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.

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.

Catholic Exchange: A Brief Introduction to the Catholic Position on Evolution

There is a great misperception in the culture that Catholicism is anti-science. Many college students confront this error when they encounter reductionism, rationalism, and materialism through their professors. These students do not know how to respond–and far too often–dismiss Catholicism outright because they don’t realize answers to their questions exist within the Church’s 2000-year history. One of greatest causes of confusion is the topic of evolution.

The reason for this confusion is two-fold. First, many Catholics do not realize the Church’s position on evolution and may not even look for answers before accepting the materialist position. Second, the abandonment of philosophy as the joining discipline between science and theology has destroyed much of the dialogue that has taken place between these two fields over the centuries. An example is the bridge created throughSt. Thomas Aquinas’ first-cause argument. The first-cause argument grounds scientific inquiry in the first-cause, who is God. Without this argument, science quickly devolves into materialism, and ceases to look out beyond itself.

The divorce from philosophy creates an environment where both theology and the natural sciences overstep their bounds. This is most evidenced by the rationalist-materialist declaration that there is no God, while the biblical literalist tells us the world is only 6000 years old, even though God-given reason tells us otherwise, on both accounts. Answers to the complexities of life are reduced to either a material level or turned into a faith-based system devoid of reason. The Catholic approach is not an either/or, it is a both/and system. We say yes to scientific discovery, yes to Aquinas and Aristotle, and yes to the Book of Genesis. That’s far more yeses than we are given from either the scientism camp or the creationism camp. I only have the space to provide a brief overview of the Church’s view of evolution, but I will return to the philosophy problem at a later date.

Today I will briefly outline the Church’s historical position on evolution through a series of documents and talks given by Popes in the last 66 years. First, it is important to understand that the Church makes no official pronouncements on matters of science. That is not within her authority. She promulgates teachings of faith as given to us through Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. She cannot overstep her boundaries and make judgments on matters of science. The only time she formally responds to scientific matters is when theological or spiritual issues are involved. Popes and theologians discuss scientific discoveries, but the Church has no official position on any scientific theory. Which leads us to the Church’s first discussion of evolution.

Read the rest over at Catholic Exchange.

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.