ears and fingers are going to snap off. 

I find it amusing, in a twisted sort of way, that the meteorologist will announce with a straight face that "it is going to be negative fifteen tomorrow." Have a nice day. 

In Phoenix in July I used to think, The original settlers of this city clearly did not arrive at this time of year. For them to have chosen Phoenix as their home, they must have arrived to the Valley in January from the east and thought they had died and gone to heaven. Pa must have looked happily at his wife next to him on the wagon seat and said, "We're home, Ma. Dang, this is Paradise!" Then July came with its hellish heat but they had already built their houses and it was too late to change their minds. Oh, the lamenting that must have occurred that first summer, reminiscent of the Wicked Witch's cries after Dorothy doused her with water. 

Now I am thinking, Surely the first settlers of the Midwest came in Spring! No one could have come here in February and thought it would be a good idea to settle a community here! 

(On a side note, my darling daughter Abby, sometime in early January, as the real cold began, made the comment, "I wish we still used covered wagons." She has been reading all the Little House books and is into it, even calling me Pa on occasion. I said, "Really? You think it would be fun riding along in this, exposed to the elements, the brutal wind stinging your face?" She insisted, "Its not that bad." She fervently repented about two weeks ago as we walked to the minivan from church during one of the subzero treats.)

What has really amazed me is midwestern resilience. I have never seen people buck up and get in there to do what needs to be done in the face of terribly difficult circumstances the way midwesterners do. Dealing with nature's elements is just part of life. You deal with what is dealt. You persevere. 

Months ago we had tornadoes rip through the state. Ear-splitting sirens wailed throughout the neighborhoods (unsettling experience if you haven't tried that one!). Many of our neighbors enjoyed the audio-visual show from their decks, a low and murky, sickly green cloud formation rolling overhead. 

We, in contrast, were frantically scrambling to figure out whether we should take our emergency flashlight/radio gizmo that was almost drained of battery power thanks to my five year old boy and hide in the half bath downstairs (that would have been cozy) or load into our vulnerable, mobile "tornado-target" and drive to the church, the basement of which is a designated community storm shelter.

The children lined up in front of the front storm door, ready to bolt for the van on command, while Mom and Dad were "discussing" the best plan. Our twenty year old made the reasonable and impassioned observation, "Well, I know what we shouldn't do--- STAND IN FRONT OF A GLASS DOOR DURING A TORNADO WHILE YOU ARGUE ABOUT WHAT TO DO!" 

We opted for the church basement. We were the only family there. We haven't toughened up yet. 

One recent Sunday evening while a particularly intense snow storm raged, I heard a noise like a lawnmower out front. I peeked out my window, snug in the warmth of my house, and was astonished to see my next door neighbor using his snow blower (I have to get one of those!) on the neighborhood drives! He was wrapped from head to foot in snow gear, working to help neighbors like us who do not have the benefit of such sophisticated machinery (I have this old thing called a snow shovel, and barely know how to use that). Then I saw another neighbor doing the same thing. What generosity! What toughness to brave the elements! 

During snowstorms I have watched our parish maintenance staff beat back snow and ice with perseverance and raw determination in what must feel to them like a losing battle, so that the parishioners can safely participate in the life of faith. These men begin at hours when most of us are still cozy in the warmth of our beds. They come in for a quick dose of hot coffee and a snack when the cold gets unbearable, and then are back at it, denying themselves and their comfort for the sake of others. They do this for hours on end, and they still smile and greet the parishioners and fellow staff members. 

I recently told a friend back in Phoenix (Oh, he was probably out by the pool in his shorts, sipping a cold beer while we visited on the phone), "Midwestern people are amazing! They just take what nature throws at them and they keep on keeping on. Even the old grandmas here are tough!" 

Okay, time to reel it in. What does this have to do with faith and spirituality? 

I am reading the life of St. Teresa of Avila in her beautiful, candid autobiography, and am being reminded of how much her spiritual assent was a real struggle, and how many trials (physical and spiritual) she endured in her relentless quest for holiness. She did not give up. She wanted to live the reality of her relationship with God deeply. She didn't want to settle for the mediocrity her fleshly nature tempted her to, but rather she was moved to rise to the heights of her humanity, to union with God, her Beloved. Teresa desired ultimate union with God. She wanted to be fully alive. And she knew that that only happens in Christ, who is the fullness of life and joy. The saints know that union with God is the fulfillment of all desire, and that to reach that peak, one must climb. One must persevere. One must surrender to the action of God who is the source and summit of all our longings. 

Sometimes I get this childish idea (a heresy, really) that the saints were simply born with something I just don't have, that they naturally and easily love God and their neighbors, that they inherently have something that I am missing, and I am tempted to think that I could never love God and neighbor like that, no matter how hard I try.

But that simply isn't true. The saints are remarkable because they are ordinary people, who, moved by love: 1) recognize that they were made by God and for God; 2) commit themselves to live lives according to this reality, whatever the cost; 3) know that only God can do the saint-making in them--- their job is to move out of the way, to become less so He may be more in them; 4) persevere in love and take what life gives them, all the storms and difficulties, with confidence in God's Providential love; and 5) allow the trials of life to become instruments with which the Father may sculpt them into "little Christs."

St. Teresa of Avila was not born a saint; she was made into a saint, by God, through her persevering faith, trust, and a determination to not settle for the mediocrity of just being status quo. She let God in and allowed Him to transform her over many, many years, into the saint she was called to be. I think that loving God is a project of determined growth. It is religion in its deepest, truest sense, because it is all about belonging to Him. 

Saints are tough. They are the midwesterners of the spiritual life. Saints don't give up. Not on God, and not on themselves.