Living with thorns in my side

This is my latest column in the Catholic Free Press, also running on Catholicmom.com.

Why is it that some wounds remain even when one has been healed? Several years ago I lost my singing voice due to acid reflux. I gave up singing thinking I would never do it again but after three years of rest, my singing voice returned (and I am sure St. Blaise had something to do with it). I happily joined the adult choir at my parish and took on cantering duties. I feel deep gratitude that God restored his gift back to me.

Accepting fear

Yet I had a new and most unwelcome guest with me whenever I sang—fear. I had never experienced stage fright before I lost my voice and now it is my constant companion. It causes me to break out in a cold sweat and I become tremendously self-conscious. Sometimes when my head and heart feel confident, my body still responds with that fear welling up deep inside of me.

One day while leading a song for the congregation I felt a sense from God that I was to walk side by side with this new companion for the rest of my singing days.

Does this mean my healing which I believe I received through the intercession of St. Blaise was somehow incomplete? No. There’s a reason why the fear is present. And it relates back to St. Paul.

Running side by side with a marathoner

Fr Lawrence Lew, O.P. St Paul the Apostle, Flickr Creative Commons

I love St. Paul; he is a part of the entourage of saints to whom I pray for intercession each day. On my holy card he stands tall, a long sword by his side. Paul was fearless because of the armor provided to him by the Lord. His wisdom and clarity guide me on my spiritual journey. At times he has run beside me, urging me on through this marathon. He will be with me at the finish line.

Paul however had a thorn in his side. While he never revealed the nature of this thorn, still he tells us in 2 Corinthians 12 that the thorn remained despite his pleas to the Lord to remove it. God’s reply to his prayer was, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Thus St. Paul declared, “I am weak, then I am strong.”

Reflecting on these verses, I accept my companion of fear and use it as a reminder that God is in control of all things and that through our difficulties he works out his plan for the good.

More than one thorn

Andreina Schoeberlein Thorn in my side, Flickr Creative Commons

How nice it would be if there were only one thorn but there are others. One thorn in particular has me running to the Cross every morning asking for forgiveness for a particular sin. If only I could live with this thorn and not sin, but thankfully, forgiveness is just a prayer away. With God’s grace, someday that thorn will not lead to sin.

A friend’s thorn

I think of the thorn my friend Jackie must endure. It is deep and heavy, a true cross to bear. Her thorn requires her to lean on Jesus every step of the way. Someday I may have to endure such a thorn. It frightens me until I am reminded to stay rooted to the present moment and cling to Jesus.

I must remember to invoke St. Paul the next time one of my thorns trouble me. I can’t think of a more capable and understanding companion.

Sing about grace

If you want to be reminded of God’s promise that his grace is sufficient, listen to Matt Maher’s wonderful song, “Your Grace is Enough,” found on YouTube. The melody will stick in your mind in an instance. And in singing that line “Your grace is enough, your grace is enough, your grace is enough for me,” perhaps your thorns will become easier to live with too.

 

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When fear stares you in the face, what do you do?

susan singingA month ago while attending mass we sang a song I had not heard in years. It triggered a happy memory; in my mind’s eye I was back in my cantor’s place, playing that song on my guitar, singing, and leading the congregation.

It had been a long time since I played that song. It had also been over five years since I had enjoyed a happy memory of cantoring.

The next phase of healing

A while back I wrote about losing my singing voice and then having it restored when my throat was blessed on the Feast of St. Blaise (see previous posts). I described how that healing was more than physical—that there was an emotional healing as well. That healing unfolded over time; I consider it now complete with that pleasant memory of playing and singing as a cantor.

Kevin B 3 FEAR, Flickr Creative Commons

It would prove to be the prelude to the psychological portion of the healing yet to come: how to deal with the fear of performing in public again, especially when it was in public that my voice would fail me.

Never again

Five years ago I made a pledge—that I would never again be controlled by fear. I made a conscious decision to accept what I deemed as invitations from God, even when those invitations aroused dread within.

The challenge

Two weeks ago I received such an invitation, one that inspired so much fear that it felt oppressive. After that sweet memory of cantoring, God was issuing me an invitation—to go public again with my singing.

Cesar Mascarenhas Child Imagination, Flickr Creative Commons
Cesar Mascarenhas Child Imagination, Flickr Creative Commons

Sounds simple enough. But to me, cantoring was that was the proverbial monster in the closet. It was as a cantor that I suffered mortification as my voice failed in spectacular fashion in front of a full church. Not once, but several times.

Fear was staring me in the face. Sitting on my shoulders, leaning on me, unrelenting until I decided how I would respond.

My response? “I’ll think about it.”

I kicked the can down the road. I told God I would “pray on it” when I knew full well I was supposed to accept that invitation.

God then responded with sweet mercy that I did not deserve. It came through that interview with The Priests (see previous post). In listening to them I was struck as they described how they reflect on the lives of their parishioners while they sing. They don’t think  about performance techniques. They don’t worry about their voices. They aren’t swept up in their fame.

They are thinking about people like you and me.

That gave me great pause. It was time to get over myself and accept God’s invitation to cantor for my parish. I knew then I would have to run straight into my fear.

Taking the plunge

photo by Ellen Linn
photo by Ellen Linn

So, I offered to sing at the 9am mass on Easter morning. Fortunately I forgot that it was the children’s mass and that the church would be packed to the rafters. I forgot too how difficult it can be to get parking and how little time there is between the masses on Easter to set up the equipment and get ready.

Remembering

I didn’t remember until the day before and then I was really afraid! I could feel fear rising up inside of me, paying no heed to my mind which said simply, “Practice, prepare and you will do just fine. Keep your head about you and own the moment.”

I knew in my mind I could do it. But the fear raged on nonetheless.

I broke out in a cold sweat and felt pressure on the chest. Fear pressed down to my gut.

I knew I had to run headlong into it. I called on St. Paul to come with me. He’s good at dealing with fear. And he has always come quickly to my side when I needed bolstering.

Time to face the music

I stood in front of the packed church, guitar strapped over my shoulder. It was ten minutes before mass and I wanted to sing to the people to help them get into the mood. It would also help me to work out my fear.

Some things you never forget

As I started playing and singing, the song flowed out of me as if I had never stopped cantoring. The mass began and I led the people in the opening hymn; the church filled up with voices singing “Jesus Christ is risen today, Alleluia!”

And at that moment I understood.

This is what it means to be living in the present moment. This is how you conquer fear.

You own that moment. You claim that moment. You call it out and hand it over to God and you stay rooted in that moment.

And fear cannot harm you.

Oh, you will feel afraid! That’s a given. But feelings cannot control you if you stay rooted in the moment. This where God can best help you because he is always in the moment. Time has no meaning for him.

Be not afraid.

St. John Paul II was famous for that expression. But I don’t believe he meant that we were never to experience fear.

I understand now that “Be not afraid” means fear will not conquer. It will come and it will go, and you will still be left standing if you call out that fear and give it over to the One who knows no fear.

Madeleine Deaton Conquering that fear of heights one step at a time, Flickr Creative Commons
Madeleine Deaton Conquering that fear of heights one step at a time, Flickr Creative Commons

The monster in the closet shrinks perceptibly when you name it, claim it and push through it with the Lord at your side.

And that’s what happened on Easter morning. The longer I sang, the more fear retreated. Fear is a coward when confronted.

Fear will try to come back each time I sing. But it will never again control me.

What has caused you fear and how did you overcome it? Maybe like the woman in the picture we just do it one step at a time, knowing our Friend is at our side.

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