Knowing Ourselves and the Battle for Objectivity

One of the greatest battles we face in the spiritual life is knowing and understanding ourselves. “Know thyself” appeared on the temple at Delphi in Ancient Greece. It’s influenced philosophy for centuries and it is an essential aspect of the spiritual life, as long as it is properly ordered to God and a life of holiness. This is not packaging for self-help. It is a very real struggle we all face as we enter more deeply into the life of God and progress on the path He has set out for us.

We often pride ourselves in being objective in our understanding of things, but in reality, more-often-than-not we are not nearly as objective as we believe ourselves to be. Human beings are complex. We deal with a whole host of competing factors from biology to environment to family background to personality traits to our own spiritual temperament and path to intense suffering. We are masters of self-deception. We often think we know ourselves better than we actually do, and worse, we often think we know more about other people than we do. This is something the saints have understood, which is why the vast majority of them had spiritual directors or regular confessors they relied on for objectivity and guidance from the Holy Spirit.

As our battle intensifies in order to grow in holiness and trials increase, we very quickly realize that things are not necessarily what we thought they are or they turn out in ways we didn’t expect. Christ works to shed light into the deepest darkest places within us and we find things we never consciously were aware of, hid, or never thought we’d confront. It is easy to look out at the world around us and point to that evil, but it is another thing to look to the evil within ourselves. That is the painful part. We’d rather look out there, but Christ is calling us to first purify our own hearts, so that we can love and serve Him and others.

The rise of social media and instant communication–for all of its goods, which vary–has given us a false sense of pride. A great many of us think we know more than we actually do and we go out of our way to tell other people when they are wrong. I was rather insufferable for years using social media. I still have days when I am not nearly as charitable as I am supposed to be, but I can look back on some of the years when I too lorded over people and truly regret doing so. Thankfully, God doesn’t give up on us and He has worked quite a bit in me during recent years.

A lot of the emails or comments I receive on my writing points to our lack of objectivity. I don’t expect people to agree with me all of the time. I certainly don’t agree with everything I read. I have blind-spots, make poor arguments, lack clarity, or there are times I’m sure that I am wrong. The problem is, the vast majority of the long ranting emails I receive are because a person has completely missed the point of my piece. The issue is always the same: They cannot be objective about the topic for some reason, but they can’t see it. The emails are always of a condescending tone. Some have called me a heretic others claim to be giving loving, but firm correction, as if we can possibly do that for someone we don’t know in person. The Holy Spirit is not calling any of us to be lord of the Internet. Fraternal correction is rarely successful on the Internet and for good reason. There is a difference between lively debate and ranting. Unfortunately, the difference is not as widely understood as it used to be.

If we have an emotional response to something, we are immediately compromised. It is very difficult once emotions take hold to form reasoned judgments. We have to wait for the emotions to subside. If they don’t, then we know we are not currently in the position to respond to something objectively. We all have areas of our lives, especially related to pain and suffering, when we cannot respond through a clear use of reason. Emotions play a very important part of our experience as human beings, but they are a poor indicator of what is going on in reality. They often cause us to become blind and to make or project assumptions onto other people. We all do this, but it is largely ineffective and can be destructive.

I struggle a great deal with rejection for a variety of reasons that I don’t want to go into here. I realized in recent months how much that hinders my ability to make objective judgements about situations at times. My Confessor even at one point told me that I have to stop projecting my feelings and emotions onto other people. He’s absolutely right. It’s unjust to do so, because it doesn’t allow me to see people as they are and only makes me see them through my own brokenness.

It also taught me an essential aspect of growing in holiness. In order to progress, we must be willing to truly confront every aspect of our souls, even the painful and dark places. We all have these places and Christ wishes to heal us and make us into the saints He desires us to be so that we can live in the love and communion of the Most Holy Trinity. We can’t enter into that communion fully and freely if we are hindered in any way. The path to holiness is the school of love. It’s where we learn to confront ourselves through the guidance of the Holy Spirit and our relationship with Christ. If we refuse to confront ourselves and allow Christ to heal our brokenness, then we will not be able to learn to love as He loves.

The last two years of my life have been intense from a spiritual perspective. Something shifted for me when I made the decision to help a woman avoid an abortion while I was grieving a miscarriage. The Enemy took notice and the barrage he has sent my way has led me through battles I couldn’t ever have foreseen. It also means that I am at a point when I need a regular spiritual director. God made that plain to me. I need someone who can objectively help me work out the inner workings of my soul because I am a master of self-deception. It is difficult for me to understand a lot of things that are going on in my soul and in my relationships with others. I know this, which is why I constantly pray for clarity and I call out to Our Lord seeking His aid and asking Him to preserve me from self-deception.

We forget that we not only face the Fallen state of the flesh, we also struggle against the world, and spiritual attacks from the Enemy. It’s hard to tell what is what as we move up the holy mountain. That’s where spiritual direction and/or a regular Confessor (I’ve chosen both) becomes indispensable in the spiritual life. It’s why I tend to go to Confession with the same priest over-and-over again. It’s why I prayed for a spiritual director and God finally answered me recently with a first candidate. If we are serious about the spiritual life, then we have to be willing to go places we don’t want to go. Those places lie within our own hearts.

We should try to remember that everyone around us is waging a great battle. This is harder to see in the virtual world of the Internet, but we don’t know people as well as we think we do online. We cannot possibly know an author from one 1500 word essay and often we have blind-spots we aren’t willing to confront that keep us from understanding what they are trying to say. I experience the same thing when I read something that frustrates me or makes me feel uncomfortable. Far too often, I read things through my own limited understanding, which means that I am not objective. It’s why I rarely comment or email authors anymore unless it’s work related. I’ve commented once or twice on glaring theological errors because authors really should do their due diligence and study Church teaching before they hit publish. Souls are on the line.

I don’t mind so much when people rant at me. I laugh when people call me a heretic, because nothing could be further from the truth. I know that some people send me long emails because they are hurting and need to vent. I pray for all of them, especially the most vitriolic. I’ve gotten some nasty ones. I’d only remind people that before we hit send on anything in the virtual world or before we make a judgement about someone we see or know in our community, we should keep in mind that our feelings, thoughts, or understanding may in fact be erroneous. Our own pain or understanding often blinds us to reality.

This is why we need good spiritual guides, whether spiritual directors, spiritual friends, or trusted holy friends who can help us along the way. More than anything, we need the courage to ask Christ to show us who we are and who we are meant to be. The two will be different at this point in time. He will show us how things are supposed to be, but we must wage the battle to get there. Objectivity is a part of that battle and it is something that seems to come with wisdom, but even then we can never truly be sure we are correct in our assessments of other people or our own motives. The spiritual life is a life-long path that teaches us how to rely totally on Christ and to realize that our own understanding is often the wrong one and we must fall on prayer and guidance to begin to see reality as it truly is both in relation to ourselves and to others. This also provides all of us with a much needed lesson on humility.

**I just came across an essay over at Dominicana on the need to control our emotions in the spiritual life, especially as we grow in faith and union with God. Our feelings are not God. Our faith in God cannot be contingent upon the tumultuous roller coaster of emotions, nor can our understanding of reality. It’s a great battle we all have to wage. It’s not easy by any stretch and I’m no exception. It’s a great read! You can find it here.

People Do Change, We Must

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Image: Wiki Commons

There is an adage in our culture that is prevalent in movies, books, even daily conversations. It is: “People never change.” It is even quite common for Catholics to make this statement. If this is true, then we are all in trouble. Scripture and our Faith tell us otherwise. People deeply attached to sin and disorder are made new in Christ. Individuals who have been discarded, abused, hurt, sick, lost, and committed great evils do indeed change. We underestimate how much seasons of illness impact a person. We also forget that people carry very deep wounds that only the Divine Physician can heal. It is much easier to live in our assumptions and presumptions about people and constantly compare them to their failures or weaknesses, but this is wholly unjust and is a sin against charity. Authentic love is constant regardless of these failings. It does not accept them, but love is not revoked in the face of failures either.

Anyone who makes frequent use of the Sacrament of Penance (Confession/Reconciliation) comes to realize how weak they truly are and how much they need Christ. It is true that we tend to fail in the same ways over and over again until God provides the grace and we need to develop the habit of the virtue necessary to overcome a certain vice or character flaw. This means that change is slow and on-going. Very few of us have radical conversion stories. Even St. Augustine’s Confessions demonstrates the struggle each person has with particular sins. It is easy to forget that our progression in holiness is dependent on God’s working within us on His timeline, not our own.

There are indeed times when changes must happen rapidly. This takes place when tragedy strikes or an unexpected and life-altering diagnosis occurs. In those moments we are faced with monumental decisions about ourselves, our loved ones, the people around us, and the future. These times tend to reveal the best and the worst in us and we have to fight for the best to win. Our self-centered Fallen nature will rear its ugly head when what we wanted is either impossible or irrelevant. We must pray for the strength to persevere when we would like to give up and to embrace God’s will over our own. Very few people go through their entire lives without wanting to give up in the face of tremendous adversity at least once or twice or a hundred times.

Change is actually inevitable. I am not the same person I was even three years ago. There are aspects of my personality that do not change, but a fog I walked in for 3 years lifted and I could finally see myself again. I came out of that fog higher up on the path and stronger for it despite the misery I endured. We walk in valleys and up to, and on, mountain tops in this life. We become different depending on what we face, but the deepest reality of who we are as created imago Dei does not change. Our unique incommunicable and unique personhood is not lost in the face of tragedy, illness, mental illness, abandonment, and suffering; rather, we are refined and the unique person we are is made more beautiful in God’s furnace of love.

This refinement only works if we desire joy and if we learn to embrace the hardships and sufferings that will come our way. It is a process and we will fail to accomplish at times and struggle with self-pity, anger, and frustration. We must fix our eyes on Heaven and remember that this is temporary. Each moment of every single day we are moving towards Heaven or hell. We know intuitively when we have made the wrong choice, unless we have completely deadened our conscience. Every step in either direction changes us into the person we will be in the next life. If we choose not to change in either direction that is also a choice and the wrong one.

Our purpose in this life is to be a saint. We are made for goodness, truth, beauty, and happiness, but we can only attain those gifts from God if we relinquish ourselves and allow Him to dwell within us. We must choose each day to change for the better. When we fail–which is inevitable–then we ask God to pick us back up and march ourselves back to the Confessional. Change only occurs if we never give up. The Enemy wants us to stay face down in the mud sobbing about our failures or our lost dreams. We have to say “no” and get back up. Thankfully, God gave me a rather stubborn personality. This is good and bad, but I am thankful that it makes me less likely to stay down for long.

I love to hike and I love mountains. I grew up in Montana so the Rockies are deeply embedded in my psyche. I love living in the Appalachians, but there is a rugged, strange, dangerous, awe-inspiring, and compelling quality to the Rockies. The idea of the holy mountain we are climbing in this life is an old image. It’s found in the Old Testament since God was understood in relation to specific mountains i.e. Moses. Purgatory has also been called a holy mountain. Anyone who has hiked on granite peaks like the Rockies knows that there are long ascents, slippery shale crossings, snow, run off, mud, sudden afternoon thunderstorms, not-so-friendly wildlife, random summer snow storms, and winds. The views are phenomenal and they provide strength to continue onward when the climb becomes steep. Those who climb mountains like Mount Everest know that as you go higher the more treacherous the trip becomes.

The spiritual life seems to be similar to these treacherous climbs. The attacks, temptations, and reality of our weaknesses come to the forefront the more we climb. The Enemy changes tactics on us and at times we can mistake light that is really darkness (St. Ignatius of Loyola). The hidden places of darkness within us that we didn’t know about or never wanted to confront come out into the light. They have to so that God may shed His healing light and wipe away every darkness within us. Many of the saints experienced greater attacks from the Devil and struggled mightily with interior darkness as they continued the ascent. They relied solely on God amidst profound desolation.

The higher we climb, the more God reveals to us that we must give our entire selves to Him alone. The path becomes more difficult as we are asked to detach from more and more in this life, so that it is Christ who dwells fully within us. This takes a lifetime to accomplish since we are attached to much, some of which we don’t realize until we are faced with it at certain points on the journey. In our sinfulness, we do not realize that this detachment is the path to joy.

To be Catholic is to change. To be human is to change. There are relationships that may never fully heal and some people may choose the wrong path, but they are changing as they age. It is impossible not to. The deep changes, the necessary changes require God’s grace in our lives. The pruning away at the dead branches weighing us down becomes greater and greater as time goes on. In the end we may feel like a rose bush cut to the root, but any gardener knows the rose will come back in greater glory after an intense pruning. The same is true of us. With each new pruning, we change for either good or bad. It is up to us to rely on God in leading us to the good as we battle our selfishness and our own plans that are not united to His will for our lives.

We must also remember that people are not required to change in the manner we desire. We cannot force our will upon other people and make them into something in our own image. We must pray for others who have hurt us or who we may not agree with at times, but we cannot turn them into something they are not. God has plans for each individual based on the gifts and personality that He has bestowed upon us. Not everyone in the world is meant to be like us. Thank God for that! The last thing we need are carbon copies of me all over the world. In humility, we should recognize why people are meant to be different from one another. Oftentimes people will be upset when we make changes for the better, when we progress in holiness. Christ promised this too! Not everyone will understand, but we must continue on the path that He has laid out for us.

A very blessed last week of Advent to you as we wait in hope for the celebration of the coming of Our Savior at Christmas and while we wait ever watchful for the day He returns at the end of time.

Catholic Exchange: What Does It Mean to Want to Be a Saint

I wish that I could say that I have submitted and relinquished my will entirely to God. I can’t say that, yet. I’ve spent more days sitting beside my husband in hospital rooms than I care to count. Hospital visits are a monthly, weekly, or bi-weekly occurrence for us. I have had to stand by in horror and fear watching my husband nearly lose consciousness and cough blood into bowls. I have had to quietly finger my Rosary through Divine Mercy Chaplets with tears streaming down my face while my husband lies in the hospital bed next to me completely disoriented. My husband is 40 years old. He’s not 70 or 80. He’s 40. Each new episode reminds me that I may become a widow at any point: next week, next year, in ten years, twenty years. We don’t know, but we know this disease could become unmanageable at any point.

In truth, the possibility of my becoming a widow or him a widower has always been the case because we don’t know what will happen from day-to-day. Death comes at God’s appointed time and often without warning, but there is something different about finding out that my husband has a rare and dangerous auto-immune disease. It makes that reality tangible. It is front and center in our lives. He has good days and days he suffers greatly. Each new day brings more uncertainty. In that uncertainty, God is calling me to trust Him and love Him fully. He offers His Sacred Heart to me each day and I only need to fully accept that love in all of its awe, wonder, joy, terrible suffering, and sorrow.

Read the rest over at Catholic Exchange.

Catholic Exchange: How is Mourning Blessed?

This week we will examine the second Beatitude: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4). This Beatitude may in fact be the hardest for Fallen human beings to understand. Suffering, pain, and affliction are aspects of the human condition. We have all experienced—or soon will—the devastation of losing someone we love. Mourning often comes with intense agony that is spiritual, psychological, and even physical. It shakes us to the core. It is in death that we come to see that this was not God’s original plan for us. He did not make us for death, but the Fall has made death a part of our existence. Even though Jesus conquered sin and death through the Paschal Mystery, we must all die and we must all bear the burden of losing people we love.

We must also keep in mind that mourning is not only related to death. It is also an essential aspect of the spiritual life. We must learn to mourn our sins. In coming closer to God, we come to see the horror of our sin and realize how weak we truly are and that we are wholly dependent on God. The Holy Spirit reveals to us the deep pain of our sins so that we may become repentant in order to turn back to God. It is this sorrow for our sins that pushes us to return to the Confessional regularly and to seek God more ardently. Why does Christ tell us that mourning is blessed?

We mourn in hope.

In looking at two types of mourning–that which arises from the death of a loved one and that which arises from sin—we can begin to understand that Christ’s message in this Beatitude is one of hope. The Paschal Mystery destroyed the despair of sin and death. We now have reason to hope. Death will not have the final say and our sins can be forgiven. We now live in the hope of Christ through the supernatural virtue of faith.

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with 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. For Christ, while we were still helpless, yet died at the appointed time for the ungodly. Indeed, only with difficulty does one die for a just person, though perhaps for a good person one might even find courage to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us. How much more then, since we are now justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath. Indeed, if, while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, how much more, once reconciled, will we be saved by his life. Not only that, but we also boast of God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

Romans 5:1-11

Even as we continue on the arduous journey of this life, we can hope in Christ Jesus who has overcome sin and death. When we fall into sin, we are able to return to Christ through the Sacrament of Confession in order to be healed and strengthened for the road ahead. Christ turns the evil we commit into joy as we return to him with a contrite heart.  When a loved one dies, we feel the agony of the loss at the deepest level of our humanity, but in the midst of that suffering we can hope in the promise of eternal life for our loved one and for ourselves. Mourning is blessed because it is marked by hope in Christ.

Read the rest over at Catholic Exchange.

Catholic Exchange: Mary and the Intolerable Gift of Waiting

The Church has an entire season dedicated to waiting: Advent. This season not only reflects the waiting for the coming of Our Savior and the hope of the Paschal Mystery, but the reality that much of this life contains periods of waiting. This waiting may be something joyful, such as waiting for the birth of a child or a marriage. The waiting may be a period of intense trial and suffering as we wait to see if a loved one is going to die or recover from an illness. This waiting may feel agonizing, especially for those of us still crawling down the path to holiness.

Mary our guide

As frequent readers know, I am in a period of waiting. There are days it is agonizing and days that I sense God’s presence and love. It dawned on me in my impatience for answers about my husband, that God uses waiting to allow us to enter more deeply into communion with Him. If we focus on the anxiety and fear of the unknown, we will be robbed of the serenity and comfort of our God who walks with us during these trials. I realized this truth when I looked out my window and saw the sunflowers blooming in the garden. Their stillness and beauty in the morning light reminded me to enter into God’s love while I wait. It is not easy, but it is necessary. It is not a journey we walk alone. Lumen Gentium tells us rightly that Mary is our guide and a guide for the Church. St. John Paul II furthers this teaching in Redemptoris Mater 5:

Mary “has gone before,” becoming “a model of the Church in the matter of faith, charity and perfect union with Christ.” This “going before” as a figure or model is in reference to the intimate mystery of the Church, as she actuates and accomplishes her own saving mission by uniting in herself-as Mary did-the qualities of mother and virgin. She is a virgin who “keeps whole and pure the fidelity she has pledged to her Spouse” and “becomes herself a mother,” for “she brings forth to a new and immortal life children who are conceived of the Holy Spirit and born of God.”

Read the rest over at Catholic Exchange.

Catholic Exchange: Lessons on Motherhood from the Visitation

Today is the Feast of the Visitation of Our Lord. It is a feast day that draws us into a deeper love of Our Lord and Our Heavenly Mother. It is also through the Visitation that mothers can enter more deeply into the joy of their vocation, as well as the joy of ministering to one another on the journey. After the Annunciation and Mary’s fiat to God’s plan of salvation, she proceeds “in haste” to her cousin Elizabeth.

During those days Mary set out and traveled to the hill country in haste to a town of Judah, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the infant leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth, filled with the holy Spirit, cried out in a loud voice and said, “Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me. For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.”

Luke 1:39-45

There is much to be gleaned from this beautiful passage. It is the coming together of two women, united by joy and the promise of salvation. Two women sharing the great gift of motherhood. One bears the son who will pave the way for the coming of the Lord and the other is the New Eve whose son will take away the sins of the world. They greet one another as kinswomen united in a deep communion. The encounter between these two women invites us to be drawn closer to God by the gift of not only their pronouncement, but their pious love for one another. Their womanhood and motherhood is an example for all, but mothers can learn quite a bit through the Visitation.

Read the rest over at Catholic Exchange.

Catholic Exchange: The Ascension and Our Journey Home

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

The Ascension reminds us this is not our home.

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

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

Catechism of the Catholic Church 661

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

Read the rest over at Catholic Exchange.