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.

Catholic Exchange: Put Your Faith in Christ, Not in Feelings

Rather frequently, I hear people make arguments about aspects of the spiritual life, the Church, morality, or relationships that are predicated upon a particular individual’s feelings. Some will complain that the Mass doesn’t make them “feel” good or the Church’s teaching doesn’t cause a flood of the emotions they are looking for in their lives. I’ve had friends tell me that their relationship with Jesus requires them to “feel good” on some level.

The problem is, our emotions or “feelings” — as we call them colloquially — are an unruly taskmaster and a dangerous guide in the spiritual life. It is true that our emotions are an aspect of being a human person, but they are in no way meant to overrule our intellect or our will. It is not uncommon for our emotions to lead us into temptation and take us down paths that are destructive.

When an individual tells me how essential it is for them to “feel” the presence of God or to experience Him subjectively in the Mass or in prayer, I tend to ask them some questions. First, I ask them how many times a day they experience an emotion? Do those emotions always comport with what is going on in reality? Do our bodies impact our emotional state e.g. level of sleep, stress, even what we’ve eaten? Is God our emotions? Does God cease to love us if we don’t “feel” good on a given day? What about the very real dark night experiences of some of the holiest souls in our Tradition? Can our emotions be impacted by our encounters with other people? There are a lot of other questions that should and can be considered when it comes to deciphering how much our emotions can impede our ability to understand reality, love and serve God properly, love our neighbor as we ought, and progress in holiness.

Part of the spiritual life is learning to temper, control, or discard our emotional states. We can’t always control our emotions, so at times we are called to endure until an emotional state passes. Much of the time an emotion we experience in a given situation is irrelevant to what is actually happening outside of ourselves. The Mass is a good example.

Read the rest over at Catholic Exchange.

God’s Will in Our Fertility and Family Size

I read an article yesterday that gave me pause. Not only because it is morally ambiguous, but because it brings into question whether or not we should cross certain lines. I don’t want to wade into the moral debate right now and I know which theologians I side with in the debate. It made me think about my struggles with secondary infertility and miscarriage. It has been a long and excruciatingly painful road, but it’s been a road of great grace and growth as well.

Motherhood is deeply engrained in women. It is one of the reasons it is so vehemently attacked in our culture as the culture unhinges itself from reality. There are some women who say they don’t want children, but I’d wager the reasons are complicated and a lot of the time selfish. We have been told that our careers are more important than anything else. No, human beings are more important and being a mother changes us at the deepest levels of reality. It forces us to look hard at ourselves and see where we need to grow and change. It teaches us how to love sacrificially, which hurts. It’s meant to because only love that hurts is real love.

This Cross is a painful one for women and men who carry it. I’ve lost four babies in miscarriage and I have multiple friends who also have had miscarriages or not been able to conceive any children. There’s something about being a Catholic who can’t “be fruitful and multiply” that causes an even deeper pain. We constantly hear about being open to life and the good of a large family. I’ve sat through homilies on it. I’ve read articles and books on it. There are countless times I have sobbed my way through Confession telling various priests that I don’t understand why every child since my daughter has died. Why can my friends and others have children in abundance, but I can’t? My own daughter frequently asks me why friends of ours can have another child and I can’t? There are constant reminders of what I can’t give my daughter–a sibling–and that my body is rather broken in this department.

This pain couples feel who either cannot have a child or who are suffering from secondary infertility after having a child or children can drive people to desperation. Even Catholics can turn to immoral practices like IVF in order to try to have children. In fact, IVF preys on this desperation for profit. Our culture is told that having children or not having children is up to us. This is of course a lie, but it’s one we all buy into in one form or another.

I see this mentality to a lesser extent when people have said to me after a miscarriage that I can always have another child. Even people in the pro-life movement with me will cast aside my miscarried children and tell me that God will eventually send me another child or to just have faith. My lack of faith isn’t the problem. In fact, it was my forcing myself to have miscarriage after miscarriage even after each one decimated my body that demonstrated my lack of faith and obedience. I wanted it my way, even though I spent nearly four years in an ever deepening postpartum depression because I wouldn’t listen. Unlike many other women whose bodies can recover more quickly after a miscarriage, it takes me at least a year. My hormones wreak havoc on me physically and mentally.

My hormone issues are complex. I can conceive children easily, but I can no longer keep them. I’m now convinced that my daughter is an even greater gift because her twin sacrificed herself and went Home so she could live. The only child I have carried to term was originally conceived with a twin, which made my hormone levels skyrocket. My OB/GYN admitted that may be the only reason that pregnancy was different from my others. Even though losing Victoria has been painful for us and Michaela, God used that pain to give us our daughter here on earth.

What I have had to accept is that I am not everyone else. My path is not the same as my friend who has five children, or two children, or three children. I always wanted a son to give to God in the priesthood. I see the great need and so many families don’t want their sons to be priests. When I was pregnant with Andrew–who I lost 2 years ago–I said if it’s your will God to even send him to places tormented by violence then I will trust in You. But, once again. This was never up to me.

We forget so often that it is not up to us. It is up to God. The more we fight against this truth, the more miserable we become. We hold on too tight and place our will before God’s will. This always leads to our misery and pain. We don’t get to understand everything in this life. The vast majority of it is mystery. I don’t know why God has chosen to give my husband and me one child and not more. What I do know is that we have to reach a point when we relinquish our will and say: “Not my will, but Your will, Lord.” This is what we get wrong in our desire to become parents or to have more children.

During the years that I was struggling with my desire to have more children and the repeated miscarriages, I would talk to various priests about it. I would express my frustration, confusion, and pain. I always knew in the back of my mind that my particular hormone issues make my case more complicated since each miscarriage caused greater postpartum, but I’d try to ignore this reality. I’d accuse myself of being selfish for not trying to have more children even though the postpartum was so bad that I’d lost sight of myself completely for 3.5 years.

I even struggled quite a bit after my last miscarriage even though I was free of the postpartum depression. The NaPro shots dulled the symptoms a bit and regular exercise helped quite a bit, but I knew that the situation was precarious. I now can’t take NaPro shots, so I have nothing to help sustain a pregnancy or offset a very real possibility of postpartum depression. Plus, I have no reason to believe NaPro will be effective for me since my last pregnancy ended in the same manner as the previous three.

I know it’s difficult to not be able to either have a child or have more children. I face it every single day. I am constantly re-aligning my line of sight to Christ so that I am not comparing myself to others. Telling me I don’t have enough faith or I need to wait and see is to ignore what God has clearly told me. For His reasons, I am not going to have more children. Adoption may happen, but now that my husband is chronically ill, we aren’t so sure. I am finally listening to God.

The same priest over the course of the last few years has told me that it appears God’s will is for us to only have one child. I finally started listening when he rather directly told me he doesn’t think I will have anymore children. First, because he’s not usually that direct and second, because he keeps saying it and I keep ignoring him. Only when I really listened did the weight I was carrying lessen. God has given me an amazing daughter and she should be my focus. This is easier said than done, but it is correct. I must live the life God is asking me to live, not keep holding out for a different one.

It’s important that we come to accept God’s will in our lives. If we don’t, then we will suffer, not because God is being malicious, but because we can only be truly happy living  in accordance with His plans. Some of the kindest and motherly women I know have never been able to have their own children. What I have noticed about all of them is that they give their love to all children they come to know. They shower them with great love, care, and affection. Many of these children don’t get that affection at home, so these women are a gift to those children. In God’s infinite wisdom, he saw the gifts of these women and asks them to spread their love outward beyond their immediate family. While my personality is different from these wonderful women, I sense that God has something He wants of me too. I just don’t know what it is yet.

We have to remember that motherhood and fatherhood are great goods, but they are not the highest goods. God is the highest Good. He is Goodness Itself. Loving and serving Him is the meaning of our lives and at times we place the goods of this life above Him. If we are placing our will above His then we are putting our desire for children above Him. We are not following His call “to be fruitful and multiply” if we are ignoring the individual call He has in mind for each one of us. There are limits that we must live in relation to fertility and parenthood.

Even if parenthood is a great good, it cannot come at the cost of compromising our moral understanding or violating God’s law. We can’t constantly rail against God because it leads to our own misery. At some point we have to stop beating against Him and rest quietly in His arms. We have to give it all back to Him and remember that the glories of Heaven will make all of the pain, agony, toil, loss, and confusion all worth it in the end. That’s living faith, hope, and charity.

Suicide, Depression, and the Need for Christ in the Culture

Depression and suicide are in the news again this week as two high profile people took their own lives: Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain. Being a woman who loathes purses and prefers cargo pants and capris for carrying things, I don’t know much about Kate Spade. I have watched multiple shows of Anthony Bourdain’s and found them quite interesting, although I must confess, he never struck me as a particularly happy person underneath it all.

If you want to know more about people, pay attention to their eyes. I try to make very direct eye contact with people for four reasons. First, it makes me a better listener and forces me to listen more closely to what someone is saying to me. Second, it lets the person know that they have my full attention. Third, I learn a lot about people from their eyes. I can read moods more clearly and see when underneath it all, someone is struggling or when they are happy or content. I have also discovered the holiest people I know through their eyes. There is a distinct quality to them and we have to pay attention since these people also tend to be the most unassuming and quiet. Fourthly, it helps me to connect at a deeper level with people, especially my friends. Give it a try. You may be able to help someone who is going through a difficult time because you see past their words to the actual person, including someone fighting clinical depression.

Mental illness is a topic that is hard for me to articulate and it’s not something that I see easy solutions to. It is extremely complex and comes from physiological, emotional, genetic, environmental, behavioral, and spiritual dimensions. There is no one-size fits all solution.

I’ve had two very serious bouts with clinical depression. One in 2004 when I was diagnosed with PTSD from being a 9/11 relief worker, which also came with clinical depression. And 3.5 years of debilitating postpartum depression and anxiety after I had Michaela and which every miscarriage I had made worse.

Mine is not chronic. It is tied to hormones and situations. I’ve been out of it for a while now and while I have a melancholic, introvert nature and the long darkness of December drives me crazy, I no longer have clinical depression. I have friends and family who do, however.

I firmly believe the answer ultimately rests in Christ. Not as a cure, but as the Source of hope, faith, strength, and perseverance. I wouldn’t have made it through my dark nights without Him and the help of His Mother. Being a Catholic allows us to transform our suffering through the Cross. It is redemptive and that means everything when you are in a very dark abyss, and that’s exactly what clinical depression is in that moment, in my experience. The abyss robs people of hope and without Christ it is very difficult to even find hope in the darkness. We need to bring the light to those trapped in the abyss of mental illness and others in despair.

And as unpopular as it might seem, I don’t think all suicide is the result of clinical depression. There are people who kill themselves out of spite, broken-hearts, fear, financial distress, and the list goes on and on. Clinical depression is a whitewash we put on an extremely complex issue. It helps to assuage our guilt, and just like all of the other ills in our culture, it keeps us from any real and lasting introspection. There are absolutely a lot of people who commit suicide from mental illness, but not all.

No matter the needs of an individual in their treatment plan, we have an obligation to be sharing the Good News in a world of despair. Why aren’t we evangelizing more? We have the answer to the longing of every human heart: Christ Jesus. He may not cure those who are mentally ill, but He will certainly shoulder the burden and bring each person to the unending joy of everlasting life. That’s Who and what we are made for and we can only find true and lasting happiness in communion with the Most Holy Trinity.

Today is the Solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus. Our Lord’s love burns at an unimaginable intensity for each one of us. He is gently calling all people to Himself. As His disciples, we must go out and share this great burning love with the people in our lives. Only Christ can transform our culture and shed light into the dark places within each one of us. Only He can shoulder our burdens and lighten our load and only He can show us the great power of the Cross in our own lives. Everyone needs Christ. May God have mercy on all those who take their own life.

Catholic Exchange: Silence in Advent Prepares Us for the Joy of Christmas

The topic of silence has grown in popularity on social media in recent months. This is especially true in light of the various pieces written on Cardinal Sarah’s brilliant book, The Strength of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise. Silence is an important topic. We are inundated with noise. This noise is not only an assault on our auditory faculties, but on our senses as a whole. The world wants to keep us distracted, busy, and living with a constant din buzzing in our ears. Why? Noise is a tool that the world and Satan use to keep us from God. It is easy to drown Him out in our daily lives by remaining focused on the endless onslaught. In reality, we cannot make serious progress in the spiritual life without silence. Saints are made in silence. It is through silence before the great mystery of God that we enter more deeply into communion with the Most Holy Trinity. That communion is what we are moving closer towards in each moment of every single day. It is in that communion that we will find beatitudo (happiness) and Heaven.

The Church understands our desperate need for silence. It is fitting that our liturgical year begins in a season of silence and waiting. As the late fall evenings lengthen towards the darkness of winter, we become more aware of the silence and stillness that are a part of the natural order of things. Creation seems to go into its own period of waiting. It is easy for us to miss what is going on around us in the busyness of the secular Christmas season. As we run around shopping for countless gifts—many of which, let’s face it, are unnecessary—attend parties, write Christmas cards, decorate our homes, and move about with frenetic energy, we can miss not only what is going on around us in Creation, but what is going on in the Church.

Read the rest over at Catholic Exchange.