The Saints and the Cross Episode 2: St. Therese of Lisieux

Today I cover two aspects of St. Therese of Lisieux’s teaching: Doing small things with great love and persevering in trial and testing knowing it is a sign of God’s love for us.

Today is my 39th birthday. I’m requesting that anyone who views this video or stops by the blog to offer a prayer for our priests, bishops, and Holy Father. In your kindness, after you pray for your own parish priests, please remember mine: Fr. Kevin and Fr. Christian. I pray that Our Lord may unleash tremendous graces on our priests through the Immaculate Heart of His Mother.

Here’s a beautiful prayer you can offer written by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI who is a fellow April birthday.

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s Prayer for Priests

LORD JESUS CHRIST,
eternal High Priest, you offered yourself to the
Father on the altar of the Cross and through the
outpouring of the Holy Spirit gave your priestly
people a share in your redeeming sacrifice.
Hear our prayer for the sanctification of our priests.
Grant that all who are ordained to the ministerial
priesthood may be ever more conformed to you,
the divine Master. May they preach the
Gospel with pure heart and clear conscience.
Let them be shepherds according to your own Heart,
single- minded in service to you and to the Church
and shining examples of a holy,simple and joyful life.
Through the prayers of the Blessed Virgin Mary,
your Mother and ours,draw all priests and the flocks
entrusted to their care to the fullness of eternal life where
you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

Amen

Love is the Cross: The Agony of 9/11

Suffering agony in this life isn’t easy. It doesn’t matter if that agony is our own or our neighbor’s. All of the calls to radical individualism and self-reliance are lies in the face of the ontological reality that we are all bound to one another. God has created us for union with Him and communion with one another.

This truth has unfolded in my life in a variety of ways, but one of the earliest and most visceral was through my experience as a 9/11 relief worker. I didn’t dig in the rubble. Instead– without fully understanding the long term impacts–I walked into the depths of human suffering as a relief worker to the bereaved. At 20-years-old, I felt rather helpless, but I knew that I wanted to do something, so I went

There is nothing that could fully prepare me for that level of suffering in others. I was a nominal Catholic at the time, so I didn’t understand our call to endure the agony of the Cross alongside Our Lady and St. John as much as I do now, but I lived it and embraced it even in my ignorance. The weight of it all nearly broke me because I didn’t yet understand that I could not carry such things without a total reliance on Christ, and it was Our Lady, Our Sorrowful Mother standing at the foot of the Cross who stood by me throughout it all, since like most 9/11 relief workers, the horrors stayed with me–and still do to this day–for years afterwards.

The strongest memory I have of the deep suffering of those grieving the loss of their loved ones through an act of cowardly violence, was during my first visit to the crash site with 400 family members. My friend and I were tasked with setting up a memorial table where the loved ones could place pictures and items in remembrance of their loved ones. We were still in rescue mode at the time, but one look at the crash site and we all knew everyone was dead.

As I stood beside this table in my dress whites, each person would come up to the table to set their item down. Many were sobbing uncontrollably. A woman, probably only 3-4 years older than myself, collapsed on the ground in front of me in agony. Her fiancé had been on flight 77. There was nothing I could do to distance myself from her agony. I was plunged into it with her and began to cry all while trying to be a strong military woman…whatever that even means in these circumstances.

As I stood there trying to keep it together with tears streaming down my face with each new family member’s suffering, the three star general I was directly working for, walked up to me and said: “Are you alright, Sailor?” I told him yes. I’d never seen so many stars on a shoulder, so I was trying to keep my military bearing while also grieving alongside the families. He himself had lost his best friend, had smoke inhalation from trying to save others, and was now tasked with the awesome responsibility of helping all of the grieving families.

The Cross does something to us. It’s supposed to. It cuts us deep. It opens up depths within our souls we didn’t know were there until moments of agony occur. It is through this deep penetration of suffering that we are opened to love. If we avoid it, then we cannot love as we are supposed to. We cannot love expansively. We become closed in, or caved in on ourselves, when we avoid our own suffering or the suffering of others. 

The Apostles, save St. John, fled the Cross. They ran from the agony, but St. John was opened up to the mystical depths of union with God precisely because he stays with Our Lady and the other women at the foot of the Cross. He suffered in love. I didn’t know what I was doing in my desire to run to the foot of the Cross on 9/11, but it forever changed me. It opened me up to the willingness to suffer in love for others and to use my own suffering for the good of others. It paved the way for the path I’m on now.

Love requires fortitude. True love is not easy. It is agonizing at times, but it is what we were made for. The happiness we seek is intermingled with joy and sorrow in this life. We are a selfish lot. Suffering is the single greatest tool that God uses to teach us how to love as we ought to. If we want to see as Christ sees, to love as Christ loves, and to forgive as Christ forgives then we must be willing to embrace the Cross in all of its horror, awe, and joy.

The Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross is this coming Saturday. Through this feast, we lift high the Cross as the answer to all that ails this Fallen world. It is not a sentimental action, far from it. It is a call to love through the sorrow, sin, and suffering of this life, because it is through the Cross that we are transformed. The happiness we seek is found in an ancient instrument of torture, where the Son of God conquered sin and death. It is in self-emptying love that we become who we were created to be. Christ calls us to follow Him to Calvary and to endure its agony, so that we can become radiant in love. This is the very meaning of our lives.

Catholic Exchange: Evangelizing Through Christian Friendship

As Christians, our lives and our relationships are meant to be different from the prevailing culture. We are witnesses to Christ crucified and risen from the dead, who is the cause for our joy. As the Mystical Body, the communion we share with one another is one of the ways that we are able to draw others into the love of the Most Holy Trinity and to the eucharistic banquet. When people see the love we have for one another, they should immediately see the love of God dwelling within us. 

As witnesses, we are not meant to draw attention to ourselves, but rather, to the gift of the Holy Spirit who dwells within each one of us. There should be a dynamic at work in our friendships and relationships that leads people to wonder in amazement at the love we have for one another, and it should awaken within them the desire to enter into that love. Our bonds of love in friendship—or any other loving relationship—is a reflection of God’s love for mankind. Our friendships are meant to be infectious and life-giving. And while there will always be varying levels of intimacy and affection in each one of our relationships with individuals, the joy in the love of Christ that we share in those relationships should always be inviting to others so that love and communion can deepen and flourish within the Mystical Body.

When our relationships are grounded in the love of Christ, they take on a new quality. There is a closeness that becomes evident to others. I’ve been thinking about this in my own relationships. I’ve noticed that the more my relationships are focused on the love of Christ, the more other people, even within my own parish, ask me about them. I am frequently asked if one of my closest friends is actually my biological sister. I tend to reply with: “Yes, she is my sister in Christ, but we aren’t biologically related.” Our friendship is centered on our mutual desire to grow in holiness through the paths we have each been given. The closeness we share with one another in Christ is evident, so people are convinced that we are sisters.

Another close friend of mine, who I visit with after daily Mass each day, is often confused for my mother. Fellow daily Mass goers see the love and high regard we have for one another, so they’ve come to wonder if we are mother and daughter. We’ve taken to telling people that we are spiritual mother and spiritual daughter, because it is true. Once again our relationship is first and foremost about our shared love for Christ. That love, deepened through the Holy Spirit, radiates outward and the intimacy we share in our relationship is seen by others to the point of people believing she is my mother and I am her daughter.

Read the rest at Catholic Exchange.

When God Tests Us to Prepare Us for a Mission

How does God prepare us for the mission He has in mind for us? One of the ways He does this is by testing us. God allows certain things to happen in our lives to see if we will be faithful and endure what He is asking of us. He uses suffering, temptations, weaknesses, failures, and battles in order to strengthen us and to show us the path He is calling us to walk. The last year of my life has been one of those tests.

While I was in the midst of this period of testing, I didn’t understand what was going on. I experienced the most beautiful consolations coupled with intense spiritual warfare off-and-on for months. The worst of it hit when the scandals began to break last summer. There were times I thought I was going crazy or had somehow found myself in very serious spiritual danger. I had periods of immense fear, but I learned that it was by confronting this fear head on and taking a firm stand that peace and strength would flood into my soul. The more fortitude God gave to me the greater my capacity for charity towards others grew. It was during this testing that I learned tangibly “perfect love casts out all fear.”

I had experiences in Confession that were nothing short of surreal. I could hear God clearly pushing me forward time-and-time-again in Confession. No period of my life has been anything like this past year. Thankfully, God provided me with a much needed spiritual director–one of my parish priests–to help me navigate these very rough and confusing seas.

Even as I struggled to understand what was happening to me, God continued to tell me to endure and persevere. All I could hear very clearly in my prayer was that God was calling me “to love as He loves.” So I pushed on, despite periods of spiritual warfare that brought me to my knees. I focused on learning to love as He loves even though I did not know where He was leading me.

About a month ago, God clearly broke in at a Mass being celebrated in honor of Epiphany at our local Madonna House. I could see Christ very clearly in the priest celebrating the Mass. This has been a common theme of what has been going on with me spiritually, but it has been rather intense at certain times and I’ve not been able to understand what is going on. I’m not very good at pondering–a Marian trait that she is teaching me that I must learn–because I analyze everything. I’m systematic in the way I think and that is useless when faced with God breaking into my life in such profound ways.

Later in the afternoon on the same day, I was cleaning out our family van to prepare it to sell when I picked up a Rosary for Priests that had been tucked away in a pocket on the passenger’s side. I immediately saw the connection between what had happened at Mass and why this pamphlet was now in my hands. I didn’t fully understand, but God was showing me the way and I had finally opened myself up enough to Him for Him to show me what He is asking of me.

That day I began praying the Rosary for priests every single day and some days all 20 mysteries of the Rosary. A couple of weeks later I was talking to my husband about all of my friends having sons and how much I always wanted a son to give to the priesthood, but I now understand that God is not going to answer that prayer. My husband looked at me and said: “I think you are supposed to be a spiritual mother to priests. It seems like what you’ve been going through is because of that. You see priests in a completely different way than most people.” I laughed. In my own ridiculous pride I responded with: “Our priest is 11 years older than I am. How am I supposed to do that? Sisterhood is much easier for me to understand especially since I was in the military.” He shook his head in the way he does when he knows I’m being stubborn and blind.

The next day I happened to be scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed when an article caught my attention written by one of my fellow Catholic Exchange contributors, Kathleen Beckman: “Spiritual Battles Beg For Spiritual Responses.” I read it and immediately understood what God is asking of me. I told my husband what I had read and he told me to I order her book right away.

Since I’m a little slow and stubborn, God made sure that I got the message loud and clear when the following day I went to Confession with my regular Confessor. During that Confession he told me that it seems as though I’ve found my secondary vocation to pray and fight for the priesthood. He even referenced St. Therese who he knows I have a devotion to. I had to laugh, as did my husband, since it took me no less than three signs in the same week to finally get what God was trying to tell me.

Why did God finally reveal this secondary vocation to me after everything I’ve been through? It’s because I was finally ready and because I battled through every single test that presented itself. Before I could be ready, I had to make it through the most difficult, especially in times like these, which is the temptation to division. God needed me to understand that I must be willing to engage in this fight for His priests no matter what happens. No matter what I must endure. No matter how much I get hurt. No matter if I get rejected, betrayed, cast off, ridiculed, gossiped about, or endure periods of intense spiritual warfare. This battle is not about me. It’s about His priests and His will.

I needed to learn that in a time when the priesthood is under immense demonic attack and when the lures of the world are a great temptation for them as much as for us, when horrors are coming out about the evils committed by some priests and bishops, when the weaknesses, apathy, and corruption of some are creating deep wounds within the Mystical Body and within the priesthood itself, God needed me to clearly understand what I was undertaking. He needed me to be willing to say: “Be it done to me according to thy word.” For me to be willing to do whatever He asks of me and to endure and persevere regardless of what gets thrown my way and regardless of what the Enemy tries to do to me.

The fight for the priesthood is a spiritual one and it is the front lines of the spiritual war today. I’ve been in the abortion fight for years and the spiritual warfare I experienced in that battle is nothing compared to what I endure fighting for priests in prayer, sacrifice, and in supporting them. The Enemy will use any and all means to prevent this mission because he hates the priesthood.

When God calls us to a mission, He tests our mettle to make sure we can handle what is asked of us. More than anything, it is a test to show us that we must rely solely on Him. In this fight, it is also essential to be thoroughly immersed in the Immaculate Heart of Mary. She crushes the head of the serpent and she battles for her sons in the priesthood. She is our guide in this war and she will lead us ever more deeply into the Sacred Heart of Her Son.

Like all missions, I had a choice that I had to make. God wasn’t going to force me to make it. He simply showed me the way and then I had to make the choice. After the trials, temptations, moments of anger, frustration, confusion–even consolations can be very confusing!–suffering, and pain, it was only then that I could see that the battle is worth it. That’s often how things work. We don’t think it’s worth the pain in the moment. We want to walk away or flee. It’s much easier to write off something as too difficult, but God purifies us through suffering. It is only through willingly enduring everything God asks of us that we grow in deeper charity, faith, and hope.

When I stepped back and looked over the past year or more, I realized that I’ve already been living this vocation, but I’ve not understood it as God’s call for me. Even so, the battle has only just begun. I must rely on Christ and Our Lady to show me what is being asked of me and learn to do it in humble obedience and charity. A vocation is always a dying to self. It is where we learn to place others before ourselves. I’ve already learned this lesson once in this new vocation, but it is an essential aspect of all vocations that God gives to us. We cannot accept a mission from Him if we are not willing to learn to die to self.

This secondary vocation is directly tied to my primary vocation of wife and mother. By sacrificing and praying throughout my day for the priesthood and any specific priests God assigns to me throughout my lifetime, I also offer up my husband and my daughter. The suffering we endure because of my husband’s illness and the pain of my miscarriages and lost hopes of a son for the priesthood can now be united to the Church’s need for holy priests and the very real needs of priests themselves. These two vocations bring peace and joy since they are so intertwined. I’m thankful that God has entrusted so great a mission to me and to countless others.


Catholic Exchange: Our Ego Keeps Us from the Greatness We Were Made For

Our souls are expansive. They are able to reach depths that we cannot fully fathom. When we begin to see this part of ourselves we often experience fear and awe. We do not know what to do with this part of ourselves because we are often blind to it in our daily lives. We are blind to it  because — more often than any of us would like to admit  — we allow our ego to rule us.

The ego keeps us from seeing the great love God has for us and the gift of giving ourselves over to others in love. The ego keeps us from the greatness we are made for. It keeps us blind to the true depths within each one of us.

The ego is where all of our fear, pride, vanity, grasping, envy, and selfishness dwell. It is the part of us that tells us to cling to what we want no matter what, even to the point of discarding and hurting other people. Our egos keep us from loving the people around us as we should because we’d rather hold onto some small modicum of control than give freely to the people God puts in our path.

Center of the Universe

It is within our vocations whether lay, religious, or priestly that we learn to confront this part of ourselves.

The ego causes us to place ourselves at the center of the universe. It leads us to grasp at the smallest and pettiest of things, because when we allow our ego to be at the center of our being unchecked, we live in a place of fear and distrust; we see God and others as a threat. Bishop Robert Barron in his book And Now I See explains:

“But what exactly is the problem with the way we think and see?…perhaps a simple answer can be given in these terms: we see and know and perceive with a mind of fear rather than with a mind of trust. When we fear, we cling to who we are and what we have; when we are afraid, we see ourselves as the threatened center of a hostile universe, and thus we violently defend ourselves and lash out at potential adversaries. And fear — according to so many of the biblical authors and so many of the mystics and theologians of our tradition — is a function of living our lives at the surface level, a result of forgetting our deepest identity.”

Read the rest over at Catholic Exchange.

The Way of Love

In the Mass readings right now we are working our way through my favorite epistle, the First Letter of St. John. It will play a key role in aspects of the book I’m working on. If there is one word that describes this letter it is love. The Beloved Disciple whose deep spiritual friendship with Our Lord is clearly seen in his writings and the one who took Our Lady into his home is clearly well versed in the school of love. He is the one Apostle who understands the full requirements of charity, which is why he stood fast at the foot of the Cross when everyone else fled.

We live in a culture that lives an understanding of love that is largely opposed to the example we find in St. John as he calls us to follow Christ. Love has been reduced to an emotion or a utilitarian pursuit of happiness. This means that once people have expended their use in our lives or those good feelings pass, we can promptly discard them. Our culture tells us love is about me and my desires. How does the person make me feel? Love is when we feel good about someone. Love necessarily dissipates through hardships or struggles in the relationship. If I’m not being completely fulfilled by you, then I will get rid of you.

This is not only true of romantic relationships, but all relationships in our culture. It is true of our friendships and our family bonds. We maintain what in reality are superficial connections to the people around us. They serve their use or give us some pleasure, but there is not depth or true sacrifice on our part. If the relationship becomes burdensome or difficult then we simply cast that person off and move on. The sad reality is that we all do it. The true understanding of love in all of its forms has been lost to us because of the philosophies of utility and will to power that undergird our society, as well as the innate existential fear we experience because of the Fall.

The message of Jesus Christ as explained to us through St. John’s First Letter is an antidote to this understanding of relationships. First, he explains the nature of God as the one who is love itself. God does not simply love and give love, His very existence is love. This is most exemplified through Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross in order to bring about our redemption. Love is by its nature sacrificial. Deeds are required of us to love. It requires everything from us, which is precisely why we tend to flee from the demands of charity. We realize that love will hurt at some point. We will in fact have to watch our spouse, parents, friends, and people we love die one day.

We also come to understand through St. John that we are called to love one another fully. Christ Himself tells us this in the Great Commandments that we are to love God above all else and love our neighbor as ourselves. St. John’s First Letter is a deep meditation on these words. Christ does not tell us that we are to only love our spouses, families, and chosen friends. No, He goes so far as to tell us that we are to even love our enemies.

Now, to our culture, this is sheer madness. We are supposed to love people as long as it feels good and then move on. How are we supposed to love everyone including our enemies? We are supposed to hate and despise our enemies. In our Fallen state this feels much easier. Anger allows us to remain distant from the people who hurt us or who question our worldview. While righteous anger can be a great unifier, most of us battle to keep this unruly passion in check. If we examine our anger towards someone we often will see that it is predicated on vengeance more than justice. It’s a struggle because we are made for love and we want to be loved by the people we love, but often we aren’t, so we respond in anger through our hurt.

The radicality of Christ’s call to love our neighbor means that we will have to suffer in love. While loving the people who hurt, reject, betray, or persecute us does not make sense from our human perspective, there are often deeper spiritual realities at work. It is often the very people who reject us or who seek to hurt us who need our love the most. It may be that our love is given to them through prayer as is the case in those Christian witnesses who have prayed for their concentration camp guards who torture them the most or the saints who were persecuted by their own brothers and sisters, but pray ardently for them. The example par excellence of this is when Christ utters his cry of “Forgive them Father for they know not what they do.” There is so much we fail to see when we choose to hurt others.

A failure to love one another as we ought to is tied to a wide variety of factors in our lives, some outside of our control, and others a part of our Fallen nature. Many of us struggle to accept the love that is extended to us. We think we are unworthy of it or we do not know how to step out into vulnerability because of the inevitable pain that love will bring. Sin can hinder or make us incapable of authentic love, especially if we objectify people through that sin. And far too many people have fallen for the lie that love is simply about my happiness, feelings, desires, and wants. They have never been shown or taught what love truly means. It is to focus on the happiness of another, to will their good, and it is in emptying ourselves where we find our own ultimate joy.

The counterfeit versions of love that we see in our culture are an understandable diversion from the fear we all must confront in order to love fully. Fortitude is a requirement of love. For the Christian, we know that love is the Cross. This means God will require us to lay down our own lives for others each day as we learn to die to self. This is a painful process and one we flee from repeatedly. The constant mortification of our own ego is difficult. The Fall has made us believe that we are the center of the universe, but through grace we are made into a new creation and that requires purification and suffering. It is through this process that love is perfected and all fear is cast out. We come to find ourselves rightly ordered to God and others, which brings about our freedom. The perfecting love of God turns us into the fully alive human being we are made to be.

The ultimate irony for our culture–and for ourselves–is that as we flee from authentic love and accept empty shells of love, we find ourselves unhappy and lonely. Our culture is extremely lonely. For all of the instant communication at our fingertips, people are more lonely than ever. That is because love requires us to set our own wants and desires aside in order to give. We must become self-gift. A danger of social media is that it breeds narcissism. While it is good to keep up with people, it does not fully create the deep connections and friendship God is calling us to in our lives. We see teenagers sitting at tables with flesh and blood people while all staring at their phones. It’s much easier to placate the ego through attention and likes than it is to seek relationships with the people in front of us who will inevitably hurt us.

Everyone we love is going to hurt us. They are Fallen human beings just like we are, which means that their failings will cause us pain. We can’t avoid pain forever and it is in pain that we learn to love more deeply through the power of forgiveness. Like love, forgiveness is a choice we may repeatedly when others have hurt us. We often want things to be quick and easy and one-time choices. Both love and forgiveness require a repeated act of the will to continue to do what is good for someone and to forgive them when the pain they’ve caused us comes to mind. This includes those people who are no longer in our lives for whatever reason. Or even harder, those people who are still in our lives, but serious damage has been done. Forgiveness is a part of dying to self in love.

Our example, as St. John reminds us, is Christ Himself who shows us the way of suffering in love and the power of forgiveness. His sacrifice for us is truly radical. It is through sacrifice that we are transformed and conformed to Him. Growth in love requires suffering from us. In fact, even though we fear suffering, it is our experiences of pain in our relationships with people that lead love to deepen. Forgiveness deepens our love for others and it mortifies the ego. It is why Christ gave up His life for us and came back to offer forgiveness. He’s showing us the way of love.

Featured image taken from Wiki Commons.