Catholic Exchange: Made for the Happiness Found in the Beatitudes

We are made for happiness. At the deepest level of our existence, God has made us to be happy. This happiness, we must remember, comes from God alone. He created us to find our total and complete joy within the Blessed Trinity. Everything else we experience in our daily lives is a shadow of the love and joy we will be filled with when we stand before the Beatific Vision. The mistake we can make is in thinking that happiness is something material, that it is something we can grasp. Rather, it is a letting go and a relinquishment of self to God’s Divine plan. It is to conform our will to God’s will and to love God completely and love our neighbor as God loves.

Happiness is not one more car, another promotion, prestige, the perfect body, more money, or any other material comfort we can find in this life. To quote C.S. Lewis, those things may bring us the occasional “pleasant inn”, but they can never in principle fill us up. We are body and soul. We are not just body; we are not just meat. We are not angels, so we are not pure spirit. We are the unification of body and soul; the great bridge between the material and immaterial. This means that purely material things cannot bring us ultimate happiness. In order to find happiness our souls and our bodies must be rightly ordered to God. How do we properly order our entire being to God?

Read the rest over at Catholic Exchange.

Catholic Exchange: Confronting Death in a Culture of Avoidance

Death comes to us all. It is a hard reality, but it is a reality that we can face with hope through our faith in Christ Jesus. Meanwhile, we live in a culture that largely ignores death. We hear mantras such as “You only live once” or “Live today like it is your last”, but these are typically expressions to assuage guilt over leading an immoral life. The reality of death is also ignored by the majority of people because death is something that is hidden or locked away in Western culture until we are faced with it. The only time it seems to be discussed is when a group is pushing for “mercy” through euthanasia.

I know I have largely lived as if death was some far-off reality. This makes little sense since I was a 9/11 relief worker and confronted the hard realities of violence and death at 20 years of age. I profess, along with my fellow Catholics, the teachings of the Church each Sunday which discuss the Last Things. It was not until recently, when my husband’s health took a dramatic turn, that I began to confront death. We are confronting it together, as married couples must.

Two months ago, I woke up at 4:30 AM to my husband yelling for me. He was standing over our sink coughing up a large quantity of bright red blood. He had coughed up blood a few years ago and had a lesion on his lungs, but it healed and we thought it was some kind of fluke. It wasn’t. Instead, what happened a few years ago was the first sign of symptoms of a mysterious disease. Over the course of the last couple of months, doctors have ruled out every normal possibility from tuberculosis to bronchitis to fungal infections. He’s been negative on every single test and more cavitary lesions (holes, for lack of a better word) continue to form in his lungs. We are now faced with a series of intense tests to definitively see if my husband has a very rare disease known as pulmonary vasculitis. He will have an open lung biopsy performed by a thoracic surgeon in the next couple of weeks along with a MRI, MRA, even more bloodwork, and the list goes on. A neurologist has also been brought in to begin seeing if he has the even rarer form of brain vasculitis. It’s a difficult disease to diagnose and treat. It comes with serious risks, including premature death.

This period has been marked by immense grace. God truly gives us the strength we need to confront the hardships of this life as they come. It doesn’t mean any of this is easy.

Read the rest over at Catholic Exchange.

Catholic Exchange: The Ascension and Our Journey Home

The Solemnity of the Ascension of Our Lord oftentimes is an understated event in the Church’s liturgical year. We profess the reality of this historical and supernatural event each Sunday as we profess the Creed. It is a significant event, in fact, it is the climax before He sends the Paraclete. In returning to the Father, Jesus leads us into the Father’s presence and forever tears the veil dividing mankind from God. It is through the Ascension in light of the Paschal Mystery that we are able to go home. Our Lord, now sitting at the right hand of the Father, in His Glorified Incarnate form, brings us to the Father. We are now able to enter into the Heavenly sanctuary and behold the Beatific Vision at the end of our holy lives.

The Ascension reminds us this is not our home.

In the glory, awe, mystery, and joy of the Resurrection we celebrate the gift of our salvation. We have been redeemed in Christ. The Lord’s Ascension reminds us that earth is our temporary home. We are sojourners with our gaze fixed on the faraway land. We seek the white shores, the place of peace, eternity with our Beloved. Christ has paved the way for us and He calls each one of us to follow Him back to the Father, so that we may truly rest in the love of the Most Holy Trinity. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:

Left to its own natural powers humanity does not have access to the “Father’s house,” to God’s life and happiness. Only Christ can open to man such access that we, his members, might have confidence that we too shall go where he, our Head and our Source, has preceded us.

Catechism of the Catholic Church 661

We are now able to follow Christ back to our permanent home in Heaven. We too are called to return to the Father.

Read the rest over at Catholic Exchange.

Looking for an Advent Retreat You Can Do at Home?

Advent is an often overlooked season within the Church because it coincides with the secular preparation for Christmas. The Church does not enter into the Christmas season until Christmas Eve vigil. The busyness of life can get in the way of entering into the beautiful season of waiting for the Christ-child and the Second Coming. Advent is a good time to quiet ourselves, so that we may come to know and love God more fully. It is also the time we contemplate eschatology and the Last Things.

Many people would love to go on a retreat but either can’t leave their families or a retreat is too expensive. A group of innovative Catholics came up with an online retreat to serve the needs of the New Evangelization. I was honored to be asked to be one of the speakers this year. The retreat begins on Monday, November 28, 2016. The cost is based on what you can give and there are a variety of talks to choose from to help you step deeper into Advent and the spiritual life.

I can say that talking to a computer screen for my talks was challenging. I’ve been doing public speaking since I joined the debate team as a high school freshman. It’s easier to interact with an audience, but there is a need to provide talks to people who cannot attend retreats or conferences. I hope I was able to overcome my audience bias to help you on the journey. :o) I hope the talks guide you deeper into holiness. All of the speakers are tremendously talented and knowledgeable. You can find the retreat here:

The Pray More Retreat!

 

Pax Christi.

Catholic Exchange: Reaching Out to the Suffering

One of the dangers of our weakness in the face of suffering, is the propensity to cave in on ourselves. We can turn inward and isolate ourselves from the people around us and the world. This is a natural response to pain. We want to lick our wounds and deal with the pain on our own. The problem with this tendency is that it cuts us off from others and our loved ones. Suffering and grief are not experienced in a vacuum. Oftentimes we overlook the people grieving beside us. We also can forget that suffering is not a unique experience. We are not the only ones who suffer, far from it. This is not to limit, deny, or ignore our own personal sufferings. Suffering is universal, but the experience of suffering is as varied as there are evils and pain in the world. There are people who are starving, victims of violence and war, cancer patients, those battling natural disasters, and yes, people like me who are grieving the loss of a child in miscarriage. It is important that we not isolate ourselves or the notion of suffering when grief and pain come our way. We must suffer, but it is important for us to avoid self-pity.

Suffering is often a missed opportunity. We live in a world that runs from suffering. This is of course logical, since suffering is to endure immense pain. The reality is, however, that we live in a Fallen world where suffering and sorrow are an everyday occurrence for somebody. Oftentimes that suffering is a shared experience, like miscarriage. There are many, even millions of people, who know the profound pain of loss. The opportunity in the face of this type of suffering, or any type of suffering, is to learn to minister to one another. In giving of ourselves, our pain is lessened. In giving away love, we are filled up. It is one of the great paradoxes of Christianity.

I thank all of you who took the time to write to me or post a comment on my recent piece on miscarriage, both here at Catholic Exchange and on my personal blog. Your comments were appreciated, but they also revealed to me that the suffering brought on through the loss of a child in miscarriage is widespread and often ignored. It showed me that by sharing my own pain, I am able to share in the burdens of others. This is one of the great lessons of suffering. If we turn inward and ignore others while resting in the delusion that we are alone, then our pain intensifies. We become cut off from others and from God. In suffering we are called to give of ourselves in order to lessen the pain of those around us. Grief cannot be taken away. It must be endured by the individual who has lost a loved one, but we can reach out to others and simply remind them that they are not alone. We make helping others too complex. We can’t take away another’s pain, but we can recognize it. All we can tell the grieving is, “I am so sorry for your loss” and continue to be a presence walking with them on their journey.

Read the rest over at Catholic Exchange.

Miscarriage, Grief, and the Need to Write

I fully intended to take a break from writing. I thought that my anguish would keep me from putting down a single word, but the opposite has happened. I have written and submitted two articles on miscarriage in the past 48 hours and written 30 pages in a journal I purchased for this trip into grief. Countless people have asked me to write a much needed book on miscarriage. Perhaps it will come out of this fourth loss and perhaps not. All I can do is scribble in my journal what feels like the ravings of a person detached from myself.

For the writer, pain tends to bring forth work that is more real, raw, and intense. It is as if we can see the human condition more clearly through the haze of our grief. It is the only clarity given as all else appears a dull gray. There is beauty all around, but I cannot touch it right now. I sense it from memory, but there is no deep connection to it at present. This is typical of the grief stricken.

I am re-reading C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed. In my view, it is the most honest look at grief that has ever been written. I largely skipped over the Introduction. I have been a Madeleine L’Engle fan since childhood, but her theology always leaves something wanting and is too relativistic. She is a much better fantasy writer. I recommend skipping straight to Lewis’ work if you have the same volume as I do.

While some of the experiences of grief may differ from person-to-person, Lewis looks at every aspect of grief in relation to himself, his lost wife, and God. He freely admits the struggle between believing in a benevolent God and a malevolent God. The problem for a Christian is that we tend to no longer be capable of atheism. Once we have met the Living God, even our grief doesn’t fully send us into an existential crisis that ends in materialism. We may have an existential crisis, but we usually end up in the Father’s arms once the intense pain and anger has subsided. No. The battle wages over God’s goodness.

I am thankful that Lewis delves into this struggle. It is one I face, and have faced, through all of my losses. A pregnancy feels like a promise and a miscarriage makes it all seem like a lie. The heart beating on the screen is the definition of hope and then that hope and joy is stolen. Instead, my heart is ripped from my chest and I am left reeling. I am turned into an empty shell that has to be filled up again. My previous joy and excitement over the coming of another child is taken away and I am left sobbing in front of an ultrasound picture and the onesies I picked up to celebrate the new baby.

The problem with the grieving is that we are a bit inconvenient for everyone else. We are a reminder that death is real and that deep suffering and agony await all of us. We don’t know when that time will come, but we don’t like to be reminded of it, especially us Americans with our keep-insanely-busy-in-an-attempt-to-outrun-fate-or-destiny-or-whatever-we-imagine-is-really-in-charge. Pain makes people scatter and only the truly brave are able to stick around and enter into the suffering of others. This is an experience that I have been through four times, as well as in the grips of PTSD and post-partum depression, and as a  9-11 relief worker.

In truth, it has made me more patient with the weaknesses of others. I know that most of my friends will run away during this time. The truly close ones will stick it out, but others will wait until I am less likely to break into uncontrollable sobbing or when I can at least hide my pain better. My suffering makes people uncomfortable and I know it. What they don’t realize is that I am not looking for them to fix it. They cannot fix it, nor can I. All that is needed is authentic compassion, but even that is hard for people to summon. We assume because we have never been through something that we cannot be compassionate. I didn’t lose anyone in 9-11, but I rushed in to help as a relief worker. My presence was enough. Your presence is enough to the grieving people in your life.

Platitudes get the grieving nowhere. It is useless to tell us that they are in a better place, something was clearly wrong with the baby, or it was God’s will. How is that supposed to take away our pain? Somehow the loss is supposed to be assuaged by this knowledge and yet the ache still remains. The grief doesn’t lessen because somebody tries to tell us something that makes them feel better in that moment because they are not the grieving. In reality all we can say to someone who has lost a loved one is “I am so sorry for your loss”. That’s it. Nothing else will help or matter to the person who is mourning for someone they loved. Nothing will bring my child back. Something being wrong with the child does not take away the pain of lost motherhood. Even though A Grief Observed is about his wife, Lewis has the clearest understanding of what miscarriage or the loss of a child means, and why theological platitudes are unhelpful to those in the grips of early grief:

If a mother is mourning not for what she has lost but for what her dead child has lost, it is a comfort to believe that the child has not lost the end for which it was created. And it is a comfort to believe that she herself, in losing her chief or only natural happiness, has not lost a greater thing, that she may still hope to ‘glorify God and enjoy Him forever.’ A comfort to the God-aimed, eternal spirit within her. But not her motherhood. The specifically maternal happiness must be written off. Never, in any place or time, will she have her son on her knees, or bathe him, or tell him a story, or plan for his future, or see her grandchild.

C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed.

We have a tendency within the Church to not allow people to grieve. We think that theological explanations should be enough. This is an utter denial of the human experience. It is to ignore the horrendous reality of death and the toll it takes on all of us. The separation between a mother and her lost child is an infinite chasm on this side of eternity. The pain of never hearing the child’s first cries, or seeing their first steps, or witnessing the man or woman they would become renders a mother heartbroken in ways previously unimagined. I cannot make you experience my pain, but the level of its intensity on certain days almost makes it seem like it will kill me, but it won’t. Grief takes us to the outer reaches of suffering. It takes us to our limits, but we survive it, even if we don’t think that we will in certain moments.

So why is it that we try to brush this pain off and pretend that the tenants of our Faith are enough to take away that grief? This isn’t even a Catholic approach, for Pete’s sake! We are body and soul and our bodies and souls grieve. We do not pretend that death isn’t real. We do not pretend that grief is not crushing. It is soul-crushing. It is a journey that must be walked. No amount of exegesis is going to remove the suffering that must be experienced when a child dies. The theological and spiritual answers and eschatological hope are only healing after the deep pain has run its course. I am a theology graduate student. I know what the answers are supposed to be, but that doesn’t take away the intense agony and grief. The hope of Heaven cannot shorten the journey that must be walked through this grief.

The Cross comes before the Resurrection and the Cross must be endured first. I once again must walk to Golgotha, to the foot of the Cross, and take the agony I feel to His feet. I must cry out “why” and endure the pain of loss. And, yes, I will wonder if God is good or not. It is hard for a mother to imagine why she got to see a strong heartbeat two weeks in a row only to have it snatched away from her days later. It makes a person question, but God makes us stronger through the questions and the suffering. At least, that is what I remember even though I don’t “feel” it right now. My faith isn’t dependent upon my feelings. If it was, I would have left after 9-11, or during the PTSD, or when I lost my first child in miscarriage. Thank God my feelings matter so little.

Side Note:

  • Some of the resources for Catholics who have suffered from a miscarriage are dreadful. I think this is a cause of frustration for so many families. I know it has been for me and my friends who have suffered from miscarriage. The resources are sparse and some of the ones that are available are inaccurate or do not clearly understand Church teaching. The concept of unbaptized babies is a gray area theologically, but the nature of the Sacrament of Baptism is not.

    There is no doubt that a devout Catholic would have Baptism in mind for their lost child; however, a miscarriage means the child has died. We do not baptize the dead. Sacraments are reserved for the living. There may be a rare case when the child is born from induced labor and may take a few breaths. That child can be baptized. Those of us who have suffered from 1st trimester miscarriages are not able to baptize our children. By the time the baby’s body passes out of our body the child is dead. More often than not, we are not even able to find the body for burial. I have never gotten a funeral for any of my miscarried babies.

    Even though we cannot baptize them, we leave our children to the mercy of God since He knows we most certainly would have baptized them had they been full-term. In the grips of grief with my second one, a priest had to kindly remind me that I could not baptize my dead children. This realization was painful, but I appreciated his willingness to be honest and remind me of the nature of the Sacraments. This in no way lessens God’s power or mercy. Grief does make us grasp at straws….

Living as a Resurrection People

It is now the Octave of Easter. We will celebrate Easter Sunday for eight days and the Easter season for fifty days. It is Easter, not Christmas, which are the highest, holiest, and most important days of the year. Without the Resurrection and the Paschal Mystery of Our Lord there would be no Church and there would be no Christians. Jesus would have been a failed religious leader with some interesting insights, but he would still be in the tomb and we would still be in the darkness of sin and death without the Resurrection. As Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI put it in the second part of his book on Jesus Christ, “The Christian faith stands or falls with the truth of the testimony that Christ is risen from the dead.” It is precisely those people who deny the Resurrection and look to Jesus as some kind of guru who have completely lost the mystery and truth of the Christian message. The Resurrection is everything for the Christian, without it we would be nothing.

Only if Jesus is risen has anything really new occurred that changes the world and the situation of mankind. Then he becomes the criterion on which we can rely. For then God has truly revealed himself.

Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth Holy Week: From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection, 242.

During this Easter season we should meditate on this great mystery and truth of our Faith. Do we truly believe that Jesus Christ, who gave himself in total love and obedience to the Father for us, rose from the dead? Christ asks us this question over and over again throughout our lives as we make choices and battle along the path to holiness. Do we testify that Jesus is Lord? Is he the Lord of our lives? The entire Easter season is about us celebrating that Jesus is risen and is the Lord of all.

Read the rest over at Catholic Exchange.

Lent and Christ’s Thirst for Us

We are now past Laetare Sunday and well on our way towards Holy Week.As we work and pray through these last few weeks of Lent and Holy Week, we will once again stand at the foot of the Cross. It was on the Cross of our salvation that Our Lord uttered the words: “I thirst.” These very same words changed the course of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta’s life as she received her “call within a call” on September 10, 1946 as she sat on a crowded train in the mountains of India. As we walk these last few weeks of Lent, let us reflect on Jesus’ thirst for each one of us and all human beings created in his “image and likeness.”

Perhaps you have read about Blessed Teresa’s experiences and her focus on the thirst of Christ, perhaps you have not. Meditating on these words from Our Lord is to walk deep into the mystery of God’s love and desire for each person. It is a love that is difficult to comprehend and even accept in our sinful and often wretched state. There are many days where the love expressed from the Cross is too much to bear and we tell Christ, as Saint Peter did, to leave us because we are too sinful. Thankfully our all loving and merciful Triune God does not heed our request.

Blessed Teresa of Calcutta did not reveal her call fully until she wrote a letter to her Missionaries of Charity in 1993.  She felt urged to share the message of “I Thirst” with her sisters after Saint John Paul II delivered a Lenten message on the exact same theme. These two great saints understood the depth and love expressed in these two words.

After reading Holy Father’s letter on “I Thirst,” I was struck so much—I cannot tell you what I felt. His letter made me realize more than ever how beautiful is our vocation….[We] are reminding [the] world of His thirst, something that is being forgotten….Holy Father’s letter is a sign…to go more into what is this great thirst of Jesus for each one. It is also a sign for Mother, that the time has come for me to speak openly of [the] gift God gave Sept. 10th—to explain [as] fully as I can what means for me the thirst of Jesus…

Letter to the Missionaries of Charity, March 25, 1993

Read the rest over at Catholic Exchange.

Strange Beauty in Art and Life: The Agony in the Garden

Agony-in-the-Garden-300x300

Today I am waiting for my dad to undergo some medical tests to see why he is so sick and whether or not it is life-threatening. Ever since I got word last week that my dad’s chronic illness was not the cause of his weakness and he is bleeding internally, I have been thinking and contemplating the Agony in the Garden.

Agony is a part of the human experience and it comes at unexpected times. My dad is only 59 and while he has had rheumatoid arthritis since he had rheumatic fever as a child, I am struggling to be ready for whatever comes next. Today we will find out why he is bleeding internally, whether it is cancer or something else. Please pray for him and for all of us who love him dearly.

So it is that we are faced with the terrible and beautiful paradox of the gift of suffering. The Agony of the Garden goes into the depths of human experience in all of its pain, horror, suffering, and death, but it isn’t the last word as we know living through this Lenten season awaiting the joy of Easter. Pax Christi.