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.

Catholic Exchange: The Freedom of Mary’s Immaculate Conception

Today the Church celebrates the great Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. It is the day we celebrate how Our Heavenly Mother was the first to receive the merits of her Divine Son’s Paschal Mystery. Unlike us, she was conceived without the taint of Eve’s sin coursing through her. Do we contemplate this great mystery? What it is to be conceived without Original Sin? To be free of the enslavement of sin is a tremendous gift Christ bestowed upon His mother.

We live in an age largely devoid of a true understanding of sin. There is no good or evil because each individual decides truth. If it is true or good for me, then it is not evil. In essence, this creates a system and moral law devoid of any truth. In fact, it is no moral law at all. In reality, sin makes us want to live in the mud. We think being human requires frolicking in the slop of evil. We call this good. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in his Homily for the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception in 2005 points out this error.

Precisely on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, we have a lurking suspicion that a person who does not sin must really be basically boring and that something is missing from his life:  the dramatic dimension of being autonomous; that the freedom to say no, to descend into the shadows of sin and to want to do things on one’s own is part of being truly human; that only then can we make the most of all the vastness and depth of our being men and women, of being truly ourselves; that we should put this freedom to the test, even in opposition to God, in order to become, in reality, fully ourselves.

How often have we experienced this temptation? How often have people told us the exact same thing? According to far too many people, to be fully human is to sin. ‘You Catholics must live no life at all.’ It is “boring” to work towards sainthood. Our Heavenly Mother must have had no life at all. In reality, her life was much fuller than yours or mine because of the gift of being born without Original Sin.

Read the rest over at Catholic Exchange.

Catholic Exchange: Advent-Our Hope is Not in This World

In many of our cultures the Christmas season is in full swing. It is the version of Christmas when we are told to buy more things and to accumulate as many material possessions as we can for ourselves and others. This is an understandable mentality in wealthier nations, only because we have been inundated with this message since childhood. Pay close attention to advertisements and commercials this time of year and throughout the year. Buying item X will bring you happiness, joy, comfort, or pleasure. You need this car, dress, computer, shoes, TV, and the list is endless. We are also told that we need an endless supply of fast food and junk food to provide for our immediate gratification as we spend hundreds or thousands on a credit card while shopping for Christmas. How often do you feel the need for a cheeseburger after a Hardee’s commercial? I know I have in the past and still do depending on the food being advertised. What are we preparing for exactly? It is supposed be the upcoming celebration of Our Lord’s Birth; or these days, the winter solstice?

If I could sum up this time of year in one word it would be: busy. The second word would be: noisy. There is an endless array of distractions, colors, dazzling displays, and blaring Christmas music telling us this is the “most wonderful time of the year”, and yet, everyone seems harried, hurried, unpleasant, and overwhelmed. We absolutely mustbuy a gift for Aunt Jean twice removed on our mother’s side. There must be a mountain of presents under the tree by December 24th and we absolutely have to attend every single soiree we are invited to, even if it means little to no silence or preparation for the coming of Our Lord at Christmas or in the Second Coming.

Where did all of these imperatives come from? In all of this busyness, are we truly ready to receive Christ into our hearts more fully at Christmas? Can we be ready in this craziness? Are we ready if Our Lord decided to come tomorrow in Glory to usher in the end of time and the new earth and Heaven? Whose birthday are we getting ready for at this point in time? Does a mountain of gifts point to Christ or our own desires? He was born in a stable, after all. My point here is not to denigrate the giving side of the upcoming (no it is not Christmas, yet) Christmas season. It is to help us consider if there is another way and whether or not we truly believe our hope dwells outside of this world.

Our neighbors are overwhelmed and overburdened. They are enslaved by the notion that buying one more item or one more gift will fulfill them. The problem is, that far too many of us Catholics are also enslaved by this aspect of our culture. This is a battle all of us wage as we fight our desire for lower goods over our ultimate good: God. Do our lives reflect our Catholic Faith and this Advent season, or do we look the same as our frenzied neighbors?

Read the rest over at Catholic Exchange.

The Proper Ordering of Art and Writing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Confronting Hard Truths About Facebook and Myself

Anyone who has been reading my blog over the last couple of years knows that I battle being addicted to Facebook. Yes, addicted. I think a lot of people are addicted, but we don’t like to admit it, myself included. Social media is a part of the post-modern experience. At face value it is indeed a good. It allows us to connect worldwide in real-time and to reconnect with people from our past. It is a blessing to see how people we knew decades before are doing at this point in their lives. All of this is good, but I think we  need to be honest with ourselves about a few things.

We live in a lonely culture.

We are able to connect in real-time, and yet, we are more lonely now than ever before. We can spend hours engaged in discussions, arguments, or reading news feeds, but feel completely and utterly disconnected. A computer screen does not provide the needed interaction of authentic relationship with a person who is present to us fully. We can get a million “Likes” to something and it will not put a dent in that loneliness or sense of isolation. In reality, deep down, we realize that our Facebook friends are more of a type of acquaintance than true friendship. Our Facebook friends may offer us prayers and kind thoughts during difficult times, but only a few of them will walk into the darkness with us. This is, of course, human  nature. We avoid suffering at all costs. As painful as it is, we have to acknowledge that we are in a sort of shadow relationship with our Facebook friends. We are social beings by nature. We need community, but authentic community in which we interact with people in person and engage in relationships with those people.

We have stopped listening to one another.

Listening is something we all struggle to do in our interactions. In our pride, we want to have an immediate response at the ready before considering all of the information being presented. We already have our ideas, preconceived notions, and biases at the ready. We also desire to protect ourselves from any perceived attack, even if it is meant merely as a charitable reminder or correction. We all seem to do this in both social media and in our daily relationships.

The problem with this lack of listening in social media is that it is dividing us even more with each passing day. When we begin a discussion with someone–whether a friend or a stranger–we do not meet on even ground. There is no mutual understanding or defining of terms. I have discovered that discussions go much more smoothly if they are entered into with an understanding of mutual respect and a clear defining of terms to be used. If we enter into a conversation in social media with someone without these two principles in place, the conversation will devolve very quickly. It then turns into a group of people ganging up on one person or one person ranting and raving at the others or a whole host of other problematic situations will occur. Ad hominems, presumptions, misunderstandings, and irrationality inevitably take over the whole conversation.

Facebook and the like allow us to talk, and talk, and talk. We have a platform and we use it. It is hard to admit to ourselves that in reality, nobody cares, or if they do, it is not that much. A passing “Like”, emoji, or thumbs up does not equate to genuine concern or interest. Typically we “Like” and move on to “Like” a dozen more things before shutting off social media for a few minutes and then reaching for our phone again or laptop.

We do not appeal to prudence.

The Queen of the Virtues is prudence. She is the most important of the cardinal virtues for all of the other cardinal virtues flow from her. Prudence means truly discerning how to respond in a situation. Think of prudence in relation to wisdom. For a Catholic, this includes considering God’s will or proper responses in a given situation. We cannot be just if we are not prudent. True justice is founded on prudence and charity. We cannot be truly courageous if we are not prudent, because we may get ourselves killed in the process. We cannot be temperate if we do not first understand prudent choices, because the Passions would like nothing more than to have free run of our lives. Prudence is the crucial habit that needs to be learned in virtuous living and in going deeper into the spiritual life.

Social media is almost the anti-thesis of prudence. We say whatever comes to mind without any appeal to prudence. Yes, we are all works in progress, including myself. We are all sinners, but that is not a get out of jail free card or an excuse. We know better, so we acknowledge our weakness, but we don’t justify it. I often lack prudence and it always gets me into trouble. As Catholics, we do not have a right to do and say whatever we want. We are obliged–through the gift of the supernatural virtues–to learn the habit of prudence. Not every comment on Facebook we disagree with needs to be responded to. I am talking to myself here too. I am a work in progress, so please keep in mind this is not some kind of morally superior lecture. I am right there in the gutters with everyone else. These are merely insights I have gained from my own broken, and at times, sinful use of social media. Not every thought that comes to our heads needs to go out into cyberspace. We do have an obligation to consider how our thoughts and actions will impact the people around us.

Does social media help me on the path to holiness?

All of these insights come down to the main question that I must ask myself as someone who is clearly addicted to Facebook. This is the same question we must all ask ourselves in every moment of the day. Will this X, Y, or Z help me attain holiness? Some people are masters of properly ordering social media and they are able to use it for God’s purposes. I know that I am not one of those people. God has made it plain to me, and yet, in my shame and weakness I persist. Internet usage is a constant in my regular Confessions. Unequivocally Facebook does not help me on the path to holiness. It is a hindrance. It makes me think too much about myself and my own thoughts, which are not nearly as exciting as they seem in my head or in black letters glowing on my computer screen. Nobody cares! I am going to tell myself this again: NOBODY CARES! There I said it. What a relief!

I think that far too many Catholics do not understand that our mission is holiness. The meaning of our lives is to become a saint. That is not a goal reserved for a lofty few. It is the end for which all of us are created. If we approach our daily living from this standpoint we would begin, by God’s grace, to order our lives to that purpose. I know this truth, but there are times I fall into habits that take me away from that mission. Facebook takes me away from my vocation and the mission. I have asked God to make me a saint and that means relinquishing my will to His will. He has asked me to cease and desist Facebook. I will not progress, and I may back slip, if I do not take heed.

Facebook can become a near occasion of sin.

Facebook is a near occasion of sin for me because of the incessant outrage. The constant need to be angry or upset about something, anything. The onslaught of news and division can be downright overwhelming. This is a distraction aimed at keeping us from focusing on Christ and the mission of bringing the world to Him. The world has been a horrifying, bloodthirsty, and violent place since the Fall. The Bible and human history are filled with humanity’s evil, stupidity, arrogance, blindness, and depravity. We have been wounded by the Fall and we live in a world that struggles with sin. We still wait for the Second Coming of Our Lord at any moment. That is one of the main purposes of Advent. To remind us to wake up! Christ will come again and we do not know the hour, so be alert!

Spending hours upon hours dwelling on the Fallen world is not good for me and I would argue it is not good for anyone. I worry about some of my Facebook friends. I see their loneliness. I know their loneliness. I see their pain and struggles. They may not realize that I see them.We reach out for human interaction for someone to “see” us and our pain, but Facebook does not provide the needed compassion and charity. My Facebook friends cannot truly see my grief and pain. The tears I shed on a nearly daily basis as I grieve my lost babies and struggle to accept my infertility do not appear in my newsfeed. A crying emoji wouldn’t quite do justice to my struggles. They do not sense the ache I feel at all of their children and pregnancy announcements. Not because I am envious, although I have my moments, but because I am a mother who wants to love more children.

I know deep down most–not all–of my Facebook friends do not truly see me, understand me, or love me as a friend is meant to love. I think this is something we all need to acknowledge and accept. This is understandable. We are no longer in the same place in our lives or geographically. Facebook allows for facades and the pretense of everything is dandy and fine. Nobody wants a “downer” to share what it is really like in periods of intense grief. It is an illusion and that is precisely why so many people are lonely and feel empty in a world of immediate connection.

I struggle like a lot of people to use Facebook properly. I have not mastered prudence enough to be temperate in my Facebook usage. Another sign that I am stumbling up the path with everyone else. Have you considered your own social media interactions and usage? Is it a hindrance or a good for you on the path to deeper communion with Christ? I think we all need to pray for God to help us develop the habit of considering every element in our lives through our eschatological purpose, which is to be a saint, so that we can enter into full communion with the Blessed Trinity at the end of our lives.

Catholic Exchange: Preparing Our Hearts and Minds for Advent

This Sunday the Church begins her new liturgical year with the season of Advent. In the hustle and bustle of the secular Christmas season, it is an often-overlooked season. It is a time when the Church calls us as our Mother to enter into the silence and hope of waiting. Many of us live in cultures of instant gratification, so Advent is rich in spiritual truths. Christmas trees, elves, lights, and holiday decorations seem to show up in stores earlier and earlier. The day after Halloween gave way to Christmas. Here in the U.S., the cultural preparations for Christmas in previous years typically start the day after Thanksgiving, but now Thanksgiving seems to be absorbed into the frenzy of Christmas. It can be difficult during this busy time of year to enter into Advent, but a well observed Advent will deepen our joy at Christmas.

Advent, this powerful liturgical season that we are beginning, invites us to pause in silence to understand a presence. It is an invitation to understand that the individual events of the day are hints that God is giving us, signs of the attention he has for each one of us.

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, Homily at First Vespers of Advent, November 28, 2009

The season of Advent coincides with the darkest and busiest time of year. This is appropriate as it reminds us of the world after the Fall, which groaned in anticipation of the coming Savior. We are blessed to live in the world in light of the Paschal Mystery, but the Church calls us to meditate upon the centuries of waiting for the coming of the Savior. The darkness of this time of year reminds us of the darkness of sin and death. The People of God waited centuries to be redeemed and for the renewal of the world, often they fell into sin and temptation, further demonstrating the need for salvation.

We too are waiting. We are waiting for the Parousia, the Second Coming of Christ. As we wait we run the risk of giving into false idols and worldly goods even after our Baptism. The very same temptations that faced God’s People throughout salvation history are temptations we battle through our Fallen nature. The Paschal Mystery has renewed the earth and we are now propelling forward towards the end of time and the new Heaven and new earth, but for now we must battle sin and constantly turn to God for assistance. Advent is a time to prepare ourselves for the coming of Christ at Christmas, but also in waiting in alertness for the Second Coming of Our Lord. Advent is a time to look at ourselves and ask if we are truly prepared in heart and mind for the Incarnation. If Christ came again in glory today, would I be ready? Am I a saint?

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.