Catholic Exchange: The Good We Have Within Us is Because of God Alone

The self-help industry has made billions of dollars convincing people that they simply need to believe in their goodness to succeed. Much of what is marketed by self-help gurus is called moral therapeutic deism. It’s a belief system that says that God is all loving and merciful and He loves you just the way you are regardless of any sins you commit. You are a “good” person and that’s all that matters.

In fact, sin doesn’t have much of a place in moral therapeutic deism. Any progress a person makes in this life is due to that person’s strength and ability and God is merely a spectator in the life of the individual. It is true that God loves each one us, but He doesn’t love or tolerate our sin. Our ultimate happiness lies in Him alone and that means the necessary purging of our attachment to sin in this life and in Purgatory.

“No, God is good. We are sinners. That is what every saint down through the ages has taught.”

Moral therapeutic deism is also a major problem in the Church today. It is one of the many pieces that fit together to show us how we have found ourselves in such dark days.

I sat in a discussion a few weeks back that I have pondered for some time now. The discussion turned to how we are “good”—laity and clergy who haven’t molested anyone—and so we can never understand such egregious sins as what has been brought to light by the scandals. That stuck with me and not because I agreed with this assessment. It is the opposite of what the saints say of themselves throughout Church history. No, God is good. We are sinners. That is what every saint down through the ages has taught.

 

It is easy for us to look at the grave sins of others and say: “Thank you Lord that I am not so-and-so.” We see this illustrated in Sacred Scripture by Our Lord Himself when he compares the prayers of the Pharisee to the sinner. What we forget is that the only reason we are not “so-and-so” is purely by God’s grace.

We do not sin or fall into those temptations because of God’s grace working in our lives. He has kept us upright, through no merit of our own. We are not prone to weakness in every area. There are temptations we haven’t had to face. We haven’t had to battle those demons. Thanks be to God! This should humble us greatly.

As I heard it said ‘that we could never understand these sins because we are good’, I thought to myself, “But I do understand how these men could commit these sins.” I don’t need to ask “why” because I know the darkness in my own heart. In fact, I’m positive that Our Lord hasn’t even shown me the blackest parts of my heart quite yet because, in His mercy, He knows I’m not ready to confront them, but I will have to, in His appointed time.

No, it’s not the exact same type of darkness as these egregious sins, but the more Christ sheds His purifying light into my own soul, the more I see how weak and sinful I am. It is through this process born of prayer, frequent reception of the Sacraments, intense periods of desolation, and spiritual warfare that I have come to understand the deep wound the Fall inflicted on human nature at a visceral level. The Fall has wounded us far deeper than most of us realize. These scandals should horrify us, but not surprise us. We are all capable of great evil without God’s grace.

Read the rest over at Catholic Exchange.

Catholic Exchange: What I Learned by Caring for Holy Relics

A little over four years ago a friend of mine called enlisting my help with an unlikely and unexpected project. Her parish priest had just died and she was the executor of his estate. Upon his passing, he left his estate over 70 holy relics and artifacts from our Catholic tradition. The will was complicated and she needed me to help her find reliable guardians to take the holy relics in order to avoid violating Canon Law or the danger of the holy relics finding their way onto Ebay.

I discovered, much to my consternation, that holy relics are in fact on sale on Ebay, which is a gross violation of Canon Law and appalling on many levels. At that point in time, I had little to no experience with holy relics. Even during my time living in Europe, I did not stumble across a lot of holy relics.

A large relic collection

The first time I walked into her home to begin helping her and her husband with the task, I was stunned by the large collection that spread across their living room and dining room. There were reliquaries of varying sizes including one the size of a small tabernacle. I walked around the room with my mouth agape.

I surveyed the collection exclaiming in awe and wonder: Look, St. Thomas Aquinas! St. Therese of Lisieux! St. John the Baptist?! St. John Damascene! St. Teresa of Avila! St. Dominic! Our Lord’s manger! But then, standing in a rather simple reliquary for what it held, were three slivers from the True Cross Our Lord died upon. I was stunned. Pieces of the Cross that Christ died upon for our salvation were right in front of me on my friend’s dining room table.

We then got to work, matching the wax seals on each relic with the paper bulls we had that authenticated each one. Some never had the paperwork, but the vast majority did. Once we had a completed list of each authenticated relic, I went to work calling every priest I have known for the last ten years. After I exhausted my resources in the clergy, I turned to trustworthy members of the laity and religious orders. The relics ended up going to parishes and communities across the country as people offered to take over guardianship of these sacred items.

Read the rest over at Catholic Exchange.

Saying Good-Bye to Homeschooling and Learning Obedience

There are times when we must truly confront ourselves and ask serious questions of ourselves and God. I found myself doing that a bit ago as I sat on my bedroom floor trying to sort out some decisions that I need to make about how to proceed in certain areas of my life. I’m constantly asking God if I am doing what He is asking of me and to show me where I am failing or misunderstanding. I fail frequently. I fall into temptation all too easily and I take my eyes off of Him much to often.  It’s easy to do. We are all amazing masters of self-deception. A friend and I decided self-deception is our super-power or at least something we are super at.

My daughter and I have hit a brick wall when it comes to homeschooling. She is extremely stubborn and strong-willed, which she comes by honestly. We fight daily in school, chores, daily Mass, you name it, chances are we are struggling through a battle of wills. It’s exhausting and demoralizing for both of us. It’s the two of us day-in-and-day out locking horns and this is not the path I want for either of us us. Not only is it an impediment to our relationship that could eventually cause long-term harm, it is a spiritual impediment for both of us. It is a major source of discord and unrest in our home. I frequently pray for peace in our home.

She is also terribly lonely. For the last four years her best friend has lived next door. This has lessened the grief she carries from losing four siblings in miscarriage, something that she talks about almost daily right now. That longing for companionship and connection with other kids her age was fulfilled through that friendship. It has now changed considerably and we only see her friend at soccer for reasons largely outside of my control.

I’ve been praying for new female friends her age for her. In our homeschool Coop and our circle of friends the children close to her age are all boys and while those friendships are fine and good–I’ve had close male friends since childhood–girls need girls and boys need boys in friendship. She’s spent today building science experiments and creating her own costumes, but most days she is sad and dejected. School is like pulling teeth and she repeatedly tells me she hates school.

I finally had to admit that change is needed and that change is she needs to go to school. For me, public school isn’t an option. Things have deteriorated considerably since I was in public school. I briefly taught in public school and there are aspects of the culture both within the teachers and the students that I don’t want my daughter around at this age. There are good public schools, but it’s never been an option for us. Instead we had to enroll her in the very costly local Catholic school, which will come with its own challenges. We can always return to homeschooling in the future, but for right now, Catholic school is the best option for her.

She was able to visit the school for an entire day. She met her future classmates and her teacher. At the end of the day when I picked her up, she was beyond excited to start school there and wanted to know when she could start. Every single day since her visit she has been asking me when she can start. This coming Tuesday is her first official day in the school.

There are times God calls us to make major changes that we never expected. My plan–that seems laughable now–was to homeschool her through her senior year of high school. She would have been enrolled for online classes for those subjects such as higher level Math that I can’t teach her. That’s how I always imagined the next decade of our lives. But now the path before me is darkened and I don’t know what God is asking of me personally other than to let go and put her in school. That I’ve done, but the next phase of my life is still obscured from my view. I now have many hours of the day to fill. Reading, prayer, and writing will be tasks to fill the time while I wait for God to reveal His will for me.

I’m thankful that I homeschooled her for three years. She needed that time being close to home. She needed to be with us while my husband was deathly ill last year. Now she is ready to go to class with other students and walk a bit more on her own. And I have a Master’s degree that I need to figure out how to use in order to help pay for her tuition. It’s been a major lesson in obedience. God hasn’t shown me the path. He’s only shown me what I am supposed to do right now in this moment. I must simply assent and do it.

He gives me smaller tasks in obedience that teach me to not ask so many questions and just do. God is pure act and our response is also meant to be action grounded in charity. Our Heavenly Mother makes haste in her responses to God. We are meant to do the same thing when His will becomes clear to us. Yesterday he asked me to do something small by giving away the final two relics in my care quite literally after I wrote about those relics on Thursday. It came as a clear directive out of nowhere in prayer–no, not a locution–and rather than ask why, I was to simply do it. It was identical to when I was asked to give away guardianship of the first class relic of St. Monica that I had requested guardianship of for myself.  I expected that I would pass that relic onto my daughter one day.

In the end those relics are destined to be venerated by more of the faithful than they would be in our home. The timing of the request made little sense to me since it hadn’t been asked of me up to that point, but I knew quite clearly that I was to simply obey. It’s a small lesson in the middle of this massive life change that I am undergoing. I’m simply to do what is asked of me and wait.

In fact, if there is one word that would sum up my spiritual life this year it would be obedience. I ask too many questions. It’s one of the hazards of possessing the extremely quick, analytical, and questioning mind that God gave me. I want to know why. I want to understand things that happen to me that I simply do not understand. I’ve had spiritual experiences this year that are nothing short of extraordinary, but I keep wanting to know why and the minute I ask everything evaporates and what can only be seen through the eyes of faith is veiled. St. Therese alludes to this reality in The Story of a Soul.

If we grasp and constantly seek the why, then the gifts God gives to us often slip between our fingers. At times, even verbalizing them can cause them to quickly slip away. We can only receive and be open to such gifts. We won’t always get to know the why or the how. And for someone who asks why a lot, obedience, acceptance, and receiving without grasping are essential spiritual lessons. I can’t progress spiritually until I understand that if I want to truly see the world and others with the eyes of Christ, then I have to let go and accept that much of this life is shrouded in mystery, including what God has in store for me in the coming months and years. I am simply to do what God asks of me, which is to respond in love.

Re-visit: I’ll Never Forget What I Saw at the Pentagon After 9/11

**I’m sharing this piece that I wrote for The Federalist 2 years ago as we remember the 17th anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks.**

In summer 2005, I visited the Smithsonian’s American History museum in Washington DC with a couple of Marine friends. All of us were stationed in DC at the time. We were nursing wounds from our experiences in the Global War on Terror, and wandered around the museum admiring various pieces collected from our nation’s history.

I pushed one of my friends in a wheelchair because an improvised explosive device had shattered his leg; the same IED killed three of his friends. It had not yet dawned on me that a 9-11 exhibit might already be on display since it had only been four years, but we rounded a corner and there before us hung a massive American flag.

The room was crowded with visitors, many of them high school students. People were posing, laughing, and making funny faces as they took pictures. I was stunned. My friends were enraged. They turned to look at me. There we stood staring at the American flag that had hung on the side of the Pentagon days after 184 people were murdered on-site in this nation’s largest terrorist attack in history. We all thought: Is nothing sacred? Is four years long enough to forget? Is joking around appropriate in the face of such suffering and evil?

To be fair, these kids were young when 9/11 happened. They were probably 10 or 11 on that fateful day, and irreverence is often a part of youth, but they should have known better. Nearly 3,000 people perished that day, and countless more have died since at the hands of terrorists.

What We Saw that Day

My memories of that flag will forever be different from the majority of Americans and the rest of the world. While most remember it blowing in the breeze in news reports or when they visited the American History museum, I was there in person to see it. I saw it for the first time when, after volunteering at the Army base where I was stationed north of DC, I helped 400 grieving family members visit the Pentagon crash site shortly after the attack. I still see in my mind’s eye the gaping hole, floors collapsed in on one another, smoke rising from the smoldering ashes, the tormented faces of loved ones.

The intensity of seeing the site was amplified a thousand-fold by standing alongside agonized grieving family members; many of whom collapsed at my feet from the sheer weight of their pain. When those families visited for the first time after terrorists flew a plane into that iconic building, I struggled to keep military bearing while standing by in my dress whites, but it became impossible as tears streamed down my cheeks.

One of the clearest memories I have is of the general in charge. He had escaped from the fire that erupted in his office after the blast. Seeing my tears during this family visit, he checked on me. I had never seen so many stars in person, and I was embarrassed for showing what I thought was weakness, but he only said: “Are you alright, sailor?” He knew the tremendous burden of relief work. He was a truly kind man and the type of general a soldier would want to follow into battle.

My immediate thought in seeing the site was: There are no survivors. My second thought was: I am staring into the gates of Hell. While we were in the initial rescue phase then, the site looked like a tomb. This proved to be correct, since there were no survivors. In fact, many bodies were never recovered because of the heat from the blast. I spent 45 days listening to such grisly details as I provided logistical and emotional support to the family members of those killed.

Read the rest over at The Federalist.

When the Enemy Comes for Us and the Need for One Another

I have not been writing a lot the last couple of weeks. I’ve started various posts, but been unable to find the words to finish them. I hit a rather intense period spiritually in which I found myself taking assaults on all sides. I even ended up having two of the most horrifying demonic nightmares that I have had in years. I’ve had them on occasion for about 15 years or so, some truly terrifying. They will leave me weakened until I can figure out–through prayer–the best way to show strength in the face of the either outright lies in them or the horrifying battles I must contend with in them.

Most recently in one of the dreams I found myself in a dark wood with my daughter trying to beat snakes off of her that were biting her that then turned on me, grew in size, and started attacking my face as I struck them with a large stick. I know it was demonic because of the dream that preceded it, which I have no desire to write about. I had awoken myself from the preceding dream because I identified it for its demonic form, blessed myself, called on Our Heavenly Mother and then fell back asleep. That’s when I was met with snakes. The Enemy had revealed himself. Even though it was terrifying, I was glad to be able to clearly see who was attacking me.

We need to rest.

Last week I was emotionally and spiritually drained. I’ve spent the last few weeks writing and following the scandals, as well as helping people respond to the scandals in whatever way I can in my own parish. I entered into a 40-day penitential season in atonement for the sins of the Church. After entering into that period of prayer and fasting, the stresses of life started to pile up. My husband is showing signs of a flare up of his disease. My dad has been dealing with Shingles on top of his RA. We have had to figure out if homeschooling our daughter is the right fit for her. Spiritual attacks in various forms started to arise, culminating in these terrible dreams. By the end of last week, I was so battle worn that I felt like I could barely stand.

Sometimes these spiritual battles can be difficult to work through and discuss with other people. My closest, trusted holy friends do not experience things at the intensity level that I do, and neither does my husband. Don’t mistake me. I am not some kind of holy soul. Not even close. Most days even though I want to grow in holiness, I’m praying in God’s mercy for Purgatory. I’m selfish, proud, stubborn, quick-tempered, distracted, and too attached to aspects of this world. I’ve discovered weaknesses and darkness within me that I didn’t know existed, which is why when people start talking about how we are good people, I immediately think of the line in my own heart between good and evil. I don’t want to be some vague notion of good. I want to be holy and most days I’m not objectively good. I don’t mean that to be overly scrupulous, I mean to say that I’m not there yet. Someday by God’s grace I will be truly holy.

Engaging in Spiritual Warfare.

Sometimes I don’t think we are prepared by our leaders for the battles we will wage in the spiritual life. We focus on the good aspects, the consolations we receive, of which I have been blessed in abundance at times through no merit of my own. What we don’t hear about is when the Enemy comes for us. When he will launch a frontal and brutal assault against us, and at times, our spiritually fruitful relationships with other people. Since it’s not talked about, I wasn’t prepared for the onslaught that came at me beginning two years ago. I had to study spiritual warfare on my own in order to begin understanding some of the attacks I was taking spiritually and to understand some of the attacks I must endure and persevere through now. There will be weeks when I feel like I am low crawling across the battlefield with very little energy left.

It is only in the Sacraments and time of rest where my reserves are repleted. On those weeks, I will go to Mass as much as possible, even two times for the Sunday obligation. This past week required my dual attendance as well as a nearly four-hour kayak paddle on my favorite lake in the area. I needed to be able to sit on the water, watching the sunrise, and the fog slowly lifting over the Appalachian Mountains. I needed to leisurely paddle across the lake with one of my closest friends. I needed timelessness. No rush. No stress. I had a graduation party for myself to plan, but I didn’t think about it or worry about it while I was on the lake. I took the time I needed to recoup. I knew that I had just taken an intense beating and the glory of God’s creation would help bring me strength.

We all need that quiet time on the mountain with Our Lord. That quiet time happens in prayer anywhere, but most frequently for me that time is before the Blessed Sacrament or in God’s creation. There are times I quite literally need to be warmed by the sun and I will close my eyes and soak in as much light as possible because I know all of it comes from God. It is through this rest that I am then able to discern how to make a show of strength–which is essential in times like these–to respond to the attacks I am enduring. These periods of rest bring stillness, peace, clarity, and proper ordering back into the soul.

These are dark days for the Church. We are being asked to engage in spiritual combat with “powers and principalities” and if by God’s grace we are making progress or helping in the fight, the Enemy may take notice of our successes and come for us in a more personal way. We always battle temptations, some of which we never expect until we are faced with them and must seek God’s grace to overcome them. The spiritual life is not easy, nor is it a constant straight line. It is up and down and comes with many falls, failures, and disappointments. In the end, what matters is that we get back up. We look to Christ in hope and let Him help us to rise again and continue in the battle. We seek rest and peace in Him. He will bind our wounds and strengthen us for the next round because there will be another round and another and another, but with each new barrage we will find ourselves growing stronger and our trust and strength in Christ greater still.

Living Communion in the Church.

We also must come to rely on one another, to truly learn to love one another as Christ loves. Fraternal/sororal love between us and our brothers and sisters in Christ is a great gift and it is one of the great blessings we are given in this life. We are meant to lean on one another, to seek the face of Christ in others, and to draw strength from good and holy friendships within our communities. One of the most striking features of the Epistles of St. Paul is this deep love within the community. It is spoken of freely. It is something that is sorely lacking in our own communities.

This love is one of the many ways we enter into even deeper communion with God and one another. We must be willing to do battle in those relationships as we overcome our own selfish and sinful ways in order to make those friendships holy and pleasing to God. Holy relationships require more of us as we learn to die to self in them. These are friendships that are ordered towards Heaven and must constantly be re-oriented as we fulfill the requirements of our vocations and the demands of our daily lives. They require vulnerability and an openness to God’s working in our lives that may be different from our other relationships.

Love is demanding, which is why holy relationships with our brothers and sisters in Christ require more of us than a friendship of utility. They also require courage in an age when true friendship is largely misunderstood and our culture calls us repeatedly to rugged individualism. We cannot possibly wage the spiritual battles required of us in this time of great moral and spiritual turmoil without deep bonds with one another that are grounded in Christ. We need one another. We are brothers and sisters in arms who are engaged in battle for the sake of Christ’s Church and for souls. Battles forge deep and lasting bonds between brothers and sisters. Let’s remember this truth as we find new ways to confront the great evil within the Church. Let’s look for good and holy relationships that allow us to see Christ in others and to walk confidently into battle arm-in-arm. By God’s grace, our reward will be great in the end.