The Cross: The Answer We Don’t Really Want

The entire litmus test for this life is the very one we don’t want. It’s love or charity (caritas). It is the very meaning of our lives. It is what grounds every moment of every day, but even as we say it’s what we want, we are also repelled by it. Why? Love always costs us everything. Love is the Cross.

As Christians, we believe that the Son of God, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, took on human flesh in the Incarnation in order to bring about our salvation by dying on the wood of a Cross and rising again from the dead three days later. This is the absolute center of our faith. We proclaim it in the Nicene Creed (or Apostle’s Creed) at every Mass. We give our Amen when the priest extends to us the body and blood of Our Lord in the Holy Eucharist, declaring our belief in this reality. It surrounds us completely, but the Cross itself is largely held at arms length in our lives.

We don’t really want it and by extension we don’t really want the demands of love. Our culture is obsessed with love. Free love, everyone should be able to love, etc, but we don’t want actual love. The love that underpins all of existence is not based on feelings, sentiment, or warm fuzzy emotions, it is based on self-emptying. It is based on suffering. It is to forget one’s self for another’s good.

Of course we don’t want that love. It hurts. It requires everything we have and more. Love is to sit by your husband’s hospital bed wondering if you will be planning his funeral soon, but to enter into the pain of that moment anyway. Love is pouring out everything for the stranger who wants to abort her baby, but who God has called you to walk beside as you grieve the loss of the child you desperately wanted even to the point of giving this stranger all of your own baby items because God required it of you. It is the searing pain that cuts so deep we don’t think we will survive. It is pouring out everything we have and our entire being to God and others.

It is to willingly wage an intense battle against powers and principalities for someone who can’t understand that depth of charity because love in essence is to desire that those around us become saints. Worldly, even sinful inversions of love, are easier to understand than hard fought holy love in this Fallen world. That kind of love we flee from because that’s the love that comes from God. Love truly is to will the good of the other, even when that good is rejected and we are left alone. I know this not only as a theologian. More than anything, I know it as a Christian disciple who has seen this play out time-and-time-again in my own life. It is the Cross God has called me to. It is the Cross He handed to me when I quite literally held His True Cross in my hands, not once, but twice. Both times producing the same result.

We want our safety. We want comfortable Christianity where we don’t have to risk much, especially in a time when we are all trying to stay above water. All of us in the Church are treading water. The real answers are hard ones and they require us to move from our complacency to the path we were always supposed to be walking: the path to sainthood. It is personal holiness and deeper communion that will bring about the much needed purgation and renewal in the Church, but these are the two things we don’t want to have to do.

All of us want easier answers. We want to be able to point a finger at someone else and blame them for the mess we are in, when in truth, we are in this mess because all of us have failed to live up to the call Christ gave to us in our Baptism; when we died to self and became a new creation in Christ. The call to holiness means confronting the darkness within us and allowing Christ to transform us. It means enduring the pain and agony of the Cross so that our brokenness can be purified and refined so that it is holy and pleasing to God.

The Enemy wants all of these dark places to hold us back, to keep us trapped, and afraid. Shame and fear are how the Enemy keeps us from moving forward into deeper love of God and of others. What the leaders in the Church–and all of us–fail to see is that if we allow the light of God to penetrate all of our weaknesses, darkness, and failings then He will give us the strength to get back up and begin again. We are not held back by God for our failings. We are strengthened through them and our love is purified, so that we can love as He loves.

It is through trials and the struggles that love deepens. This is what the saints understood better than us. They knew that the only way to grow in love of God and others is to be willing to fight the good fight, knowing they’d fail at times. Through this fight, through embracing the Cross, they came to see that they became entirely dependent on God, entered fully into His love, and by extension came to love others with the love of Christ. To do so, they chose to enter the fight that is the path to holiness. The same fight you and I are called to today.

In order to grow in holiness and in order for us to love one another as Christ loves we must embrace the very thing we are all desperately fleeing from the same way the vast majority of the Apostles did: the Cross. We must be willing to suffer together, confront our failings together, battle the world, the Enemy, and ourselves together, and be willing to fight the most intense fight of our lives. We must be willing to allow our love to be intense–even though it’s terrifying–and we must be willing to endure and persevere in our love for God and others.

There is a reason battle imagery is used so often in spiritual warfare throughout the Church’s history. We are in a war and most of us–including our leaders–are blind to it. We have come to believe that most of what goes on in our lives is material, when in truth, most of what goes on in our lives is supernatural. That temptation you or I battle often is the lie of the Enemy. He will attempt to seduce us, lie to us, accuse us, and shame us. And the more we become aware of it, the more intense the battle becomes because the last thing he wants is for us to be able to see him or his minions in the open. We underestimate how much he hates us. More than anything we underestimate the power of Christ to transform us through such hardships and fights.

Every aspect of our spiritual lives is tied to the Cross in this life. We enter into those Crosses in confident hope because we know that all will be made right in the end. We know that the battles we wage now, the victories and the losses, will be used by God for His plan and as a reflection of His glory. This is why we can praise him in our pain, trials, failings, rejections, betrayals, and afflictions. We know the pain now will give way to joy, even if it is not until the next life. In order to enter into this reality, we must be willing to play the long game. We must be willing to accept that we may not see victory in this life. Instead, we must fix our eyes on Christ crucified–our thorny-crowned Captain–and walk deeper into the piercing love He shows us by His sacrifice. It is why even if everyone around us rejects us, we can go on in faith, hope, and charity.

None of this is easy. We will want to quit. There are countless times, especially in the last few years, when I have had to fight through a lot of pain and confusion in prayer. I’ve repeatedly asked God if I can walk away when an affliction, hardship, or temptation seems to be too much for me. His response is always the same. “Yes, Constance, you can walk away or you can learn to love as I love.” Every single time without fail this is what Our Lord tells me in prayer.

He told me the same thing when I almost resigned from my ministry last week. The same thing whenever I’ve been hurt and betrayed by others, when I had to watch my husband suffer, when I had to give all I had to a stranger, when I agonized over the loss of my four babies, when I’ve held my daughter in her agonies, when I have been mocked, derided, or the victim of gossip, when I have felt alienated because of the depth of my charity and my desire to bring people deeper into the mystery of God, or when a friend admitted to me recently that she had betrayed me and abandoned me for a while because the intensity of my faith life and my charity proved too much for her at the time (all unbeknownst to me). The latter is all God’s doing. Any goodness and love in me comes from Him.

In essence what is God saying? He’s saying “Get back up. I’ve called you to love.” That’s what is required of you, me, and of all of us. It’s as simple and as deeply painful as that. When I feel the most beaten down, when I want to quit, God reminds me to keep going. The answer to all of our questions is love. We are to love with everything we have and more through grace. We can only love if we are willing to hurt. Love is not a remote, distant endeavor. Willing the good of another is to see them for all of the good and bad within them and still desire to see them succeed on the only path that matters: heaven. It’s to walk together despite those failings. This means forgiveness is necessary and it must be extended freely and repeatedly. We are all meant to help each other succeed. This is something married couples know well and it’s something real friends come to embrace once they see what real friendship is supposed to look like.

As brothers and sisters in Christ we are meant to fight side-by-side, not with one another. We are not in competition with one another. Our goal is supposed to be the same for all of us. Before we can embrace that goal, we must first ask God to place us firmly on the path to holiness and pray for the grace and strength to endure what will be required of us. It’s not an easy path. We can’t go into it thinking it will be or we will fail utterly. Instead, we must come to see that Our Lord is everything and then order our lives around that reality. Once we give everything to Him, we can embark on the journey and in so doing begin to walk with those around us. We can go on the journey because Christ is the one walking beside us.

As God works in each one of our lives to transform us into the saints we are meant to be, we will see our parishes flourish. We will see the renewal we all desire begin to unfold slowly in God’s time. We will see the love of the Cross transform all of this darkness into a new dawn. We will see the world through the eyes of faith, through the eyes of Christ, and we will be able to love as He loves. This is the answer we are seeking, but it’s the one we don’t want, because at the very center, looming large, is the Cross.

The Struggle to Write as God Intensifies My Spiritual Life

I have received quite a few emails and comments from readers encouraging me to keep writing. I’ve read every single one of them even if I didn’t get a chance to respond to you personally. I greatly appreciate your messages!

The past few months have been a time of rather intense and immense spiritual growth all of which God has accomplished in me. He gets all credit, honor, and glory. He’s taken me to places I never could have imagined, expected, or even known that I desired. He’s also required a very deep purging and purification on my part in various areas. It’s been intense. He’s not even close to finished with that process. All of this is aimed at Him answering my prayer to be able to love as He loves and to become a saint one day.

The things that have gone on I have shared in bits and pieces with a few different people and my priests know small parts, one as my Confessor and the other as my spiritual director. I don’t fully understand what God is asking of me at this point in time, so I’ve been careful in what I tell different people, for good reason. And the full extent is only known by God and me. Although, I’m slowly entrusting more-and-more to my spiritual director.

When God is asking us to grow in charity towards Him and others, betrayal and rejection are inevitable. In fact, it seems to become more common. It’s one of the ways He challenges us to grow in love. Going deeper into divine love and by extension fraternal charity is deeply scary. It’s one of the reasons the Apostles fled. It’s one of the reasons our impulse in those instances is to flee, whether we encounter it in others or God asks it of us. I have had to fight with every ounce of my being not to flee from what God has been asking of me and doing in my life. It is only in standing firm that I get anywhere. When I allow fear to take hold, I fall.

My constant friend and companion along this journey–the one I’ve found who understands what I’m going through right now–is St. Teresa of Avila. St. Therese is also a strong force in my spiritual life. God showed me at Adoration this past week that He has led me to the second water, once again through no merit of my own. This means that a stillness I’ve never known has entered my soul, even as I was deeply hurt by multiple people this week in my effort to serve Christ as He wants. I still cried a lot, but a steadiness and peace stayed with me even as I endured the pain. He’s given me the grace to pray for every single one of them, to forgive, and to accept the pain it’s caused that I know will pass in time. It was quite providential that these were the two verses God had me pray with over the last few days. It was all God’s doing that I started praying through the First Letter of St. Peter this week given what I found myself up against on multiple occasions:

Beloved, do not be surprised that a trial by fire is occurring among you, as if something strange were happening to you. But rejoice to the extent that you share in the sufferings of Christ, so that when his glory is revealed you may also rejoice exultantly. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, blessed are you, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. 1 Peter 4:12-14

Above all, let your love for one another be intense, because love covers a multitude of sins. 1 Peter 4:8

“Let your love for one another be intense” this is actually a different translation than the one I’ve been praying with, but it’s more fitting. A friend of mine recently told me that the intensity of my love and the intensity of my spiritual life will lead to me being rejected by a lot of people. No, I’m not a mystic. That isn’t what I mean. She wrote me a letter explaining something she had discerned through the help of St. Therese and St. Faustina in prayer where she was told to holdfast as my friend, even if it’s difficult. She doesn’t understand my spiritual life, but she’s willing to walk beside me.

She then confessed that she herself had betrayed me and distanced herself from me and my friendship for a year because of what friendship with me demanded from her. She saw her spiritual life change dramatically by being in my company, unbeknownst to me and through no fault of my own. It was all God’s doing. I was completely ignorant until a few weeks ago. Her revelation to me hurt me a lot, but God used it to fortify me for what is to come. Even though her words to me were a warning that my spiritual life would be deeply difficult, it’s given me a glimpse and helped me to understand in a small way what I’m going to be up against because of the path God has called me to. A path I could never have foreseen.

Her letter helped me to see how many of my relationships have played out and how they are continuing to play out in this way. By virtue of the personality and soul God has given to me, real (holy) friendship with me requires a swimming into the depths. It’s not something I intended, but it is apparently something God wants because those depths are in fact to seek true charity grounded in communion with Christ. It is only this year that I realized how my blog came to be called Swimming the Depths. God is asking me, and some of the people around me, to go into the deep and that is terrifying. I’ve pulled back and pushed back a lot, but when I finally let go God gives me the fortitude, charity, and peace that I need in specific circumstances in order to allow Him to work in my life. How often we impede God’s working in our lives through our fear and blindness!

Part of going into the depths is the willingness to go deeper into charity. When our love for others is “intense” it is actually much easier to forgive. The radiant love of God welling up and surging forth from inside of us burns away the iniquities of those around us from our sight. That doesn’t mean we don’t still hurt and mistrust, but it does mean that we can in charity–through grace–extend the forgiveness the person needs whether they are aware of it or not at the time. This ability is a grace that only can come from God since our immediate response to pain and betrayal is to walk away from those people. Instead, holy love requires us to stand fast even as the other person rejects us, even when they cannot see what God has allowed you to see.

Much of this probably makes little sense. It is the reason that whenever I have thought about writing, I cannot summon the words. I have to force myself to write my weekly contribution for Catholic Exchange right now because words keep failing me. Whenever I’ve tried to in some way explain a piece of it, I keep hearing ‘that’s nice, but I don’t understand what you are saying.’ Or worse, ‘depart from me.’ With the exception of the few instances of the Holy Spirit working through my Confessor and my spiritual director and the willingness of my friend to listen even as she doesn’t understand. My husband and I are very different spiritually and while his guidance has been indispensable, it’s still difficult for me to articulate to him.

I’ve also been beaten down a lot by the envy of other people and I must admit it’s brutal. This is not to make me sound like a victim. I’m not. It’s simply that I did not expect it and so I’ve had to learn to make peace with that reality so that I can push forward in God’s mission for me despite the very large obstacles that have been put in my path. I never knew until recently that spiritual envy is a thing. I can’t claim to be holy, but I’ve known holy people and my desire is to be like them, not to destroy them.

Growing spiritually can require us to go it alone wholly dependent on Christ for a while. It doesn’t mean that we isolate ourselves. That would violate what we are a part of in the Mystical Body, but it means that we may have to keep things to ourselves that we’d love to share simply because the people around us are not ready or do not want to hear it. It’s the difference between those who are to be fed on milk and those who are ready for solid food, as St. Paul tells us in the Letter to the Hebrews. It can be a rather lonely path at times, but thankfully Christ makes up what is lacking. Please pray for me as I pray for you.

Catholic Exchange: To See Others as Christ, Let Go of Pride

There is a sin that all of us who are not saints battle. It is the sin of pride. It causes division within ourselves and in our relationships with other people. We see the devastating impacts of pride in our families, friendships, relationships with co-workers, strangers, and in the inner-workings of the Church.

Pride is the original sin through which we desire to be God, to always be right, and to have power. No joy can come from pride, but we continue on this path in vain. It is only through an emptying out of ourselves that we are able to grow in humility and abandon pride through the grace God gives to us. It is when we forget ourselves that we are filled up and our relationships become what God means for them to be and we are infused with joy.

Love is not competitive. It does not seek power or to rule others. Instead love shows us how to turn towards others without concern for our own desires. In giving completely of ourselves we receive back infinitely more than we could have expected.

Christ shows us this lesson at the Last Supper when he washes His disciples feet. Christ the King of the Universe stoops to wash the feet of men who will, in a few short hours, flee from Him, except for St. John.

After He has washed their feet, He says:

“You call me ‘teacher’ and ‘master,’ and rightly so, for indeed I am. If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do. Amen, amen, I say to you, no slave is greater than his master nor any messenger greater than the one who sent him.

If you understand this, blessed are you if you do it. I am not speaking of all of you. I know those whom I have chosen. But so that the scripture might be fulfilled, ‘The one who ate my food has raised his heel against me.’ From now on I am telling you before it happens, so that when it happens you may believe that I AM. Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever receives the one I send receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me (John 13:13-20).”

Our Lord shows all of us what love and service look like in action. It is to leave behind desires for power, prestige, and control. It is to relinquish our grip on the petty things we hold onto so tightly. He invites us to a new way of growing in communion with others: the way of love and humility.

Read the rest over at Catholic Exchange.

Catholic Exchange: How To Approach Our Priests About the Scandals

One of the good things coming out of the evil that is the current sex abuse crisis in the Church is the call for a closer relationship between the laity and the clergy. The days of placing priests on pedestals passed with the first sex abuses crisis 17 years ago. This is a good thing because it allows us to get to work in cooperating with God’s plan for cleansing and renewing His Bride, the Church. Artificial barriers that have been put in place in the past, especially due clericalism, are breaking down as they must in order for cleansing and renewal to take place.

The priesthood is due our reverence for its sacred role and hierarchical function within the Church. Priests serve as our spiritual fathers who act in persona Christi—in the person of Christduring the Mass and in the Sacraments. They also serve as alter Christus—another Christ—to us and the world. It is because of this sacred role that they are due our respect and a properly ordered reverence. There is a considerable difference at the level of being between a priest and a member of the laity, but that does not preclude erroneous forms of separation between the two vocations.

While they should be men of considerable holiness, they are Fallen men, and their progress in the spiritual life will vary, just as it does within the laity and in the lives of religious. Most priests are not yet saints and so we must also view them in a more practical and merciful light. They afford us the same mercy and compassion as they shepherd us through our spiritual lives both through the Sacraments and in our daily dealings with one another.

All of us—laity and priests—need to find a more balanced understanding of our connection with one another in the communion we share, especially in this time of great scandal.

The laity has been demanding a greater role in response to the rampant sex abuse coming to light in various parts of the world. This is especially true in the United States. The laity wants more access to the hierarchy in order to bring their talents and gifts into the service of the Church. As long as the intention of the laity is to support and encourage the hierarchical Church, this is a great good, in my opinion. Why not embrace the different gifts that God has bestowed upon the members of the Church in order to purge and renew Holy Mother Church? Issues arise, however, when the laity oversteps its function and seeks power that God has not given to us.

We in the laity must remember that our role will always remain a much needed advisory role. God has given authority to the Pope and the bishops in communion with him. That means our priests who share in Holy Orders with their bishop have the ultimate say in our parishes and the bishop has ultimate say in a diocese. We cannot demand the ability to make decisions that are not ours to make, no matter how great the crisis. We should, however, offer counsel and guidance to our priests as we are able and as the gifts God has given to us allow.

Read the rest at Catholic Exchange.

Catholic Exchange: How We Can Grow in Divine and Fraternal Charity

A few days ago a friend of mine came to me to share some joyful news: She’s pregnant.

She felt some trepidation in telling me the news. This friend and I have suffered together through the grief of miscarriage; for her the loss of her daughter and for me the loss of four children, two daughters and two sons. She and I have stood at the foot of the Cross together bearing the agony of losing a child to miscarriage and learning to offer everything back to Christ.

She prayed with me at the local Planned Parenthood a few short weeks after my fourth miscarriage while she grieved her miscarriage that occurred a few months prior. We are sisters that Christ has bonded together through the shared pain of loss transformed in His eternal fire of love through emptying ourselves in service to the unborn. Even so, our paths are still very different.

“My path to holiness will differ from my sisters in Christ, just as theirs will differ from my own.”

By His grace, I have come to accept that I will not have anymore children. Our Lord’s will for me in this area is crystal clear. He has blessed us with our daughter, but my days of changing diapers and first steps are done.

This is an area spiritually where I fought hard against God’s will for years, only to discover that peace and joy are only found in living in accordance with His will over my own. I finally relinquished my grip and let go. I stopped comparing myself to other Catholic mothers and started to live the life that God has given to me. My path to holiness will differ from my sisters in Christ, just as theirs will differ from my own.

Even with this relinquishment on my part, my friend was concerned about sharing her wonderful news with me. She knows the tears I have shed in secret or at Mass because I miss my babies or because everyone around me my age seems to be pregnant. A couple of years ago the news would have been bittersweet for me. I would have been happy for her, but sad that I will never again get to deliver such amazing news again myself or hold another infant child in my arms that is my child.

Read the rest over at Catholic Exchange.