“Life is not neatly divided between beauty and ugliness, light and dark, beatitude and despair. Rather, it is a struggle and a longing, full of vicissitude and vacillation, with glimmers and glimpses which paradoxically attract and repel us, making us feel both at home and alien.” Austin Choate, “Terrence Lamick: You Will Love, Whether You Like It Or Not”
In the last few weeks, I’ve found myself struggling with a particular battle that God has told me He is asking me to fight for reasons that are completely mysterious to me. When it arises within me, I pray and ask God what He wants of me in it, especially when I falter, fail, or stumble to the ground in the face of the attacks I endure or the internal weakness I face on my part. He has repeatedly told me the answer is: “You can fight or you can walk away.” He also repeatedly tells me that I can’t do it on my own and any progress I make is in His time, not my own. I continue to choose to fight because I know the good of this battle is worth the ups and downs that I face. In fact, at one of my lowest points, God in His gratuitous love and mercy gave me a a small glimpse of the glory at the end of this battle and all battles that I will wage in this life.
Two years ago something shifted dramatically in my soul. I didn’t even know it at the time. God gave me a choice: To love as He loves or to walk away. Regular readers will already be familiar with some of this story. I had just had my fourth miscarriage and I was in the grips of grief. I had the perfect ultrasound of our little Andrew Thomas in my hands and the joy and relief of a heartbeat, only to find out on the Feast of St. Dominic–appropriate since we were going to name him after St. Thomas Aquinas–that he had died.
The agony was intense and my heart broke into so many pieces and split wide open that I didn’t know how I’d recover. His loss was my fourth miscarriage, but there seemed to be something particularly cruel about this one. Two ultrasounds confirmed a strong heartbeat. We were overjoyed, and then he was gone. My husband and I once again found ourselves in the ER grief-stricken.
My healing came about through an unexpected and deeply painful process. God called me to quickly return to the front lines of praying for an end to abortion at our local Planned Parenthood. This time he asked me to be out two days a week for 2-3 hours each day. It seemed to be a strange and difficult thing to ask of me, but I obeyed. Eventually, I was asked to help a woman who was considering an abortion at 20 weeks.
She was due at the same time I was due to have Andrew. At first it seemed like another knife to the heart. God asked me to walk with this woman up until she gave birth (she cut off contact afterwards, but I still pray for her regularly). We talked baby names, ultrasounds, and supplies. I made the difficult decision to give her all of the baby items we had purchased for Andrew and my husband agreed.
The entire process was a letting go on my part. There were many tears and my heart ached in ways that were unimaginable, but I obeyed. I gave everything I had to her and in turn my own grief was turned into joy as I held that baby boy for the first time who had survived our abortion culture. No, he wasn’t my Andrew, but God brought about redemption through my suffering. He allowed me (and my husband when able) to love this woman despite my own pain and give her as much love and support as possible in order to help her choose to keep her son. He’s now 1.5 years old.
The decision to love in this case was agonizing. It wasn’t the feel good, romantic, warm-fuzzy sort of love that our culture is obsessed with. It was a purifying love that required God to cut me deep so that I could bleed out His love upon this woman despite my grief. And ever since I made that decision the intensity of my spiritual life has increased exponentially. I’ve had to confront both external attacks from the Enemy of a more obvious nature than at any other point in my life while also coming face-to-face with my own weaknesses and failures to love others as I ought to.
While this particular situation has passed, God is still calling me to love as He loves and that always requires a form of purification. Our own sinfulness and weakness means that all of our relationships must go through the fire of refinement, even relationships that at the deepest levels of reality are good and holy. We get in the way through our Fallen nature, so God has to constantly lead us to the right path and pick us back up when we falter. The point is to continue to begin again with every new fall and to persevere to the end with Him by our side.
The last couple of weeks, I have been spending time praying through Romans. I’ve been trying to understand some of the things God has asked me to endure and through multiple passages in Romans He gave me an answer. One of those passages is Romans 5:1-5:
Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access [by faith] to this grace in which we stand, and we boast in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we even boast of our afflictions, knowing that affliction produces endurance, and endurance, proven character, and proven character, hope, and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the holy Spirit that has been given to us.
In all of my prayer the word “endure” has come to my mind regularly. When I read this passage and prayed with it on multiple occasions, I came to see that this was the answer to my need for endurance in my struggles. The goal is ever before me, but as I struggle spiritually and I battle my own sinfulnes and weakness, it can be difficult to remain steady. I falter. God is refining me through what I endure, even in the times I fail and must come back to Him in the Sacrament of Confession. He is strengthening me through enduring trials and temptations. More than anything, He is teaching me to rely more fully on Him in everything. Whether in desolation or consolation, it’s not up to me, I’m required to love.
I got this same message when I was kayaking with my daughter Friday morning. I was frustrated and there are times when I need to take that frustration out on the lake, a trail, or my elliptical machine. My daughter sat in the front of the tandem kayak I had to rent because my new kayak doesn’t track well with her in it. While she sat looking out, I was praying in frustration and exasperation and paddling as hard as my body would allow. All the while asking God what He wants from me and if I am actually doing what He is asking of me or not. I then clearly heard Him say: “I’ve asked you to love as I love.” I stopped paddling and sighed. “Ok, Lord.”
My weaknesses and failures matter in the I need to overcome them by His grace, but that’s the whole point. My desire is to overcome my brokenness so that all may be pleasing, good, and holy in His sight. That is the driving force that propels me forward because I love Him. It’s not that I am never going to be weak. I will be. It’s whether or not I’m willing to fight the battle that is required of me, and I am. Not only for my sake, but for others. I’m willing to endure, even when it takes everything I have and then some. I always remain in the hope that Christ will help me to endure, even when I fall. My hope is ultimately in Him, not myself.
Not to be outdone in the generosity of the grace He pours into us, Our Lord made sure that I got the message loud and clear. I struggle to trust insights I gain in prayer at times, not because I don’t trust God–although I need work here–but because I don’t trust myself and my own propensity for self-deception. Through prayer with Romans, Christ has made it clear for two weeks at Adoration what He is asking of me. He told me again on the lake, and then He said it back to me through the priest in Confession this past Saturday.
When I went to Confession on Saturday I wasn’t feeling particularly well. The last couple of days I’ve been dealing with pain that I deal with from time-to-time. I was feeling a bit beaten down from the spiritual battles I wage, so I rather unceremoniously listed my sins. I go face-to-face at times and I decided to go on Saturday since I was in pain, although I would have rather have gone behind the screen that day. When I looked up after confessing my sins I saw Christ in the priest, which is what I really needed in that moment. I needed to see Christ sitting across from me, not Father, not my friend, but Christ in him. This has happened before, but this time when he gave me feedback he told me exactly what God has already told me in my recent prayer experiences. In fact, it was almost verbatim.
I was too tired to process all of it at the time, but as I considered it later on, I was astounded. The Holy Spirit wanted to make sure that I was getting the message loud and clear. Father even made allusions to aspects of St. Paul’s letters that were identical to what I’ve been studying and praying with. He affirmed to me that we know the goal, but we falter at times and the spiritual life is up and down. Sometimes we are called to endure things we don’t understand, but we must endure them with Christ. In that moment the things God has been telling me in prayer all found a cohesive connection to one another and He affirmed me in my struggles and told me to keep going. My choice is always the same when I’m asked to fight a battle within myself or for others: Love as He loves or walk away. I choose to love, which means I choose to fight.
The choice is always the same for all of us as we hope to progress in holiness. We must learn to love as Christ loves. That means areas of our lives must be purified and that process is painful. We must contend with the darkness within us, the weaknesses we discover, the temptations that come at us, and the areas of our personality that are a stumbling block for us and for others. Our relationships with other people must come to mirror the love the Blessed Trinity. Loving in that way given our weakness is difficult, but that’s what Christ is ultimately asking of us. I can say from the glimpse Christ gave me through no merit of my own, it is worth the battle. It is worth it to learn to love as Christ loves, even if we fail, fall, and become weak. As long as we keep getting back up and enduring to the end through our reliance on Him, our reward will be great.
There is no love greater than the love we have in Christ. We settle for counterfeits all of the time. As the quote at the beginning of this piece makes clear. We are both drawn in and repelled by what God offers us. There are times we struggle with the ultimate goods of this life because we are willing to settle for lesser goods or even sin. The spiritual life isn’t really black and white. It’s our struggle to turn fully to God even as we are distracted by what is good in this life or we choose something where good is lacking because we think it is what we want, need, or simply desire. We know the goal, but we still waver and fall. In all of it we are told that we are going to love whether we like it or not. How we go about learning to love and actually loving is up to us, but God will teach us the right way regardless.
In fact, sometimes we are drawn in by other people where we are taught that we must love and not in a superficial sort of way that is nothing more than emotional affirmation for ourselves. This isn’t love, it’s egoism. No, sometimes we are to love in the hard, nitty gritty, clench your teeth through the struggle, and rightly order sort of love. That’s why our culture largely doesn’t understand the nature of love. Love is self-emptying. It is purifying. It sacrifices the needs, wants, emotions, and desires of the one who loves for the other. It gives freely without any expectation of return. It is this aspect that we struggle with the most. We want to grasp it and get something back, but we are meant to love freely without expectation.
Yes, love must and should be reciprocal, but there are times we love other people much more deeply than they love us. There are times we love people who are incapable of returning that love properly. Love is a communion of persons that is meant to be grounded in Christ, but in our broken world this is difficult to achieve. Regardless, we are called to give freely and completely of ourselves. That is the lesson of the Cross. Our Lord pours Himself out completely, even while knowing that many will turn away from Him and not return His love. We must do the same. This requires courage, faith, hope, charity, and self-forgetfulness. We have to free ourselves of expectations and simply give, even if the other person does not return that love fully or even if they cast it off. We are to love as He loves. That’s the task we’ve been given in all of it’s terrible beauty and glory.
You and I always have a choice to make every single morning: Will I love as He loves or will I walk away? In those moments when we make the wrong choice, we must return to His love in the Sacrament of Confession. In the moments we say “yes” to loving as He loves, we must be ready to endure whatever is required of us. We must rely on Him completely. The battles we will wage in loving in such a way are both interior and exterior and they will take everything we have and a total dependence on Christ. These battles take many forms and we have to recognize them for what they are so that we can allow Christ to refine our broken love into the luminous love of His Sacred Heart. His Sacred Heart is likened to a fire precisely because our love must be refined and purified of it’s imperfections and that fire is cleansing and painful. Only then can we be truly radiant and enter fully into the love of the Holy Trinity. It’s a new day. What choice will we make today?