Wednesday, December 11: Lillian Vogl

(Reflecting on the first Mass reading for the day:

Some may scoff, but the popular contemporary Catholic song On Eagles’ Wings inspired me.

I was 8 years old and recently transferred to a Catholic school because they let me skip 3rd grade. I was a serious and lonely child, and never did make any friends in my class during the two years I went there. My parents told me that Catholics weren’t real Christians, that they believed superstitious things, and I shouldn’t believe whatever they might say in religion class. I was told to keep my mouth shut when my classmates prayed a Hail Mary, and sit alone in the pew when they went to Communion or Confession.

But there were no prohibitions on the music. I loved the music at weekly Masses, and joined the school choir. Singing in the choir was the one time I felt like I belonged there. My favorite songs were ballads like Be Not Afraid, Here I Am, Lord, and Eagles’ Wings. I had wanted to be a “missionary” to “foreign lands” as long as I could remember. I read a short biography of Mother Teresa in 4th grade and she seemed to be doing exactly what I wanted to do, but I couldn’t aspire to join her sisters because I wasn’t Catholic. But I could sing these songs and feel sure that, whatever mission I was being called to in the wilderness that was my odd and lonely life, God would always be with me and upholding me.

I transferred to a Lutheran school after that, and a nondenominational Christian high school, and a Calvinist college. We sang pretty harmonic music in those choirs, four part harmony in the pews, and praise and worship songs at youth events. I learned to be a technically proficient soprano, but the songs never spoke to my heart the way the Catholic school ballads had. And I didn’t feel any more at home just because the theology and culture lined up better with my family’s Sunday church. I longed for God’s upholding presence to feel tangible to me, but it never did.

Right when I graduated from college, I started reading the Catholic catechism out of curiosity. I was impressed; it wasn’t at all the caricature of a legalistic and superstitious faith my parents had given me. One day, during my lunch hour at my new job, I slipped into a downtown chapel to experience Mass for the first time in over a decade. Even without any music, I came out feeling like I’d finally found my church home. I soon signed up for RCIA at a suburban parish, and joined the choir when I discovered no one really sang in the pews. The music was more traditional there, but I didn’t mind. I was finally able to receive God’s Real Presence tangibly in the Eucharist. I thought I’d finally arrived, that Easter Vigil night.

But we’re not meant to stay put in this life. There is no arriving home yet, only arriving at moments of rest before setting out on the journey again. Easter elation turns to ordinary duties of life, and then to another Advent. Another time of waiting and wondering and deep longing in our hearts, for what exactly we’re not sure yet.

I felt so satisfied when I first joined the Catholic Church that I forgot my mission to share the Gospel in word and deed. I got comfortable finally fitting in, and pursued the same things everyone else around me was pursuing. Career, law school, marriage, children, financial security. It was all going so well for about a dozen years, but then it all started crashing down when I got laid off from my high-paying job the week I found out I was pregnant with my second child. 

Shortly after my layoff, my parish choir director was abruptly removed, with conflicting explanations being given to the choir and the local newspaper about whose decision it was and why, but none of the explanations seemed just to me. I couldn’t believe that someone so full of love for the Church could be cast out so callously. It unmoored me. I quit choir and no longer felt at home in that parish anymore. We went back to the parish where my husband had gone before we married, but found it toxic to our faith now. We moved and found the next parish better, until the pastor’s homilies took a strong political turn. I fled to the other parish in town, the one with the overflowing Spanish Masses. It felt like home for a couple of months until the Diocese took it over from the Franciscan friars, and the character of the homilies and relationship between the priests and parishioners shifted abruptly.

While wandering through this arid wilderness in which “communion” meant solely a consecrated Host, stripped totally bare of any other flesh on the Body of Christ, I started to hear the call again, the one I had answered as a child singing “Here I Am, Lord.” But what could I do now, with my own kids in Catholic school and a mortgage to pay and a long commute to an uninspiring job? All I knew to do was pray a lot, in lonely morning Masses and in the quiet of that commute.

During my commuting prayer on my 40th birthday, a word came to me that began a new season of Advent. The word was “consecration,” but its meaning is still obscured, like the Word of Christ growing in Mary’s womb, now perceptibly kicking and turning, his face still a mystery for a little while longer. 

The first kick was meeting a partner to help me start a blog where I could share my spiritual reflections. I named it Beyond All Telling, inspired by a Eucharistic Preface of Advent, which recounts how Mary longed for Jesus in her womb with love beyond all telling. Writing about the things I contemplate during Mass or prayer is wonderfully clarifying and heart-filling, and I especially love when it gives encouragement and healing to others.

Another kick was finally joining a choir again. We sing those ballads I loved as a child at this parish, along with more traditional hymns. (In fact, the weekend I’m finishing writing this, we’re singing On Eagles’ Wings, and I’m re-learning the descant after 35 years!) I cantor too, proclaiming the Word of God in Psalms, and preaching the importance of community and justice in the hymn lyrics.

I don’t know when this child is due. I don’t know what this child will look like or demand of me. All I know is that the Spirit has conceived something new in me, and I await seeing it clearly, with longing beyond all telling.

Lillian Vogl calls herself the Accidental Mystic, because she isn’t the sort of person you’d expect to be writing about her contemplative insights into God’s Revelation in Scripture and the world. She’s a tax attorney, married, with two children, and no theology degrees. But a vocation for spiritual writing also found her a few years ago, and you can find her blog, Beyond All Telling, on Patheos.

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