Looking Past the Monotony of Daily Living In Order to See God’s Gratuitous Love

Dolphin_at_Dalkey_Island

Image taken from Wiki Commons.

It is easy in our daily lives to discount the seemingly minor encounters or experiences we have throughout any given day. We are so busy going through the motions that we often forget to pay attention to where God is blessing us and showering us with His gratuitous love. He is always trying to draw us closer to Himself, but in our brokenness and the monotony of daily living we often don’t see it. I know that there are far too many days when I am merely going through the motions and not paying attention.

I had an experience last week while I was in Virginia Beach that served as a reminder that God is a loving Father who rejoices with us in our delight and who seeks to give us great blessings. Sometimes those blessing come in roundabout ways and through suffering and sometimes they come in daily gifts such as looking into your child’s eyes with love or engaging in a conversation with a friend. These blessings also come in Creation. They are the most often overlooked, I think.

We are so busy driving from one place to another and checking off our to-do lists that a lot of the time we forget to look up and look out. Mass can even become a drudgery and a part of this rat-race that is daily life. This typically occurs when our prayer life has grown stagnant, cold, or non-existent. How can we expect to find God at Mass if we ignore Him the rest of the week? We have to constantly live the mystery in order to move into the greater depths offered to us in the Mass and in prayer.

I know that my days when prayer is last on my list are much worse than the days when I begin the morning praying Lauds and opening my Bible. I’ve grown so accustomed to attending daily Mass that I miss it when I travel and can’t attend. I was gone all last week and since I can’t drive my husband’s work vehicles and that’s what we took to the beach for his conference, Mass wasn’t an option. Instead, I woke up every morning at 5:20 am and walked out onto the beach by myself in the early dawn light while my husband and daughter slept. I sat down on my beach chair, surrounded by ghost crabs cautiously watching me with their adorable steely-eyed stares, and waited for the sun to rise.

I began praying Lauds a few minutes before the sun rose at 5:44 am, so that I could be praying it exactly as the sun broke the horizon to begin it’s ascent. Moments like these have been an important part of my spiritual life for as long as I can remember. I love sunrise and sunset, but there is something particularly special about sunrise.

While I prayed in the morning I also asked to see some dolphins that day. It brings me great childlike joy to watch them playing and hunting off shore. Virginia Beach is known for its bottlenose dolphins. I wanted to go sea-kayaking with them at sunset one evening, but I fractured my fibula and severely sprained my ankle back in mid-April, so my Physical Therapist said absolutely not. Sea-kayaking typically requires a launch into the surf in my previous experiences and even though I am out of the boot for good, I am not cleared to jump for another month. I was disappointed and my husband promised that he will watch our daughter so that I can go next year. She’s not quite old enough to go out on the ocean, yet.

Since kayaking was out of the question, I simply asked God to see the dolphins the way I’ve seen them for years, swimming and hunting around some time between 6:30 am and 10:00 am. He answered my prayer in abundance. I saw them swimming for a couple of hours on Monday morning, but then the weather turned gusty and rainy for the rest of the day. Tuesday the surf was too rough to see them, but Wednesday was glorious.

The sunrise was incredible and the waves had calmed down quite a bit. My daughter and I were out on the beach all morning. I started seeing the dolphins around 8:30 am and they stayed out for most of the day. About 11:00 am I was standing in the ocean while my daughter played in the sand behind me. I wasn’t even up to my knees at this point when all of a sudden three dolphins popped up directly in front of me. They couldn’t have been 10 feet from me. I gasped in excitement as they jumped through the wave in front of me and I turned to Michaela and excitedly yelled “Dolphins!” at her. She stood up just in time to see them start racing down the shoreline. We were amazed they didn’t get beached, that’s how close to the shore they were. Michaela went sprinting after them down the beach. I would have, but I can’t run on my ankle yet so I quickly walked after her keeping my eyes on the dolphins and her. They ran towards a group of swimmers who mistook them for sharks while all of us tried to yell that they were dolphins not sharks. The dolphins then turned and went back out to deeper waters. I was struck with amazement and joy be the encounter.

Two friends of mine from that area–one a former Marine Biologist–told me this is very rare and a great gift. They don’t usually swim that close to shore. The whole day I was filled with happy excitement, telling everyone at my husband’s conference what had happened. Those dolphins were a gift. I had prayed to see dolphins. I only meant offshore like in the past, but this time God gratuitously answered my prayer. It can’t be a coincidence with all of that beach line and thousands of people up and down the beach that those dolphins happened to pop up right in front of me of all people.

Having a fractured fibula has been a more intense spiritual experience than I expected. I am a rather active person and I love to be outside. When I broke it, my kayak and my bike had to be put away. I couldn’t even take my daughter for a walk on the Greenway near the river. I’ve had to spend a lot of time sitting in bed or in the living room. The first couple of weeks I was completely dependent on the generosity of my friends who brought us meals since cooking was out of the question on crutches. I found myself face down on the ground on multiple occasions when I was learning how to walk on the crutches. The word that constantly came to mind was humilitas, God is teaching me humility.

Even with all of this difficulty, it’s been a spiritually fruitful time. Any progress I’ve made is God’s doing, but I turned to more frequent prayer, especially when I couldn’t get to daily Mass the first few weeks. I started to set my day to the rhythm of prayer and to accept the period of inactivity as an opportunity to spend more time with Christ. This inactivity was a good time to establish new habits that could flow into my daily routine when my period of activity returned, as it has now.

It was quite a blessing to be free of the boot and standing on the beach watching the sunrise. It was even more astonishing to be standing so close to dolphins that I could have reached out and touched them. And not to be outdone in generosity, my last morning in VA Beach as I watched the sun rise one more time, the dolphins came out of the bay and were swimming just off shore as the sun began to rise. They hadn’t been out at sunrise any other morning, but that last morning I saw 10 of them out in search of breakfast.

It would be easy to reduce this to coincidence or science. That’s exactly what our culture would do. The dolphins obviously need to eat throughout the day and a tour boat seems to be what caused the dolphins to become trapped leading them to the shore, but there’s no way they would have ended up in front of me of all people if I hadn’t asked with the faith of child to see some dolphins on my visit. I have a very strong connection to God through the beauty of nature. He has a habit of showering me with graces through the beauty of the outdoors and this was no different. I don’t get up before sunrise simply for the sunrise. It is as much a spiritual experience as it is a sensory one for me: body and soul.

God is this gratuitous with His beauty every single day. We are the ones who fail to notice it. In fact, far too many of us have grown numb and can no longer enter into and experience objective beauty. The sunset is merely the sun setting for the evening. The flowers are simply signs of spring and summer. The mountains are there every day. The ocean is the same ocean we see day-in-and-day-out or the prairie or the desert or the plains, etc. We have to maintain childlike innocence in relation to Creation to see the wonders and beauty God gives to us through it.

We have to open our hearts to the Divine Lover who seeks to woo all of us through the gifts of the universe. He reaches down to us body and soul through the senses. The material universe is a sign of His glory. The Sacraments are matter and form. They reach us body and soul. God always reaches us as we are created. We are the ones who end up off balance by an over-dependence or an under-dependence upon the material as it works in conjunction with the spiritual.

Watch a child. They stare at a dandelion as if it contains a whole universe within it. Somewhere along the way we decided that isn’t how adults act or we respond in apathy. There is a reason Christ says that we must be child-like. Only those who open their entire being up to Him in wonder and love can be filled up by Him. The dandelion, even if it annoys us because of the pristine lawn we aspire to, is a reminder of the goodness and beauty of God. We can see the detail, intricacies, and coloring in this “mundane” object that many people disdain. Each flower, animal, mountain ridge, river, crashing wave, etc. is filled with the intricate ordering of of a universe made by God ex nihilo by a sheer act of gratuitous self-emptying love. We are loved into being each day, but we have to open ourselves up to it.

We have to find the courage to plunge into the depths and it is scary. As C.S. Lewis says in The Chronicles of Narnia about Aslan: ‘He isn’t a tame lion, but he is good.’ Besides the depth found in the Mass, the greatest creation with us on this earth is found in our fellow human beings. Each person contains within themselves uncharted depths and the image of God. If we pay attention and we open ourselves up to others freely in charity, we can truly see Christ in other people. It is breathtaking and it reveals the vastness of the human soul made by God.

There is wonder, awe, beauty, and joy in communion with our fellow man grounded in Christ. God’s gratuitous love is extended to us through the people we encounter each day and the people who we form deeper bonds with such as our family and friends. Do we see the people God has given to us as He sees them? Would we see dolphins popping up in front of us after a simple prayer as a gift from Him? Life contains much monotony, but that monotony is transformed when we see God’s movement in every single moment of our day.

Catholic Exchange: Christmas-The Light in the Darkness

During Advent every year I try to imagine what it was like for the people of Israel as they waited for the fulfillment of the promises to Abraham, David, and the prophets. We live in a time after the Paschal Mystery, but we do still wait for Christ in the Second Coming. We approach Christmas each year knowing that Christ has come and He is reigning over the universe. We live in the light of the Son of God who became a baby, died a prophet’s death on the Cross, and rose from the dead.

The Israelites lived for centuries suffering exile, persecution, and darkness. As in our own Fallen lives, much of what they suffered was self-inflicted because of sin, but God repeatedly comes to their aid and our aid despite the battle we wage against the darkness in our own hearts. God never forgets us, nor ceases to forgive us when we come to Him with contrite hearts. Christ is the light of the world, or as Lumen Gentiumbegins: “Christ came to be the light to the nations (LG 1).”

The Solemnity of the Nativity of Our Lord is the time we celebrate the fulfillment of God’s plan to bring light to a Fallen world. As C.S. Lewis said in Mere Christianity:

Enemy-occupied territory — that is what this world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us to take part in a great campaign of sabotage.

Christmas is the stealthy landing behind enemy lines in which God condescends Himself to become a babe in a manger in order to bring about the salvation of the world. He descends into the utter darkness, weakness, and helplessness of the human condition so that He may shed a great light upon us and draw us into friendship with Him. This is accomplished in the most unexpected way imaginable!

There is little doubt as we look at the world around us that we live in Enemy territory. The news is a constant barrage of violence, injustice, disease, natural disasters, and suffering. Every single day people suffer immensely. In truth, the greatest suffering and tragedy to befall each one of us is sin. From a material perspective this doesn’t seem to be the case, but in truth it is spiritual wounds that cause the most damage to us and our relationships. Christ tells us: “There is nothing concealed that will not be revealed, nor secret that will not be known. Therefore whatever you have said in the darkness will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed on the housetops. I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body but after that can do no more (Luke 12:2-4).” Sin is what we do in darkness, but all will be brought into the light of God. It is this darkness that Our Lord seeks to free us from by His divine light.

Read the rest over at Catholic Exchange.

Catholic Exchange: Beauty Reflects God’s Love for Us

God is rather gratuitous in the beauty He bestows upon Creation. This is evident in crystal clear rivers descending into roaring waterfalls, the sun gently rising over the ocean, the quiet of sunset over snow covered peaks, misty trees golden by early morning light, and it is most profoundly seen in the eyes of our fellow sojourners: human beings. We are constantly surrounded by this gift of beauty, but do we see it? Do we accept it as a grand gesture from our Divine Lover? A friend of mine likes to say: “God woos us through beauty.” This is indeed true, if we pay attention.

I fear that many of us have been robbed of this truth. We live in cultures that have chosen banal, bland, boring, and utilitarian architecture or interior furnishings. We view human beings as a means to an end, an annoyance, or worse, as a burden. What person doesn’t feel the soul crushing utility upon entering a government building? This is true of the surroundings and the treatment of people who go there to do business. It is as if the true, the good, and the beautiful are intentionally kept out, so that we do not ponder higher things than our supposedly benevolent government.

This is also true of those sacred spaces stripped of their awe-inspiring power, thanks to the rabid iconoclasm of certain quarters due to the great misinterpretation and misrepresentation of Vatican II, often called “the spirit of Vatican II.” I have no intention of stepping into the Liturgy wars here, but I do believe that my generation was robbed of the beauty God means to bestow upon us and the beauty we mean to give back to Him as we participate in His creation through our churches and cathedrals.

We have forgotten how to look for God in beauty. Many of us don’t look up throughout our daily lives. We do not see the wonder surrounding us, even those who are surrounded by urban sprawl. This is just as true for Catholics as it is for our non-Catholic counterparts.  I have lived in urban, suburban, and rural settings throughout my life. Each one offers unique opportunities to find God in His Creation and in our worship of Him.

Read the rest over at Catholic Exchange.

Catholic Exchange: On Being Human and the Need to Wonder

I stood on a cold, frosty afternoon looking out the window at my daughter playing in the snow. She was bedecked head to toe with winter gear to protect her from the bitter wind, a wind she hardly noticed. Her fuchsia snow pants insulated her knees from the icy snow and she sat contentedly eating snow. She examined each handful before placing it in her mouth. She was struck by the uniqueness of each new handful. As I watched her, I was drawn into her wonder. I was struck by the obvious joy of that moment for her.  I realized in that moment, children often have their priorities in order, while we adults grasp at all the wrong things.

A pile of dishes was awaiting my attention, textbooks for my graduate courses sat opened, reminding me of work to be done. My elliptical machine, cold and mechanical, stood in the living room corner as an oppressive force of health and fitness. My mind was running with an endless list of things that must get done. And yet, I stopped to see what my daughter was doing in our backyard on a bitter cold winter afternoon. She had been begging me all morning to go outside and I made her wait until it hit 25 degrees. I have grown soft living in Southwestern Virginia; away from the arctic subzero temperatures of my upbringing in Montana.

I couldn’t help, but stop. There she sat, engrossed in wonder and serene contentedness. The very same serenity that alludes so many of us in adulthood with our deadlines, duties, and responsibilities. I realized that my daughter’s work was probably much more important than what I felt bound to complete in a begrudging sort of way. She was examining the secondary causes of God’s free and self-emptying Creation. I stood watching her examine each snow crystal before she placed it in her mouth. I entered into her wonder, her total giving of self to the moment. How could I not be drawn in along with her?

She did not feel the cold or complain about the weather the way we adults often gripe. Instead it was an opportunity for joy, play, discovery, imagination, and love. It was a moment for her to experience God through the beauty of His creation. She was living the good, the true, and the beautiful. How often do we brush off our child’s excitement over something seemingly mundane? How often do we miss out on the opportunity to enter into their wonder and joy of discovering something new for the very first time, or even the twentieth? How much do we ignore that God calls us to fully live in the present? Our children teach us the presence of God, but we pay little attention.

Read the rest over at Catholic Exchange.

The Proper Ordering of Art and Writing

The creative impulse is a deeply rooted aspect of the human person because we are made imago Dei and God is the Creator. This desire to share in the creative action of God is evidenced by thousands of years in which art, architecture, and the written word have been shaped in endless ways. We are made for the good, the beautiful, and the true and different disciplines help us to enter deeper into reality and into God. The question we have to ask ourselves is: Do I order my creative actions to God? Art in itself is a good, but it should draw us deeper into who we are as “embodied spirits” and point us home.

There is nothing quite like a beautiful piece of music, stunning painting, stained glass window, or a poem to remind us that we are not home. When the soul is elevated through beauty we sense in that ache deep within us that this cannot be all there is; there must be something more. This sense, which comes from faith, is meant to point us home. When we create, whether it be through painting, sculpting, writing, architecture, music, etc. we are  meant to glorify God in the process. We should raise our eyes to Heaven and give Glory to Him.

Catholics have a bad tendency to compartmentalize the different aspects of their lives. This is even apparent in Catholic artists. Many of us live in cultures where we are told our faith is a private matter, and this has been influenced greatly by the Reformation and rationalist philosophies over the last few centuries. The separation of Church and state in this country is often used as a cudgel on religious adherents because far too many do not grasp that this separation only extends to a formal state religion. As Christians, we have a right and obligation to live our faith freely. Unfortunately, too many of us fall for the lie and so we keep our faith to ourselves and the one hour we are required to give worship to God.

In reality, the Church teaches that every baptized member of the community is called to participate in the Divine Offices of Christ: priest, prophet, and king. We are called to sacrifice through charity, share the Good News with the world, and bring the world under Christ’s Lordship. There is no separation between our Catholic Faith and other aspects of our lives. How we live each moment of our day is meant to sanctify and help us to grow in holiness. What we do as an artist is meant to help us enter deeper into communion with the Most Holy Trinity and draw others into that communion as well. This can be done in countless ways.

Do we realize this reality as Catholic writers? I will focus on writing because that is the art form that God has given to me to share in His creative work in the world. It dawned on me recently that so many Catholics are busy arguing, disagreeing, and fighting that they do not realize that their primary–my–primary mission as a writer is to help draw people into the good, the beautiful, and the true and to point people to our Ultimate Home. This does not mean we cannot enter into suffering, pain, and darkness, those experiences point us to the Cross.

It also does not mean we have to be saints, yet. Often, we end up falling on false modesty to avoid the universal call to sainthood. I have a very long way to go and I pray God is merciful and patient with my weakness. The path to holiness is a life-long process. It does mean, however, that we need to take stock of why exactly we write. Is it our place to vent imprudently in cyberspace? Do we desire to share the beauty and truth of Catholicism with the world in charity? That charity is meant to be holy indifferent, by the way. Most of us have not achieved that level at this point in time. Is it an extension of our pride? Do we consider that we are serving God through our work? Do we consider the impact our work has on our readers’ souls? Do we prudently and prayerfully discern any work we produce before it is published?

I can say that I have written for all of the above reasons in some form. I have been writing since I was a child, and I went through a period where I desired esteem, praise, and as many social media shares as possible. I still struggle with the desire for praise. Reading St. Augustine’s Confessions frequently is a great reminder for people like me! This is a very real temptation and danger for writers in a world of immediate connection. I remember the rush of the first time one of my articles was shared and “Liked” on Facebook by 15K readers or when the comments on one of my articles went into the thousands. It is very easy to get sucked into the praise and adoration, and the criticism.

I started to see that the more I focused on these aspects of my work, the more despair I felt in response to criticism and the more often writer’s block would set in. The more I focused on me and my work, the more I would respond in anger or impatience to readers’ comments. You can probably see this if you look back on some of my work a couple of years back or even a year or so ago. It is true that every writer gets bizarre, incoherent, irrational, insipid, vitriolic, random comments on their work. We can have a tendency to focus too much on this group of vocal people, who are a minority. Most people read our work and go on. We have no idea how it has impacted them.

In reality, the reason many of us get so upset, is because we have not given our work entirely over to God. I still struggle with this problem. Some of my favorite pieces are the least popular and I will get frustrated. I sort of understand that nihilism, utilitarianism, and transcendent beauty are not high interest for many readers. The more I focus on me the more I will read nasty comments and fume. I can avoid these problems, which are only really impacting me, if I focused on why and for Whom I am called to write. It does not matter if I write about politics, Church polemics, current affairs, theology, philosophy, or the spiritual life, the  mission is always the same: To draw people towards God. We do this by pointing people to the truth to beauty and to goodness. We cannot achieve this mission if it is not even on our radar that God is the ultimate end of all of our work.

I write because I write. I write and don’t think about how it impacts people. I write to make myself feel better. I write out of pride. I write because I want to be published. Many of these are goods in themselves–pride is not–but they are not the purpose of our writing. God did not start publishing my work on a larger scale until I started to refocus more on Him. In fact, my first big publication (big to me) came out of nowhere.

God has given us a gift and He expects us to use it for His purposes. If we focus on His purposes over our own then we are less likely to be moved to one emotion or another when someone comments on our work, complains in social media, or even writes a negative response at another Catholic website. We are able to, by God’s grace, work towards a holy indifference in regard to our work. Focusing on God’s mission and desires helps us to focus on humility and it allows us to grow in holy detachment.

I no longer read all of the comments on my pieces that publish elsewhere. I cannot keep up with them on the secular sites I write for because there are so many. Plus, all I can do is put the argument out there and leave it to God to change people’s hearts and minds. I must commend my work to God for His uses and ways, not my own. Arguing with folks in comment sections does not accomplish much these days. Much of our work has to be left to prayer. My theology professors are always telling us that theology begins on our knees in prayer. The same goes for writers. If we want to truly transform the world and bring people to Christ then we will be people of prayer.  I struggle in this department as well, but I am working on it.

Disagreements are normal and a healthy aspect of the Church community, but how we go about those arguments and disagreements matters. If our work is truly meant for the Glory of God and to bring other people closer to God, then we should not be so focused on how everyone reacts to our work, nor should we be obsessed with always being right. This is sinful pride in action. Intellectual discourse between thinkers should be done with respect for the other person and a realization that other people are watching and reading. We will be held accountable for the people we lead astray. Whether we like it or not, people trust us. If we are focused on God’s use for our work, then we are less likely to fall into weakness, temptation, and pride in our work and dealing with others.

Everything we do should be ordered to God. It can be as simple as offering up the task of washing dishes or as complex as writing on the Summa. When we enter into the creative aspect of our nature, it is essential that we order ourselves to God first and then go about our task of creating. If we do not offer our work to God, we run the risk of falling short of His plan for us and even succumbing to temptation. Pride is a danger for all of us and for writers it can be difficult in an age of billions of “Likes”. A very blessed Advent to you all!

Guest Post: An Old Fisherman Waves Good-Bye

***The following is an article my dad wrote over at Ricochet and I wanted to share it here on my blog. My penchant for writing comes from my very talented father: A lawyer by trade in years past, philosopher by hobby, and writer by night. This is a story based on my grandfather with the occasional creative license. It caused knowing tears to stream down my face. My grandfather taught me how to fish and all of us grand kids. I will forever remember him fishing the ponds and lakes near Lewistown, Montana. Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord and let perpetual light shine upon him. He’s been gone 15 years, but looms large in our family’s memory.***

As the sun traveled westward a single tear dropped slowly down the old man’s face. He stared transfixed. Diamonds seemed to float atop the surface of the lake. He’d fished the lake for nearly thirty years, but he’d always been busy with the trout, unaware of the revelation atop the waters. He tried to add up the days he’d spent here. Like another old man, he’d seen many a great fish, and it was always bad news for those fish.

Today, though, he knew that the fish would have the final victory. The old man, bent and crippled now, quietly accepted that his fishing days were over.

Still, he couldn’t quite lay hold of the thought. Wetting a line was his entry into transcendence: Timeless and eternal. He knew now he’d deluded himself. He had always believed that God had revealed himself in the fish teeming in the depths. How could it be that God would take away the old man’s link to Him?

But God had spoken through the old man’s sufferings. The journey was at an end.

Now there was only time to reminisce, and what great memories the old man had!

So as he stood paralyzed with awe, the old man thought of the days when, as a boy, his father took him and his brother from New Mexico, across Texas, to Corpus Christie and the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico. These were glorious times. The old man’s father was a master of the sea, and guided his apprentices through the eternal truths of angling. Especially the lessons of humility. The fish, after all, prevailed far more often than the fishermen.

The old man half chuckled as he remembered the morning he and his brother woke early and sneaked off to rent an eight foot skiff and took to sea in pursuit of the creatures of the deep. Boys, of course, are boys, which means they are often too young to know they are fools. Not paying attention to anything but the fish, they’d not seen the tanker bearing down on them until the wake lifted the skiff skyward. At the last moment they heard a horn blast and looked up. Blue words shot from their mouths like a Gatling gun in perfect rhythm with the frantic oars: “Sh#t! Sh#t! Sh#t! Sh#t! Sheee###t!!!”

Needless to say, they’d kept that story to themselves. They would live to fish another day, so long as they didn’t tell their mother.

Back in New Mexico the old man fished the tributaries of the Rio Grande or hiked the rugged Organ Mountains in a sometimes fruitless effort to find a promising fishing hole. In springtime he could spy the full reaches of the Mesilla Valley. When the rains came the Valley would burst in the colors of the wild flowers; then in an hour the colors would be gone. That’s life, he thought, a now you see it, now you don’t affair.

Life never stands still for long and the day came when the family’s prospects in New Mexico dimmed. Like so many families of the times they set off for California in search of the promises of that land. They settled along the shores of Monterey where the old man cast his line into the bay. He loved to try the patience of the nuns by skipping school and disappearing into cannery Row to buy bait before heading to the Wharf. He learned so much more from the schools of fish than from the schools of fancy learning.

But he grew up and life would not leave him to himself. The war came and with it his sense of duty. Three years in the South Pacific left little time to fish; only time to seek the enemy. He’d been tempted to try the waters off Saipan, but the blood of battle had yet to wash out to sea.

But, with God’s good grace, and his mother’s endless petitions to St. Jude, the old man made in back, all his fingers and toes where they were meant to be.

He went back to the Wharf in search of peace and redemption. And he sought out a soul mate, someone who could tame the demons that chattered in his mind. He found her, or rather she found him, and they quickly joined hands—and created many children.

And he fished with a new urgency. Kids have a nasty habit of wanting to eat. There was little money, but there were many fish, and he cast his line and filled his creel, offering a prayer of thanks for each catch. In later years, his oldest son would say that no man ever praised God more.

And he taught his boys to praise through the fish. Now living in Montana, where fly fishing is the unofficial religion, he took them to the rivers and ponds and tirelessly guided them in the finer aspects of catching big ones. Three of the four turned into scholars of the art, while the fourth excelled at throwing rocks to scare the fish away. The boy had no concern for the fish; he simply lived to irritate his brothers, who themselves learned something about blue words. The old man was stern in his warnings, but lax in enforcement. Boys must fight their way to manhood, and the old man figured his sons wouldn’t kill each other—probably.

Later, when the kids headed off on their own roads to the straight and true, he’d made peace with the fish, which he now caught and then released. He thought often of those days of family fish feasts. Now, however, he heard a whisper reminding him that there were other young fathers and other small children who would need the ones he threw back. Now with each fish he threw back, he added a prayer for young fathers everywhere.

The years wait for no man, but they are also abundant in new gifts. He had time now to sneak off to the lake in the middle of the day, the only fisherman in a suit and tie.

Sometimes his wife would join him. After all those years of cleaning fish she had no desire to wet a line, so she would sit on a lawn chair or nestle in the car reading a book while the old man fished. Truth be told she came along only to make sure the old man was still afloat. He’d taken to fishing by inner tube, a Rube Goldberg contraption made of canvass to cover the tube, which wrapped around the waist. With flippers on his feet, and a plaid newsboy cap on his head, the old man backed into the lake with a Daffy Duck waddle. Sometimes she could almost hear his glee, a Daffy voice shouting “Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy.” Then he would paddle hither and yon in search of the perfect spot.

Once, when his wife decided he was on his own, the tube burst and the old man floundered, pretty sure he was headed for the reaches down under. But his guardian angel, probably a celestial fishermen himself, transferred just enough heavenly power for the old man to lurch and paddle his way to the shore. Shades of the Gulf of Mexico.

But today the old man had only time to reflect. His life, he mused, had been a constant fishing trip. There had been days of abundance when the catch nearly swamped the boat, and days of frustration when nothing would bite. But it was the journey that mattered. He’d traveled far. He had seen a thousand fish, and floated a thousand waters, but his energy sapped, it was time to hang ‘em up. But not a time to give up. Rather a time to keep moving toward a new beginning. Old men ought to be explorers, after all.

In a final valediction, the old man waved his hand to bless the lake, thanked both God and the fish, turned, and waved goodbye.

The Wisdom of Children and Hope in Suffering

My daughter is my greatest teacher. This seems strange in a world where children are reduced to a means to an end or even viewed primarily as accessories. In the West, children are something we have on our own terms. They do not exist for their own sake; they only exist if we will it. This is of course bunk. Any mother or father who has truly embraced parenthood knows that the entire meaning of our lives is to love and be loved in return. We love imperfectly, but it is why we are here.

Children teach us to love. They remind us of how selfish we are, which is the main reason so many in the West have abandoned parenthood. Parenthood comes with sacrifice and hard work. We don’t like having to look in the mirror, and children have a penchant for lifting up the mirror to our faces each day in order to reveal our failings. Parenthood is also the intermingling of joy and sorrow.

Our children take on our worst traits first, and then some of the good. It is one of the great struggles of parenthood. It is something that takes most of us by surprise and causes great disappointment within us. The last thing we want is for them to take on our bad traits. Our child will mutter some expression or respond in a manner that reveals our worst selves and how these little ones have absorbed exactly what we wish them to avoid. It should leave us stunned and humbled; pushing us to do better. Parenthood is to go on a journey. It is to walk along with a person who can reveal the good and the evil inside of our own hearts. The hope is in the end we will both have attained holiness, by God’s grace, and our perseverance.

Lately I have been contemplating the nature of suffering. I myself have entered a period of intense suffering. It has been a month since my fourth miscarriage. The original grief started with frenetic energy, an attempt to avoid the inevitable spiritual and emotional pain, and it has now lulled into the numbness that inevitably surfaces after a loss. I am also not one of those women who bounces back quickly physically. My body is a complete mess right now and all I can do is wait for it to reset. It took a year with my third miscarriage. Hormone deficiencies are exacerbated through miscarriage and the intensity of grief adds great emotional and spiritual weight.

My daughter has responded as well as a 5-year-old can be expected to respond in the face of my recent miscarriage. She only knows what it is to be an only child and she does not have the ability to comprehend the depths of grief at this point. I am thankful for this because no 5-year-old is mentally prepared for such gulfs. That does not mean she does not suffer. In fact, she suffers deeply through loneliness.

If ever there was a child who should not be an only child it is my daughter. Since a very early age, she has demonstrated a deep and open love towards other people. She is social, kind, and greets everyone she meets. She is an extrovert to the core, which she gets from her daddy. She accepts every child she comes across as a new friend and she is deeply hurt when that friendship is not reciprocated. She engages adults and children in conversation wherever we go and she is wholly unaware of her place as a child in society. She functions as a human person among other human persons.

She greatly desires a sibling. Yes, much of it has to do with the desire for a playmate, but she also wants a sibling to love, take care of, and lead. Mommy can only fill that void to a very limited extent. She reveals the ontological reality that all people are made for communion with God and with other people. We are social creatures by nature. She intuitively knows that she doesn’t belong alone. She knows that she is made to commune, to be in deep relationship with other people. She feels her status as an only child at a profound level. As her mother, I share in this Cross with her. The Crosses I face on my own are nothing compared the level of pain I endure in watching my daughter suffer. I would take all of her Crosses on if I could, but I know that is impossible and not even what is best for her.

It is a mother’s greatest desire to relieve their child’s suffering. One of the great battles I wage right now is in realizing that my daughter’s suffering comes from the fact that I cannot seem to have any more children. I cannot will my body to carry a pregnancy to term. I could not keep the four babies I have lost alive. My grief is exacerbated by my daughter’s loneliness. I can’t take her loneliness away. For reasons that are largely mysterious to me, God has willed only one child for us. No matter how much I yell at Him or my own body, I cannot change that fact.

My daughter is very good friends with our neighbors who have four children. She plays with them frequently, but she does not understand why she can’t play there whenever she is available. She doesn’t understand their need for family time. There are many times I have stood watching her, shoulders drooped, tears streaming down her face, and wails coming from her throat, because she is not welcome to participate in whatever is happening next door. She wants to commune and come to the party. She sees that community is a part of her deepest self and that Heaven is the realization of this reality as we enter into communion with the Most Holy Trinity.

No my daughter does not understand this at a theological level. She understands it at the deepest level of experience and I see it every single day. I walk it with her as I watch her struggle with loneliness. I long to take her loneliness from her. She isn’t a play-by-herself kind of person. She doesn’t cut herself off from her neighbor. Instead, she invites others in and she wants others to invite her into relationship. She waits for others to play and then she embraces everyone she meets.

My only hope is to trust that God will use her loneliness for some good. I must trust that He gave her the heart that he did because of the mission He will give her later in life and so she can touch lives now in true charity. I have to find some comfort, no matter how difficult right now, that all of this intense grief and suffering will come to some glorious end in God’s infinite wisdom and plan. Right now, I can’t see it, and chances are, I will never understand why my body is the way it is or why my husband and I have lost four children. It is as Bishop Barron points out in his Catholicism series: I am staring at a pointillist painting from an inch away and all I can see are dots. All I see is my pain and my daughter’s suffering. I am unable to stand back to see the whole masterpiece until I stand before the Glory of God, and based on past writings of the saints, the answers probably won’t even matter. Pax Christi.

 

I Have No Desire to Be an “Expert”

Our society is filled with “experts”. There are experts in politics, medicine, theology, philosophy, science, sociology, psychology, business, and the list goes on and on. An expert is someone who seems to know everything that needs to be known about a particular discipline. This should immediately put us on guard. Anyone who thinks they know everything that needs to be known about a subject, clearly knows very little. Humilitas is the hallmark of the wise. This is how we have been given the Socratic method.

Socrates is told by his friend Chaerephon that the oracle at Delphi told him that Socrates is the wisest man in the world. Socrates’ first question is: How can this be? How could he be the wisest man in the world? He is even more perplexed because the oracle cannot lie. So he goes on the mission of engaging with other philosophers and “experts” to discover the truth of the oracle. He quickly learns that most philosophers or sages of wisdom held themselves up in high esteem. They do not see their own limitations in knowledge or practice of what they teach. Socrates acknowledges his own limitations, and so, the necessity of humility in attaining wisdom is born. In this humility, Socrates proves to be wisest, precisely because he does not consider himself to be so. He recognizes that truth and wisdom are never fully exhausted. We must first come to know our limitations and then we can proceed on the journey towards wisdom and truth.

The expert is the exact opposite of Socrates. The expert holds up their knowledge as superior and ultimate. We watch news programs and are inundated with experts. The primary goal of all of these experts is to tell us how to think. How often does a self-purported expert tell people to study the matter in question for themselves? True, I am not going to delve into quantum physics at this point in time, but the opportunity is open to me should I decide to learn at least the basics.

G.K. Chesterton lamented the dawn of the age of experts. He saw immediately that it creates a power struggle and make us intellectually lazy. The expert removes our own responsibility in learning. We no longer consider whether or not what is presented comports with reality, which is truth. We are all called to be philosophers, or seekers of truth (Fides et Ratio). In fact, we are all naturally philosophers, that is what Pope Saint John Paul II meant. Every single person asks the question “Why?” on a regular basis. Why am I here? Why is there something rather than nothing? What is the meaning of my life? Does life have a purpose? Is there an after life? And the list continues on.

When we abdicate our own natural inclination to search for truth and wisdom, we leave ourselves trapped in a type of adolescence where we wait for other people to tell us how to live, act, vote, or understand a certain discipline. As Catholics, we submit to Holy Mother Church, but that is because we have learned through faith and reason, that Christ established the Church, it is the Holy Spirit who gives her form (life),  and that the Church will guide us ultimately to truth. Our job is to swim into the depths and plunge deep into the truth of the Most Holy Trinity through the Church.

I do not write because I am an expert. Theological study has revealed to me just how little I know. If that is not how a person responds to graduate level work in the expansive mysteries of our faith, then they are doing it wrong and they missed Socrates’ lesson. In fact, every good theology program requires the reading of Plato’s, The Trial and Death of Socrates. Humility is a requirement of any good student of truth. That doesn’t mean we do not battle intellectual pride. That is a great temptation for any student, including the student who labors at home in the autodidact fashion, rather than through formal study at a university.

There is a very real and tempting danger in academia to desire the position of expert. I know that I have fallen into this trap at times. There is great power in knowledge, but it must be harnessed and ordered to the good, the true, and the beautiful. My desire for self-gratification is not a properly ordered understanding of the knowledge God has given me, nor the intellect He gave to me. I did not create this intellect. I did not create the truths I study. I did not create the universe. I merely share in a limited fashion what belongs to Him.

My purpose as a writer is to open up the world to my readers. We are sojourners. We are on a journey towards truth together. Teachers, writers, artists, etc. are not meant to be “experts” we are meant, first to be students ourselves, and second, to point the way in whatever limited way God allows us to do so. When I write, I want to point towards the ultimate Source. I want my readers to jump into the deep. I want you to open up great works of theology, literature, philosophy, Church documents, Church history, art, etc. Sure everyone’s intellect is different, but that does not mean we cannot learn something, even if we walk away somewhat baffled. We should all walk away feeling small and unworthy in the face of great mystery.

There is nothing more complex or humbling than studying the very limited theology we have on the Trinity. Upon reading treatises–what few there are–on the Trinity our brain should hurt, and yet, our souls should soar. Terms such as procession, filiation, circumincession, spiration, paternity, relations of opposition, and tota simul are enough to make a person’s head spin. They only scratch the surface of the great mystery of the Most Holy Trinity.

When we read an article or a book, we should look to the author as a guide and fellow traveler. We do not hold them up in some supreme place and presently halt our own thinking and philosophizing. Instead, we should mull around what the author is saying and truly come to understand within ourselves what is being said. In the case of Church documents, there may be times we are quite literally wrestling with God, as Jacob did. We all wrestle with God and we all lose, but we become closer to our true selves as we allow God to deepen our understanding of Him, even in the struggles.

When you read my work, no matter where it is found, never think of me as an “expert”. I want you to go read the resources I provide. I want you to learn more than me. I want you to swim deep into the truth. There are so many great teachers in world history and I only play at it. I am formed by my teachers: Aquinas, Aristotle, Plato, Augustine, Justin Martyr, Benedict XVI, John Paul II. These are only a few in a very long and ever expanding list. Take my 1500 words and allow them to point you towards your destination: truth. That’s it. I want you to pick up the books I have read. The documents I study. That’s where I want you to go. The last thing I want is for you to think my 1500 words are good enough or the end of the story.

We live in a culture of instant gratification. We think 1500 words is good enough. It’s only good enough if we do not desire truth. It is only good enough if we want to remain trapped in mediocrity or to never try to understand why we are here.  If you read one of my articles and do not desire to plunge into the depths, then I am failing you as a writer. God bless you on the journey….

Teaching Beauty Over Sexy to Our Daughters

My family and I just spent 5 days at the Outer Banks of North Carolina. It was my first visit to the islands. It is an absolutely beautiful area. My husband and I are not big on the most popular beaches near us such as Virginia Beach, Myrtle, or Hilton Head. We don’t like crowds. The nice thing about the OBX is there are miles and miles of beach, which helps to minimize crowds and make for a peaceful vacation. While we were there my daughter and I perused a couple of the beach stores. She wanted a souvenir and needed some new sunglasses since she had left hers at home by accident. While we were in one of the stores, my daughter found a Frozen bathing suit that she really liked, a two piece.

In my early Twenties, I gave into the predominant culture that says women need to show off their bodies. This was further driven by the fact that I was in the military and in peak physical condition. I worked out 6 days a week and while I do the same thing now, vanity is always a struggle that must be fought against. I dressed modestly, but smartly back then. I never had any desire to wear short skirts lest I be stuck pulling them down all day and I also never had any interest in tops that showed a lot of cleavage. I am outdoorsy, so I had a more Eddie Bauer or L.L. Bean look to me than anything else. I still do. That is my Montana upbringing influencing my style choices.

When it came to going to the beach with my friends, I ended up choosing a bikini with short board shorts. It was what everyone else had bought on our shopping trip and I decided to join in. In reality, I felt self-conscious and realized any male attention I was drawing was not the kind I was ultimately looking for. I remember quite clearly trying to hide in the waves as much as possible on the crowded Ocean City, MD beach. Plus, nobody mentions that string bikini tops get knocked off by the waves, so that creates it’s own battle and embarrassment.

Flash forward 15 years and I now see why I felt so uncomfortable. Women are beautiful creations of God. Paintings, sculpture, and all mediums of art have portrayed the wonder of the female form. There is something good, mysterious, and alluring about the female sex. The problem arises when we distort that beauty and turn it into lust. The culture preaches lust and sexy over beauty. The skirts these days stop just below the butt and the tops leave very little to the imagination. Prom dresses look more like swimming suits than gowns. All of this tells our daughters that sex is the only way to get a man. It also doesn’t allow them to be comfortable in their clothes or their own skin. Watch teenage girls these days. They spend a lot of time re-adjusting their clothes because they feel self-conscious with so much skin showing.

Men are visual creatures. There is nothing wrong with admitting this fact. Ask any man and he will admit this truth. Men are drawn to the female sex because God made us as their helpmate and for the propagation of the species. We are meant ‘to go forth and multiply.’ This call has of course been sterilized, no pun, by the contraceptive mentality of Western culture. This is part of the reason women have been reduced to an object and told that being sexy is a requirement. We have not been freed by post-modernism. Instead we have been enslaved and reduced to the sex object we supposedly were fighting to avoid.

A woman should desire to be beautiful, body and soul, to a man; not an object of lust. Sexual desire is a healthy and even holy aspect of marriage. Sexuality is a gift from God and in no way should it be viewed with derision. Any thoughts that sex is dirty or wrong comes from Puritanical views of human sexuality that are diametrically opposed to the Catholic worldview. Sex is holy, period.

We need to teach our daughters that modesty is beautiful. If they want a man to see them as a person, then they cannot dress in a manner that is meant to incite lust. That is hardly just. Women cannot claim that men should learn to control themselves when we are intentionally trying to insight desire in men who are not our husband. We have an obligation to protect our brothers in Christ and to not be a near occasion of sin for them, but it is more than that. We should be respecting ourselves as unique creations from God who are meant to complement men. We are shrouded in mystery because of our ability to be co-creators with God. A woman can be beautiful in a bathing suit that is meant to complement the features of a woman, rather than show as much as legally possible. A knee length dress shows off the natural curves of a woman more than the shortest skirts. I tend to hold to the rule if I can’t genuflect in it then I am not wearing it.

I can’t explain all of this to my 5 year old right now. She doesn’t understand why I told her we don’t buy two piece bathing suits, except a tankini that covers as a one piece. We will have these discussions as she matures into a young woman, and often. I plan to tell my daughter that modesty reveals her dignity and beauty to men. I am not saying frumpy. I am saying modest. She can save sexy for her future husband. There will be plenty of time for that when marriage comes, if that is the vocation God calls her to in adulthood.

It is time to teach our daughters that they are beautiful gifts from God and that is how men should view them. We need to stop being a part of the problem and treat our brothers in Christ with the charity and respect they deserve. We’ve bought into the lies of our culture. Let’s abandon those lies for the beauty of our Catholic faith and the true dignity of men and women.

Miscarriage: Ramblings of the Grieving

Today I am on my way to the Outer Banks in North Carolina. My husband and I decided to make a very last minute mini-vacation, so that we could spend some time together as a family during this period of grief. Ever since I learned that our baby died, all I have wanted to do is sit in the sand and listen to the waves. Nothing more. Just the crashing of the waves and the sense of smallness that comes from proximity to the ocean. This isn’t a typical response for this mountain girl, but it is what I need at this time. I’ve always wanted to visit the OBX and while the timing could be better, perhaps now is when we were supposed to go all along.

There is no running away from grief, but a change of scenery can offer new perspective and even the freedom to fully grieve. It seems perfectly natural to cry and unleash sorrow while sitting beside the ocean. There is a type of purification in it. The raging waves match the agony of loss, while the water washes away and cleanses the anguish. Water is always a reminder of Baptism. That may be why I need to go. I am struggling to see the goodness of God in all of this. He knows that. He also knows that my healing begins with beauty. That is why I have a rose garden dedicated to all of my babies. My husband will select a rosebush for the loss of baby Andrew.

Once the initial grief has subsided, it is beauty that always brings me back to the Father. In the beginning the anger, anguish, and pain is too overwhelming for me to turn readily to Him through the overt actions of the Catholic tradition. I am weak that way and my faith is still too fragile. I haven’t been able to pick up my Rosary, pray Lauds, or even pick up my Bible in a week. Holiness is a journey and there are times I feel like I haven’t even stepped onto the path. My trust has been shattered. I am still a baby on the spiritual journey and while the loss of my four babies has not turned me into an atheist, it has certainly returned me to a childlike state. I guess that is part of the point of suffering. All of the theological study in the world cannot prepare me for the devastation of losing four babies. All of the answers are in my head, but they cannot get past the immense emotions and pain that are raging inside of me right now. I know in time I will find consolation in theological study, which I enjoy so much, and the answers, the few we have in the face of such mystery, will sink deep once again. My copy of the International Theological Commission’s, The Hope of Salvation for  Infants Who Die Without Being Baptized, sits on my desk waiting for when I am ready to re-read it.

None of this means my faith is gone. I do not grieve without hope, but the pain is too new for me to pretend that I am handling this situation in a saintly manner. Although I am not sure most of the saints would be able to ignore their humanity and the devastation of death completely either. We grieve precisely because death is unnatural for human beings who possess an immortal soul. We are the bridge between the material and the immaterial. Our human experience is through body and soul. Grief has become a “natural” byproduct of the Fall.  At this point, I am not able to chalk this all up to the will of God and move on. I am not going to pretend that I am anywhere near that point right now. No. It doesn’t contradict any of the words I have written in the past. Even though I hurt now, I have no doubt that somehow I will come out of this a better Catholic. I don’t know how or when. Even though I am angry at God and feel like He has taken my beloved child from me and I cannot understand why, He will lead me through all of this, even if I keep a bit of distance in the beginning. This is an honest look at grief, at least my grief.

Mass is hard right now. All I can do is sit in the back and sob all of the way through. There are so many babies. Their cries, laughter, and squirming reduce me to a pile of blubber. They are the reminder that I will never get to hold my child, or hear them laugh, or fight them through Mass because they can’t sit still. What a blessing to fight a child through Mass! How many parents, including myself, have never thought of it in that way? The first Baptism after this loss will be very hard. The Baptisms always hurt right after the loss. It reminds me that I won’t get the joy of bringing my child to become a member of the Church and to have original sin washed away. I have been robbed of that joyous occasion. True that I trust that they are in Heaven, but that aspect of my motherhood is gone.

I can’t bring myself to go up to Holy Communion. My agony is so great at this point that I can’t seem to put one foot in front of the other to go. I still go to Mass. In times like these, it is a blessing that Mass is an obligation and requirement of the Faith. It keeps me going, when my pain would rather keep me home. The sense of betrayal I feel makes it hard for me to go forward. Somewhere beyond the grief, I know that He is waiting for me, but I am having the hardest time going. I need to get to Confession, not because I am particularly concerned about grave sin, but because it has helped me after all of my miscarriages. It helps me get through the anger and gives me hope in the darkness. Confession is a habit my husband and I formed early on in our marriage. He goes weekly and I go bi-weekly. I should probably go weekly while I am grieving and because it will help on the path to holiness. I should start going weekly, period. Confession will give me the strength I need to walk up for Holy Communion during this time of great suffering.

Losing someone we love requires us to learn to walk again. We have to learn to live differently. Our hopes and dreams that revolved around that person are gone. There will be no crib. Our daughter will not get to know her brother, or her other brother and two sisters we trust are in Heaven. We don’t need to re-organize her room so that she can share a room with her new baby sibling. All of the baby items we purchased are in a corner upstairs next to my desk. I harden my heart whenever I look at them otherwise it will reduce me to sobs. We were planning that this Christmas would be about preparing for the baby and now I can’t even bear to think about Christmas. I don’t need to buy big sister items for my daughter or to ask my family that their gifts this year be for the baby. These are all things I had already thought out and planned.

My dad pointed out to me the other day that because our culture dehumanizes the unborn, we often forget that a person has been lost in a miscarriage or an abortion. An unrepeatable, incommunicable (to use a philosophical term), unique person. The baby I just lost had within him all of the potential that God created Him to be from the moment of conception. His DNA was formed, the God given life within him that would make him the man he would become was all present. The baby I would have given birth to would have become a child, then a teenager, and then a man. This is reality. I wasn’t going to give birth to a water buffalo. I was pregnant and going to give birth to an amazing, unique person and that person has died. There is a void in my heart that will never be filled for the rest of my days on this mortal coil. There are four persons who I have lost and who I miss every single day.

Side Note: I am intentionally putting the word “miscarriage” in all of my titles on this topic. This is to help those who are also grieving a miscarriage to see that these posts are about miscarriage grief. It works better for search engines too. My ramblings may just be ramblings, but I hope that they help others feel not so alone who have been through this type of suffering. PAX.