Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Of Signs, Coincidences, Telling the Difference, and Letting Things Come As They Will

My favorite icon! Sophia,
Wisdom of God, Kiev
Starring Mother Mary.

That's what I'd written on the side of the big, heavy, slightly dented-in box sitting in the basement of our new house. I was either feeling cranky, tired, or irreverent the day I pulled out the Sharpie for that box. The past year or so has been such a blur -- packing the old house, doing repairs before listing it, making the six-hour drive to look at new houses, buying the new place, and juggling unboxing with repairs and work here -- that it's hard to tell what my mindset might have been that day.

But boy, it sure is true. I do have a lot of "altar crap." I didn't realize just how much until I started wrapping up all my spiritual books, baubles, and statues at the old place. Years' worth of accumulation. Darn near enough to fill a church. And now, as I finally start unboxing them, I'm getting a chance to see, after being disconnected from all of it for a few months, what I really missed and what I can probably do without. The stuff that moves me when I see it will be a good candidate for my chapel-under-construction in the attic, three floors up. (Lord have mercy.) As for the rest, well, it's a good thing we have a lot of resale shops around here.

One of the first things that caught my eye as I rummaged through my stuff was this little round wooden box with the peace sign on top. Hmm. What did I fill this with?

Oh, boy. At least half a dozen little plastic rosaries, two brown scapulars, and my 108-bead Buddhist mala. If this box doesn't illustrate what a crazy spiritual journey I've been on, I don't know what will.

I've never had the heart to get rid of the mala. It's been with me for a long time. The rosewood possesses delicate and lovely scent, and it always relaxed me to bring the beads up to my nose for a quick whiff back in the days when I attempted to meditate. Some of the beads have cracked and been reglued. I once even sent the whole thing away to have a new red tassel put on when the old one became frayed and dingy, mostly from all the contact it made with the things around me as I wore it wrapped around my wrist -- which was most days.

The rosaries were either given to me by well-wishers on my return to the Catholic church or were ones I picked up from the free-take-one baskets at a few churches I visited. Sometimes I'd like the color. Sometimes I found a color I thought my daughter would like. Most of them ended up in drawers, forgotten.

Then there are the brown scapulars. I was visiting a Latin Mass church one time -- I can't even remember why -- when the priest announced that the parish had received a delivery of scapulars, handmade by Carmelite sisters in Valparaiso, Nebraska. At the end of the Mass, congregants were invited to kneel at the communion rail while the priest would place a scapular on us and invest us in the brown scapular confraternity.

Now, given that the contemplative practices of the Carmelites, like Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, were one of the things that drew me back to Catholicism, and given that my spirituality was and is very Marian, investiture seemed like a no-brainer. Tradition holds that Mary herself gave the brown scapular to St. Simon Stock, appearing to him in 13th-century England, and told him that those who wore it would be saved.

Wearing the scapular marks you as devoted to Mary, particularly as Our Lady of Mount Carmel, and that if the person combines wearing the scapular continuously with a certain set of devotions -- daily recitation of the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary, for example, or fasting and abstaining from meat two to three times a week -- then Mary would reward the wearer's faithfulness by rescuing the person from purgatory the first Saturday after his or her death.

As the Catholic church is quick to explain, the scapulars aren't meant to be lucky charms. It's the piety and devotion that comes with wearing them that confers the spiritual benefits.

One of my favorite Marian quotes, from a 1988 apparition.
So I wore mine faithfully, and I kept the suggested fast days for a good while. After some time, the scapular got frayed and dingy -- a lot like the red tassel on that mala of mine -- and I eventually bought a replacement scapular. It's not the particular scapular that's invested with the prayer, but the wearer -- so you can replace your old scapular with a new one and still have all the benefits and blessings of being part of the confraternity.

But at some point, both the new and old scapulars got set aside, for reasons I no longer clearly remember. And now, with my rekindled Marian devotion, I decided to put one back on when I found them both inside this little wooden box.

And here's where the story gets interesting. (I promise I have a point here.) I wasn't sure which scapular I wanted to put on, so I tried them both. I pulled out the old, ragged, and slightly smelly scapular -- the original one -- thinking back to when I was invested in the confraternity, and put it around my neck. And for no reason whatsoever, I felt a slight heaviness forming around my neck, coupled with a tinge of mild anxiety.

Wow! I wasn't expecting that. I took it off, and the feeling disappeared.

For curiosity's sake, I pulled out the replacement scapular and put it on. No heaviness around my neck, and instead of anxiety, I felt a gentle rush of calm and relaxation.

Now, understand that I didn't put either one on with any expectation of having a psychic reaction of any kind. The fact that I did tells me something about the power of the scapular and the prayers given to the person invested in it. I didn't question my experience and went with my intuition, which told me to choose the new scapular. Maybe the old scapular is holding a lot of the anxiety I felt when I was wearing it. Maybe it was happy to be retired and replaced. But for now it's back in the wooden box. As with the mala, I don't have the heart to throw it away.

Soon to be unwrapped and put on display.
Sign, sign, everywhere a sign
The funny thing about that experience is that I've always been the kind of person who asks for signs, and then gets discouraged when none are forthcoming. In this case, I didn't even ask for a sign, but it seems as if I got one anyway. I don't know what to think about that. Are my intuitive senses sharpening? Am I getting more tuned in to the sacred through Mary?

I don't have any answers at this point, but it's notable to me that I had that experience just one day after I got another unexpected sign. On Sunday morning, I knew I wanted to attend a service somewhere, but I left home not really knowing where I felt like going. I told my wife I'd decide on the way and let her know, so she could have an idea of when I'd be back.

As I drove, I narrowed down my choices to St. Thomas the Apostle, a lovely Novus Ordo Catholic church in Coeur d'Alene, or Saints Cyril and Methodius Byzantine Catholic Church over in Spokane Valley, about half an hour past CDA. As I was driving down I-90 and looking around in the car for a particular religious medal to keep in my hand, I suddenly caught a whiff of something. I stopped what I was doing and took another sniff. It was the unmistakable smell of the incense the priest uses at the Byzantine Catholic church. I know that smell because I love it. Eastern Catholics love their incense almost as much as they love their icons and chanting "Lord have mercy."

Again, I wasn't actively looking for a sign at that moment. Instead, the sign came to me. I took it for what it was, headed off to Saints Cyril and Methodius, and told my wife I'd be home around 1:30 that afternoon.

I never did find the medal I was looking for, but I did unearth a little Padre Pio chaplet rosary, with a medal of the good father on one end, and another medal of Our Lady of Mount Carmel on the other. That would be good enough to drop into my pocket and keep me company during the morning's Divine Liturgy.

Getting down to business
Now that I've found The Way of the Rose -- a group of spiritual folks who center their spirituality around praying the rosary to Our Lady, in whatever form she takes for the people in the group -- I'm looking for a rosary from my considerable stash that I can connect with. One of my favorites has long been the jujube wood rosary I bought a few years back at Kaufer's, a Catholic religious-goods store in Seattle. (Happily, Spokane has a Kaufer's too.) The beads are big and chunky, and the rope between the beads is thick and strong. It's durable, it's very pretty, and it always feels good in my hands. Plus, I have a lovely zipper bag to keep it in, adorned with an image of Our Lady of Perpetual Help.

Jujube rosary and OLPH bag; Cataldo rosary.
But then there's the rosary I picked up recently out at the Cataldo Mission gift shop. The mission, now situated on a state park, is the oldest standing building in all of Idaho. It once served as a frontier post for the Jesuits to minister to the Indians who lived there. The rosaries on sale there are pretty simple, with a plastic center medal, a plain bronze cross (not a crucifix), and colorful little clacky beads -- ceramic of some kind, I guess -- that roll nicely under the fingers. Cheaply made, but individually handmade, and that counts for something. I'm thinking of swapping out the existing cross for a Brigid's cross, and the plastic medal with something Marian and beautiful. But we'll see. I'm no good at cutting apart and re-threading rosaries. I've tried, and it didn't end well.

Episcopal chaplet with Holy Family; prayer rope;
Prayer Rule of the Theotokos.
I've also uncovered my Orthodox prayer rope -- good for saying the Prayer Rule of the Theotokos -- and a beloved 33-bead chaplet rosary with a Celtic cross, also one of a kind and handmade, that I bought at an Episcopal church gift shop. (It's designed to say a specific kind of Episcopal prayer, one that borrows heavily from popular Orthodox devotions.) I slept with that rosary clutched in my hand for many a night, when I was going through the worst of my health bouts, and it brought me some semblance of peace and comfort.

The way things are going lately, I figure one of the rosaries will call out to me when it's ready to.

Our Lady of Seattle.
Proceed with caution
At the same time, discernment is important, and I suppose you have to be careful to determine when something might be a sign and when it's just an interesting coincidence. For example, after expressing my Marian spirituality in my last post, I had a few chance occurrences that seemed to want to point me back to a conventional understanding of Mother Mary. One came from within a huge Catholic missal I was leafing through. The odds of landing on the theological note I read about Mary, in a book of 1,900 pages, seem vanishingly remote. Later, while reading an article on the relationship between Mary and the Holy Spirit, a key line from the Magnificat leapt off the page at me, one that put my confirmation biases to the test.

Both of these events would have me see Mary as the church sees her. What do I do with that? I'm just going to let Mary tell me in her own way, on her own time. If the signs keep coming, I suppose I'll have no choice but to take them as a nudge to pay attention.

The first Mary to summon me,
from Blessed Sacrament Church.
While rummaging through all my "altar crap," I came across a praying Mary statue that will fit nicely in a little alcove in our dining area, along with postcards of the two Mary statues back in Seattle that set me on my current path. One of the postcards shows Our Lady of Seattle, the century-old wooden figure of Mary that imparted an overwhelming message of love to me when I made contact with it. The other shows the statue at Blessed Sacrament Church, the one I kept looking over at while I, newly returned to Catholicism, huddled with a prayer team at a "Mercy Night" program in hopes of finding a way to strengthen my faith. Mary seemed to be calling me over for a chat that evening, and that's just what I did a little while later. That's how our new mother-child relationship got rolling.

I figure if I put those cards out, along with some candles and the praying Mary statue I found -- giving myself a temporary prayer nook till I can put my attic chapel together -- maybe I can tune in even better to what Mary is trying to say to me of late. Whatever it is she wants me to know, it seems to be important. She's been concerned with my spiritual well-being ever since I came back to the Christian path. And she hasn't led me astray yet.

Whether she gives me more indications of seeing her within her traditional role in the church, or whether she shows me something that centers her as the portal for my experience of the Sacred Feminine, I'll listen. I think she gives her children what they need from her. So we'll see where this latest chapter leads.

I'm all ears, Mom.

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