As Christians, our lives and our relationships are meant to be different from the prevailing culture. We are witnesses to Christ crucified and risen from the dead, who is the cause for our joy. As the Mystical Body, the communion we share with one another is one of the ways that we are able to draw others into the love of the Most Holy Trinity and to the eucharistic banquet. When people see the love we have for one another, they should immediately see the love of God dwelling within us.
As witnesses, we are not meant to draw attention to ourselves, but rather, to the gift of the Holy Spirit who dwells within each one of us. There should be a dynamic at work in our friendships and relationships that leads people to wonder in amazement at the love we have for one another, and it should awaken within them the desire to enter into that love. Our bonds of love in friendship—or any other loving relationship—is a reflection of God’s love for mankind. Our friendships are meant to be infectious and life-giving. And while there will always be varying levels of intimacy and affection in each one of our relationships with individuals, the joy in the love of Christ that we share in those relationships should always be inviting to others so that love and communion can deepen and flourish within the Mystical Body.
When our relationships are grounded in the love of Christ, they take on a new quality. There is a closeness that becomes evident to others. I’ve been thinking about this in my own relationships. I’ve noticed that the more my relationships are focused on the love of Christ, the more other people, even within my own parish, ask me about them. I am frequently asked if one of my closest friends is actually my biological sister. I tend to reply with: “Yes, she is my sister in Christ, but we aren’t biologically related.” Our friendship is centered on our mutual desire to grow in holiness through the paths we have each been given. The closeness we share with one another in Christ is evident, so people are convinced that we are sisters.
Another close friend of mine, who I visit with after daily Mass each day, is often confused for my mother. Fellow daily Mass goers see the love and high regard we have for one another, so they’ve come to wonder if we are mother and daughter. We’ve taken to telling people that we are spiritual mother and spiritual daughter, because it is true. Once again our relationship is first and foremost about our shared love for Christ. That love, deepened through the Holy Spirit, radiates outward and the intimacy we share in our relationship is seen by others to the point of people believing she is my mother and I am her daughter.
The Internet and mainstream media have been set ablaze with the latest outrage that seems to be manufactured every five minutes. Each side rushes to judgment and paints the other group as the villain. Meanwhile supporters canonize the person or persons they agree with and the vitriol reaches an intensity that should startle every person of goodwill. Round-and-round it goes, this cycle of anger in our culture and even within the Church.
This piece is not specifically about the Covington Catholic controversy. Nor will I make any judgments about what transpired. The aim of this piece is to offer an alternative tactic that goes back to Our Lord Himself, but that is applicable in an age when any one of us could become the topic of a social media frenzy should a video be taken of us that could provide an ambiguous depiction of us that can easily be taken out of context or manipulated to appease the angry masses.
Our careers could be ruined, our families and friends threatened, and we could become the target of the social media mob if we are not careful. If you think I’m overreacting, keep in mind that I happen to pray regularly at the Planned Parenthood where a teenager was assaulted during a 40 Days for Life campaign that made national news. A town of 90,000 people. That video became viral in a matter of minutes and people were ready to draw and quarter those involved depending on what political side they happened to be on. This is what it is like to live an an age of never-ending digital consumption and intentionally manufactured outrage. Someone is always watching, even when we don’t think that is the case.
There are some situations during which we can’t avoid confrontation. However, while I was at the March for Life, I witnessed and exercised an approach that will help us to avoid becoming social media fodder in the future. It’s how Our Lord responded to similar situations that arose during His ministry and Passion. It is one we seldom want to use because we all desire tangible justice.
I went kayaking today. This time of year I don’t get to go as often as I would like. It’s not the cold that bothers me so much, it’s the wind speeds that I have to watch. It’s notoriously windy in these parts during the fall and winter and a strong westerly wind makes it almost impossible for me to get very far on the lake and it can be dangerous. I kayak alone most of the time, so my husband also watches windspeed and keeps me prudent in my desire to get on the water.
It’s taken sometime, but my husband now seems to understand that I need to kayak. I exercise regularly to maintain better health, but I kayak to relax, work through spiritual and daily struggles, and to commune with God. I will literally take my struggles out on the lake. It can handle my hard, frustrated paddling. No matter how hard or how gently I paddle, the lake continues to let me glide across the water. Taking my stress out on the lake doesn’t hurt anyone or anything.
I have had paddles where I am paddling with all of my might as tears stream down my face and I try to work through a problem I’m facing. Interiorly I will be venting whatever I’m trying to work through. It’s not really the lake I’m talking to. It’s God. I commune with Him outdoors more than anywhere except before the Tabernacle containing His Real Presence. When I look out over the mountains I see Him. I hear Him in the breeze and the birdsong and He is the one pushing me onward as I figure out what I’m supposed to do next. He is the one who tells me to be still when it’s time to stop fighting.
Kayaking is where I find great stillness both within myself and in creation. The seasons teach me a lot about life, especially the spiritual life. It’s winter, so the trees and mountainside are still and laid bare. There’s very little wildlife except for an occasional bird. I’m largely alone on the lake with the exception of the occasional fisherman. During late-fall and winter, most of my kayaking is done in the afternoon when it’s slightly warmer. In the spring and summer, I am out at dawn so that I can watch the sun come up over the mountains and pray Lauds.
When I was younger my outdoor sports were usually spent with friends. We raced down Class V rapids, learned how to snowboard together (if you make it past the first day then you’re golden!), climbed, rappelled, hiked, camped, and biked. A lot of it was the adrenaline rush, but most of the time it was how my friends and I spent time together. I’ve always been enraptured by sunrise and sunset and I’d make my friends stop and take it in with me.
These days I spend my time on the water mostly alone. My friends are mothers like me with all of the demands of that vocation. And now that I’m married, I only hang out with my male friends in groups. Two of my friends come out with me when they can. I’m also the mother of one child rather than many and now that she’s older, I’m able to head to the lake on my own more or bike or run on the local Greenway while she’s at school. My husband prefers canoeing to kayaking, so we canoe as a family in summer months, but by-in-large it’s just my kayak, me, the lake, any wildlife I see, and God.
I’ve come to see how much I need this time on the water by myself. There is a deeply spiritual dimension to it for me, but I also need to work through struggles or simply be at rest in the sunshine and on the glassy water. My deep connection to beauty means that being outside refreshes, rejuvenates, and heals those broken places within my soul that are a part of being human and in relationships with other people. It’s the one place outside of the Mass where I feel free to give everything up to God.
This is not some New Age nonsense, rather, it is an encounter with the Living God through His creation who is present to me as I make my way across the lake. Each moment on the water is one He ordained for me to be there with Him. I can hand Him my pain, frustration, stress, and anger. I can simply be with Him: good day or bad day. This life isn’t easy and He finds ways to reach each one of us in our particular nature and this is one of the main ways He reaches me.
I’m also never lonely while I’m out on the lake by myself. In fact, being outside often makes any sense of loneliness disappear. All of us struggle with being understood at a deeper level than most people understand us at. Our relationships tend to remain surface level, which is safe and easy, but can be unfulfilling. Our closest relationships–those with our spouses–with all of their great joys and blessings show us that even they cannot understand the depths within our souls. God is the only one who can understand us, even better than we understand ourselves. There are times when I’m kayaking that I feel understood at the deepest levels of my being. So being alone in these moments helps me to find that deeper connection that I long for that only comes from Him.
When I sit in awe and wonder as the sun moves above the mountains at sunrise or the water shimmers like diamonds in the afternoon light I can feel the tension being released from my body. Looking out over the beauty before me is a reminder that whatever I’m working through in the present will pass and be made right if not in this life then in the next life. Through beauty, He draws me close. If this was simply about relieving stress then I’d go for a run, but it’s much more than that.
I don’t always leave the lake with the answers I am seeking. In fact, a lot of the time the same issues are waiting for me on shore, but I find new strength to face them or new insight God has given me through prayer. We often make prayer complicated or overthink it. Other than praying Lauds or Vespers–depending on when I’m on the lake–I simply pour myself out to God. Sometimes I yell a great deal internally when things have gotten particularly difficult. I don’t yell audibly lest I startle the wildlife and the fishermen on the lake with me. While I don’t think my life is harder than anyone else’s, experiencing four miscarriages, a chronically ill husband, a chronically ill father, an intense spiritual life, and the difficulties we all face in our relationships with other people, means that I tend to have plenty to work through on each new paddle. Beauty and being outside is how God brings me solace especially during spiritually intense periods.
There are times when I simply look up and look out so that I can take it all in. My mind finally quiets–this is hard for me–and I can simply enter into the moment and the splendor around me. And there are times I simply paddle across the lake and that’s that. I’ve even had days when I get out on the water and realize I don’t really want to be there for some reason, but I push past it. Being on the lake is a reflection of what it is to live in this Fallen world.
This time of year can present challenges to all of us as we approach the Christmas season. More and more Catholics are trying to slow down and enter into the period of waiting and preparation in the Advent season. As the secular Christmas season continues to spiral out of control, a lot of people are seeing the wisdom of this season of stillness and waiting.
The problem is that, for many of us, Advent can begin to feel more like Lent than Advent. We may find ourselves wrestling in the desert rather than waiting silently by an empty manger. The state of the Church in the past few months in the United States, and in many other countries, has resulted in a Lenten period all its own due to the abominable crimes that have come to light. So it isn’t all that surprising that many Catholics are feeling like they are in Lent rather than Advent at present.
What do we do when Advent feels more like Lent?
If you, like me, entered into Advent and woke up in Lent, don’t worry. God is working in us to bring about much needed healing and growth that will be necessary for growing in holiness. There will be times in our lives, even as we prepare for the joy of Christmas, when we will have to wage interior battles. These intense periods often feel like a wrestling match because it is in these times when God is asking us to give something up or to give something over to Him that only He can heal or resolve. We desperately want to do it ourselves, but in reality Our Triune God is the only one who can resolve these areas of our lives. We are called to trust in Him and relinquish our grip.
The stresses of daily life, health issues, grief from the loss of a loved one, habitual sin, damaged relationships, the scandals rocking the Church, marital struggles, and a whole host of other situations can lead us to a period of aridity and struggle in the desert. The long nights of late fall, the frenetic energy of this time of year, and the suffering we carry means that this time of year can be particularly difficult for many of us. For those with no family or friends to celebrate the holidays with, the loneliness can become unbearable.
Even so, I thought that Bishop Barron should have gone further in his piece and looked to the laity. Especially in our time, the faithful Catholic laity are called to a particular vocation to evangelize in the secular world and are especially called to evangelize the culture. This is articulated in both Lumen Gentium and Christifideles Laici.
In no way do I think that Bishop Barron is calling for the ministerial priesthood to take up the laity’s role. However, I do think there is an issue that needs to be addressed, namely that the ministerial priesthood’s role within the Church is primarily to teach, to sanctify, and to govern the People of God and to make the Sacraments present to us. This is the primary mission of the priesthood. In so doing, the laity is equipped for their mission of evangelizing the world. The fact of the matter is, not only has Gaudium et Spes been greatly misinterpreted and poorly implemented in many corners, but Lumen Gentium and Christifideles Laici have been ignored in far too many parishes as well.
The ministerial priesthood is meant to help prepare those of us in the laity to go out into the world to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ. We are sent forth at the end of Mass in order to bring people back to Christ. It’s much like the great sending forth when God speaks Creation into existence through the Word. It is the great exitus, as understood by St. Thomas Aquinas. Creation is then meant to return to God, reditus. We too as the Mystical Body are sent forth in order to bring all peoples to God through the Church. Our greatest desire should be to draw all peoples to Christ in the eucharistic banquet. Based on his previous works, Bishop Barron and I would probably agree that it is primarily the laity who are sent in that great movement (exitus) in order to bring others to the salvation extended to all peoples by Christ through His Church (reditus).
Practically speaking, the laity is not fully equipped to live it’s mission in the world. Bishop Barron rightly points out, the numbers of people leaving the Church are startling. Studies show that less than 20% of regular Church attendees are involved in ministry or donating to their parish on a given Sunday. Most of the time, the numbers are even lower than 20%. Yes, we need to evangelize the culture, but we also need to stop the hemorrhaging in our parishes. We should be drawing those who are already sacramentalized into a deeper encounter with Christ and, through the guidance of the ministerial priesthood, we must find ways to equip the laity to evangelize the world. How do we engage the people who are in the pews now, so they can go out to proclaim the Good News?
“Life is not neatly divided between beauty and ugliness, light and dark, beatitude and despair. Rather, it is a struggle and a longing, full of vicissitude and vacillation, with glimmers and glimpses which paradoxically attract and repel us, making us feel both at home and alien.” Austin Choate, “Terrence Lamick: You Will Love, Whether You Like It Or Not”
In the last few weeks, I’ve found myself struggling with a particular battle that God has told me He is asking me to fight for reasons that are completely mysterious to me. When it arises within me, I pray and ask God what He wants of me in it, especially when I falter, fail, or stumble to the ground in the face of the attacks I endure or the internal weakness I face on my part. He has repeatedly told me the answer is: “You can fight or you can walk away.” He also repeatedly tells me that I can’t do it on my own and any progress I make is in His time, not my own. I continue to choose to fight because I know the good of this battle is worth the ups and downs that I face. In fact, at one of my lowest points, God in His gratuitous love and mercy gave me a a small glimpse of the glory at the end of this battle and all battles that I will wage in this life.
Two years ago something shifted dramatically in my soul. I didn’t even know it at the time. God gave me a choice: To love as He loves or to walk away. Regular readers will already be familiar with some of this story. I had just had my fourth miscarriage and I was in the grips of grief. I had the perfect ultrasound of our little Andrew Thomas in my hands and the joy and relief of a heartbeat, only to find out on the Feast of St. Dominic–appropriate since we were going to name him after St. Thomas Aquinas–that he had died.
The agony was intense and my heart broke into so many pieces and split wide open that I didn’t know how I’d recover. His loss was my fourth miscarriage, but there seemed to be something particularly cruel about this one. Two ultrasounds confirmed a strong heartbeat. We were overjoyed, and then he was gone. My husband and I once again found ourselves in the ER grief-stricken.
My healing came about through an unexpected and deeply painful process. God called me to quickly return to the front lines of praying for an end to abortion at our local Planned Parenthood. This time he asked me to be out two days a week for 2-3 hours each day. It seemed to be a strange and difficult thing to ask of me, but I obeyed. Eventually, I was asked to help a woman who was considering an abortion at 20 weeks.
She was due at the same time I was due to have Andrew. At first it seemed like another knife to the heart. God asked me to walk with this woman up until she gave birth (she cut off contact afterwards, but I still pray for her regularly). We talked baby names, ultrasounds, and supplies. I made the difficult decision to give her all of the baby items we had purchased for Andrew and my husband agreed.
The entire process was a letting go on my part. There were many tears and my heart ached in ways that were unimaginable, but I obeyed. I gave everything I had to her and in turn my own grief was turned into joy as I held that baby boy for the first time who had survived our abortion culture. No, he wasn’t my Andrew, but God brought about redemption through my suffering. He allowed me (and my husband when able) to love this woman despite my own pain and give her as much love and support as possible in order to help her choose to keep her son. He’s now 1.5 years old.
The decision to love in this case was agonizing. It wasn’t the feel good, romantic, warm-fuzzy sort of love that our culture is obsessed with. It was a purifying love that required God to cut me deep so that I could bleed out His love upon this woman despite my grief. And ever since I made that decision the intensity of my spiritual life has increased exponentially. I’ve had to confront both external attacks from the Enemy of a more obvious nature than at any other point in my life while also coming face-to-face with my own weaknesses and failures to love others as I ought to.
While this particular situation has passed, God is still calling me to love as He loves and that always requires a form of purification. Our own sinfulness and weakness means that all of our relationships must go through the fire of refinement, even relationships that at the deepest levels of reality are good and holy. We get in the way through our Fallen nature, so God has to constantly lead us to the right path and pick us back up when we falter. The point is to continue to begin again with every new fall and to persevere to the end with Him by our side.
The last couple of weeks, I have been spending time praying through Romans. I’ve been trying to understand some of the things God has asked me to endure and through multiple passages in Romans He gave me an answer. One of those passages is Romans 5:1-5:
Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peacewith God through our Lord Jesus Christ,through whom we have gained access [by faith] to this grace in which we stand, and we boast in hope of the glory of God.Not only that, but we even boast of our afflictions, knowing that affliction produces endurance,and endurance, proven character, and proven character, hope, and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the holy Spirit that has been given to us.
In all of my prayer the word “endure” has come to my mind regularly. When I read this passage and prayed with it on multiple occasions, I came to see that this was the answer to my need for endurance in my struggles. The goal is ever before me, but as I struggle spiritually and I battle my own sinfulnes and weakness, it can be difficult to remain steady. I falter. God is refining me through what I endure, even in the times I fail and must come back to Him in the Sacrament of Confession. He is strengthening me through enduring trials and temptations. More than anything, He is teaching me to rely more fully on Him in everything. Whether in desolation or consolation, it’s not up to me, I’m required to love.
I got this same message when I was kayaking with my daughter Friday morning. I was frustrated and there are times when I need to take that frustration out on the lake, a trail, or my elliptical machine. My daughter sat in the front of the tandem kayak I had to rent because my new kayak doesn’t track well with her in it. While she sat looking out, I was praying in frustration and exasperation and paddling as hard as my body would allow. All the while asking God what He wants from me and if I am actually doing what He is asking of me or not. I then clearly heard Him say: “I’ve asked you to love as I love.” I stopped paddling and sighed. “Ok, Lord.”
My weaknesses and failures matter in the I need to overcome them by His grace, but that’s the whole point. My desire is to overcome my brokenness so that all may be pleasing, good, and holy in His sight. That is the driving force that propels me forward because I love Him. It’s not that I am never going to be weak. I will be. It’s whether or not I’m willing to fight the battle that is required of me, and I am. Not only for my sake, but for others. I’m willing to endure, even when it takes everything I have and then some. I always remain in the hope that Christ will help me to endure, even when I fall. My hope is ultimately in Him, not myself.
Not to be outdone in the generosity of the grace He pours into us, Our Lord made sure that I got the message loud and clear. I struggle to trust insights I gain in prayer at times, not because I don’t trust God–although I need work here–but because I don’t trust myself and my own propensity for self-deception. Through prayer with Romans, Christ has made it clear for two weeks at Adoration what He is asking of me. He told me again on the lake, and then He said it back to me through the priest in Confession this past Saturday.
When I went to Confession on Saturday I wasn’t feeling particularly well. The last couple of days I’ve been dealing with pain that I deal with from time-to-time. I was feeling a bit beaten down from the spiritual battles I wage, so I rather unceremoniously listed my sins. I go face-to-face at times and I decided to go on Saturday since I was in pain, although I would have rather have gone behind the screen that day. When I looked up after confessing my sins I saw Christ in the priest, which is what I really needed in that moment. I needed to see Christ sitting across from me, not Father, not my friend, but Christ in him. This has happened before, but this time when he gave me feedback he told me exactly what God has already told me in my recent prayer experiences. In fact, it was almost verbatim.
I was too tired to process all of it at the time, but as I considered it later on, I was astounded. The Holy Spirit wanted to make sure that I was getting the message loud and clear. Father even made allusions to aspects of St. Paul’s letters that were identical to what I’ve been studying and praying with. He affirmed to me that we know the goal, but we falter at times and the spiritual life is up and down. Sometimes we are called to endure things we don’t understand, but we must endure them with Christ. In that moment the things God has been telling me in prayer all found a cohesive connection to one another and He affirmed me in my struggles and told me to keep going. My choice is always the same when I’m asked to fight a battle within myself or for others: Love as He loves or walk away. I choose to love, which means I choose to fight.
The choice is always the same for all of us as we hope to progress in holiness. We must learn to love as Christ loves. That means areas of our lives must be purified and that process is painful. We must contend with the darkness within us, the weaknesses we discover, the temptations that come at us, and the areas of our personality that are a stumbling block for us and for others. Our relationships with other people must come to mirror the love the Blessed Trinity. Loving in that way given our weakness is difficult, but that’s what Christ is ultimately asking of us. I can say from the glimpse Christ gave me through no merit of my own, it is worth the battle. It is worth it to learn to love as Christ loves, even if we fail, fall, and become weak. As long as we keep getting back up and enduring to the end through our reliance on Him, our reward will be great.
There is no love greater than the love we have in Christ. We settle for counterfeits all of the time. As the quote at the beginning of this piece makes clear. We are both drawn in and repelled by what God offers us. There are times we struggle with the ultimate goods of this life because we are willing to settle for lesser goods or even sin. The spiritual life isn’t really black and white. It’s our struggle to turn fully to God even as we are distracted by what is good in this life or we choose something where good is lacking because we think it is what we want, need, or simply desire. We know the goal, but we still waver and fall. In all of it we are told that we are going to love whether we like it or not. How we go about learning to love and actually loving is up to us, but God will teach us the right way regardless.
In fact, sometimes we are drawn in by other people where we are taught that we must love and not in a superficial sort of way that is nothing more than emotional affirmation for ourselves. This isn’t love, it’s egoism. No, sometimes we are to love in the hard, nitty gritty, clench your teeth through the struggle, and rightly order sort of love. That’s why our culture largely doesn’t understand the nature of love. Love is self-emptying. It is purifying. It sacrifices the needs, wants, emotions, and desires of the one who loves for the other. It gives freely without any expectation of return. It is this aspect that we struggle with the most. We want to grasp it and get something back, but we are meant to love freely without expectation.
Yes, love must and should be reciprocal, but there are times we love other people much more deeply than they love us. There are times we love people who are incapable of returning that love properly. Love is a communion of persons that is meant to be grounded in Christ, but in our broken world this is difficult to achieve. Regardless, we are called to give freely and completely of ourselves. That is the lesson of the Cross. Our Lord pours Himself out completely, even while knowing that many will turn away from Him and not return His love. We must do the same. This requires courage, faith, hope, charity, and self-forgetfulness. We have to free ourselves of expectations and simply give, even if the other person does not return that love fully or even if they cast it off. We are to love as He loves. That’s the task we’ve been given in all of it’s terrible beauty and glory.
You and I always have a choice to make every single morning: Will I love as He loves or will I walk away? In those moments when we make the wrong choice, we must return to His love in the Sacrament of Confession. In the moments we say “yes” to loving as He loves, we must be ready to endure whatever is required of us. We must rely on Him completely. The battles we will wage in loving in such a way are both interior and exterior and they will take everything we have and a total dependence on Christ. These battles take many forms and we have to recognize them for what they are so that we can allow Christ to refine our broken love into the luminous love of His Sacred Heart. His Sacred Heart is likened to a fire precisely because our love must be refined and purified of it’s imperfections and that fire is cleansing and painful. Only then can we be truly radiant and enter fully into the love of the Holy Trinity. It’s a new day. What choice will we make today?
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.