No Sharps. No Flats. No Life in Christ.

pianoI took piano lessons for 6 years in elementary school and junior high. It never came easy for me and I always had to practice to master even simple pieces.  Every spring we had the dreaded recital where about 30 of us would perform from memory for our families. It was hard to know who was more uncomfortable on these evenings–those of us on the stage or our parents who had to endure our missed notes and shaky re-starts. I only had one rule about the music I played at recital: it had to be written in the key of C major. No flats and no sharps. I didn’t want the added pressure of all those black keys on recital night. Of course I played all kinds of compositions the rest of the year, but on that most nerve-wracking of all nights I wanted the simple and straightforward landscape of broad, flat, white keys. As I matured I realized of course that some of the most challenging piano pieces ever composed were written in C major. Schubert, Chopin, and Mozart all wrote some real finger-twisters using only the white keys. But as kid, C major was my standby. It was my comfortable piano “easy chair.”  When I was in it I knew I could get through my 6 or 7 minutes of recital torture, at least for one more year.

Comfort can be a good thing. But if we are never challenged or forced to take a harder path, we don’t grow. Sometimes it’s been like that for me in my spiritual life, too. I was a C major Christian. I picked easy devotions and ministry service that was quick and painless. I liked doing things that didn’t challenge me too much or make me take a hard look at my sins. The “best” pastors were the ones whose homilies made me feel good every Sunday and whose penances and spiritual direction didn’t call me out of myself. I was a “go to Mass and go home” Catholic and my spiritual life was broad and shallow and comfortable. No sharps and no flats. And I was dying inside.

And then someone I loved very much was killed. It was during the weeks and months after her death that I really started to take a look at my life. A life cut short can make you do that. What was I living for? And more importantly, WHO was I living for? One of the first things I did was to pray. I would stop by my parish church every day on my way home from work. There was rarely anyone else there at that time of day so I’d pray aloud. What did God want from me? What was His plan for my life? How could He use me for His purpose? I’d walk around the church praying the Stations of the Cross. I’d kneel in front of the Tabernacle. I was hungry to know Him. All those hours spent in the presence of the Most Blessed Sacrament changed me somehow. Not overnight, but gradually and profoundly.

To begin with, I had a hunger to know Jesus. I read the Gospels over and over again, especially the parts that made me uncomfortable. I wanted to know more about forgiveness and mercy and what it meant to pray without ceasing. I discovered the great Ignatian practice of imagining myself as a character in the Gospel story and how Jesus’ words and actions affected me as the chapter unfolded. My prayer life deepened. I was no longer satisfied with a few hurried prayers in the morning and evening. I longed to be with Him all the time. I began to recognize Christ pulling me out of my “C major” comfort zone. I wanted to be a blessing to other people in the ministry work I did. Others became important to me, for the first time in my life. Spending hours in His presence cracked open my heart that had become hardened and small through living a self-centered life. Broken in my grief, The Lord used my pain to draw me closer to Himself. It’s one of the ways that God can use our pain and suffering for a greater good. Over the years, life’s ups and downs–those sharps and flats of my piano lessons– became the stepping stones of my faith journey. I learned to be dependent on Christ. Stumbling along with Him to guide me, I’ve made it this far. When times are easy we tend to rely on ourselves and our own strength. God can use the hard times to increase our love for Him if we allow. If you’re hurting, reach for His hand. If you feel lost and alone, lean on Him. You don’t have to get through this on your own.

“I am the Bread of Life…”   John 6:35

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