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Mary Did Know, Yes, She Totally Knew

It’s almost that time of year again, when Protestants roll out the statues of saints (nativity scenes) and sing about Mary. Well, actually just one song about Mary. The ever-popular Mary, Did You Know.   So let’s just clear things up right now so no one can claim ignorance; Mary, Did You Know is heretical nonsense. Seriously, stop singing it and pray for the poor soul who wrote it.

Apparently, some explanation is warranted as I can already hear the music being cued up in every Baptist church in town. Yes, dear friends, it is heretical for both Bible-Only Christians (most Protestants) as well as, and especially, faithful Catholics.

Sola Scriptura Christians are fairly quick to demand chapter and verse support for every Catholic teaching (yes, they do exist, all of them in fact). The Bible they claim is the only authority and source of truth, overlooking of course that nowhere in the Bible does the Bible state, suggest, or imply Sola Scriptura as doctrine. The Bible does not teach Sola Scriptura. Also, documents can’t self-authenticate (totally illogical). I digress.

Ok, so here we are during the Christmas season and a song with a super catchy melody asks if Mary knew. Here are the lyrics:

Mary did you know that your baby boy will one day walk on water?
Mary did you know that your baby boy will save our sons and daughters?
Did you know that your baby boy has come to make you new?

This child that you’ve delivered, will soon deliver you

Mary did you know that your baby boy will give sight to a blind man?
Mary did you know that your baby boy will calm a storm with his hand?
Did you know that your baby boy has walked where angels trod?
And when you kiss your little baby, you have kissed the face of God

Mary did you know, Mary did you know, Mary did you know

The blind will see, the deaf will hear and the dead will live again
The lame will leap, the dumb will speak, the praises of the lamb

Mary did you know that your baby boy is Lord of all creation?
Mary did you know that your baby boy will one day rule the nations?
Did you know that your baby boy is heaven’s perfect Lamb?
This sleeping child you’re holding is the great I am

Mary did you know, Mary did you know, Mary did you know

Let us now consider Luke Chapter 1. An angel of God named Gabriel visits Mary. The angel announces to Mary that she has “found favor with God” and she will “conceive” in her womb and bear a son, “and you shall call his name Jesus,” which is literally the Hebrew name for “the Lord (Yhwh) saves.” So here we have Christ’s identity and His mission! The angel continues, “He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; and his kingdom there will be no end.” The angel was pretty clear who this baby Jesus was. Mary knew because the angel told her. Scripture is so very clear about that.

If anyone knew, it was Mary! She confirms this knowledge in the canticle she offers to Elizabeth when they first meet and St. John the Baptist recognizes his Messiah in Mary’s womb. If fact, Elizabeth knew too! Upon meeting Mary, she declares, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the voice of your greeting came to my ears, the child in my womb leaped for you. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” Here Elizabeth is even declaring the truth of Jesus and acknowledged that Mary is blessed for believing this truth. Mary knew, and so did Elizabeth and the yet to be born John the Baptist!

Let us also consider Mary’s Magnificat in Luke 1:46-56, and Mary said, “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.  From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me— holy is his name. His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, even as he said to our fathers.” How much clearer can Mary articulate that she understood who this baby was and what His mission was to be in light of the fulfillment of the prophesized Messiah?

Catholics should be especially cautious about this song for the line, This child that you’ve delivered, will soon deliver you.” Nooooo! Really? What does she need to be delivered from? Sin? Nope! Catholics understand the angel’s greeting, “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you!” (Luke 1:28) Mary was without sin and we call this special grace her Immaculate Conception. She was preserved from original sin. God is her savior because she was protected from sin by being preserved from it in the first place by a special gift of God. She will not “soon” be delivered, as she was delivered before St. Anne conceived her.

This is a dogma the faithful are bound to accept. It has always been true that Mary was immaculately conceived as even Scripture tells us she is “full of grace.” If something is full, nothing can be added to it. There is no room for sin. This doctrine makes sense because the spotless purity of Jesus could not be contained in an unclean vessel. Mary had to be pure and preserved from all sin, even the stain of original sin.

In 1854 Pope Pius IX offered the dogmatic definition of the doctrine by stating, “We declare, pronounce and define that the doctrine which asserts that the Blessed Virgin Mary, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God, and in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race, was preserved free from every stain of original sin is a doctrine revealed by God and, for this reason, must be firmly and constantly believed by all the faithful.”

Scripture contradicts this lyric that Mary will “one day” be saved/delivered and the Church has through its magisterial role defined this doctrine so the faithful can understand not just who Mary is, but who Jesus is. This doctrine speaks to the perfection of Christ that he would create, with intention, His own mother with a perfect soul, “full of grace.”

We should also not forget Luke 2: 22-38 when Mary and Joseph present baby Jesus in the temple and Simeon and Anna offer prophesy about Jesus. Simeon even tells Mary, “Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against, and a sword will pierce through your own soul also.” Yes, Mary knew the suffering and trial that was to come.

I’ll finish with some words of Mary from the revelations of St. Bridget, a mystic from Sweden born in 1303. Upon presenting Jesus to the Temple, Mary recalls to St. Bridget:

“For though, by divine inspiration, I knew that my Son was to suffer, yet this grief pierced my heart more keenly at Simeon’s words, when he said that a sword should pierce my soul, and that my Son should be set for a sign to be contradicted. And until I was assumed in body and soul to Heaven, this grief never left my heart, . . . for every time that I looked upon my Son, wrapped Him in His swaddling clothes, or gazed upon His hands and feet, so often was my soul swallowed up, as it were, by fresh grief, for I thought how He was to be crucified.”

Yes, Mary knew, and we should love her even more because she did.

 

 

Do You Have to Suffer to Become a Saint?

I almost could not look away from the decimated left arm of St. Teresa of Avila. Hovering above her elaborate coffin in a bent glass tube rests this saint’s arm. The heart that experienced the transverberation still bears the scar of that mystical event and is perched in its own crystal case opposite of the dismembered arm. Between these relics two white marble cherubim dance atop her ornate coffin.

I have prayed many times at the burial tombs of saints. Three times even at the incorrupt bodies of St. Vincent de Paul, St. Catherine Laboure, and even St. John the XXIII (before he was canonized). Relics and elaborate coffins and marble slabs marking the holy souls’ resting places are wonderful experiences for most Catholics.

I was ill prepared; however, for the sight of the shriveled brown heart and dismembered left arm of St. Teresa of Avila.

Yes, I know Catholics do strange things with first class relics (like put body parts on display in glass cases), but that wasn’t it. I felt a strange draw to St. Teresa having never really had a strong devotion to this saint. However, sometimes saints find you, not the other way around.

Recently, my husband and I took a long pilgrimage across the Iberian Peninsula. The trip was to honor the 100th anniversary of Fatima, our first stop on the journey.   Alba de Tormes was one of our first stops. This is the final resting place of St. Teresa of Avila (as well as her place of birth). She died there during a visit, and her body (most of it) remained in that location. Avila has a finger of St. Teresa, but she is not buried in Avila.

St. Teresa’s corporal remains moved me to tears, and it was hard to leave her. I couldn’t figure out this reaction at first. I admired her whit and intellect. Her spiritual writings are almost incomparable, and her life was not without drama and hardship (Spanish Inquisition and all that), but none of that ever made me feel a strong connection to her, or even a particular interest. Teresa just didn’t feel very real to me, as if all her spiritual heavy lifting and suffering placed her in a category so far removed from my life experience that I could never relate to this medieval mystic. However, she was about to make her message known to me and my heart was ready to receive it.

Around this point in our pilgrimage, the topic of suffering and holiness was raised for discussion. One rather inquisitive pilgrim asked, “Do you have to suffer in order to become a saint [holiness]?” St. Teresa and St. John of the Cross were offered as excellent examples of suffering leading to holiness. Following a rather long dissertation by one of the priests on the bus ride across Spain, the answer was given, “Yes.”

Hold on a minute I thought! Some important clarification was needed! I could feel my fellow pilgrims shrink back into their seats thinking they would rather pass on all that suffering business (I’ll settle for just being a good person). I could see the calluses toughen over their hearts toward a god who demands suffering (not trusting that guy). Some no doubt got busy tallying the moments of suffering they could offer up to the angry accountant in the sky (did I hit my quota yet?). Somewhere between the heretical theology of faith alone/prosperity gospel (don’t bring any of the suffering business into my spirituality) and Pelagianism (have I earned my salvation yet?) a bit of clarification is warranted. Actually, three clarifications:

  1. Suffering may be necessary (as it is unavoidable), but it is not sufficient for holiness. As long as suffering includes experiences like hunger and boredom, I think it is safe to say that suffering is universally experienced. It is a bit ridiculous to say it is necessary if it is a basic truth of existence. Claiming it is sufficient for holiness is contrary to observations of human behavior. I think we all have that one friend in our minds right now who experienced the suffering of a great loss for example and the result has been bitterness and loss of faith. So, suffering is unavoidable, but not sufficient in itself to create holiness.

 

  1. Not everyone is called to “great” suffering. Although all are called to be holy and in this way saints, only certain “victim souls” are called to cooperate with God’s Will to offer themselves in martyrdom and other such substantial suffering. Thinking of saints like Maximilian Kolbe and St. John of the Cross we must recognize the special mission given to these men to suffer for the Kingdom. St. John the Evangelist was the only apostle not martyred. Was his call to holiness less important or valued than the others? If God calls me to suffer and sacrifice in the context of the vocation of marriage should I consider this less than the holiness achieved through great suffering like St. Teresa of Avila? Is it a competition? Is not pride a bit on display if I desire a suffering not willed by God? My particular path to holiness in God’s plan may be small and hidden. Should I not accept with praise and thanksgiving the little way God might want to perfect me, if He chooses that, and not great dramatic suffering for my life?

 

  1. Holiness can develop in the context of suffering, but because of an encounter with Christ and a falling ever deeper in love with Him. Often suffering can help us grow in virtue as suffering sometimes teaches us to behave in ways contrary to our nature (learning patience or controlling anger) due to negative consequences of our choices. However, if we stay on the surface level of suffering’s importance we don’t make much progress in the spiritual life. Like the woman at the well who had been ostracized by the community for being a fallen woman with five husbands (still didn’t change her behavior), she encounters Christ at the well (something that happened only in the context of her social rejection and isolation). Having now encountered Christ (and not because of her suffering social rejection), she abandons herself to His truth and runs to tell others. Suffering had been the context that readied this woman to receive Christ and abandon herself, but not the cause of her conversion. Is this not what love is? When we meet the object and source of love (God), we abandon ourselves. This is the catalyst for spiritual transformation, abandoning ourselves in the meeting of Love, which often happens in the context of suffering. No one is transformed by God without Love. Free will being what it is, we can always reject Love and that my friends is true suffering. No one who suffers without Love is ever improved by suffering or willingly cooperates with God’s plan for redemptive suffering. They may survive their suffering, but not grow and develop in holiness.

 

Now I return to St. Teresa of Avila. No, I was not drawn to her because of the drama or suffering in her life. I could not stand to leave her because my own heart, I believe, responded to the great love she had for God in her heart. What has been beautifully immortalized in the sculpture of Bernini’s The Ecstasy of St. Teresa (her transverberation) is a small snapshot of the experience of Love St. Teresa had. According to her description, before Teresa appeared an angel carrying a fire-tipped arrow or spear. The angel pierced her heart repeatedly and she was sent into a spiritual ecstasy. She wrote, “The pain was so severe that it made me utter several moans. The sweetness caused by this intense pain is so extreme that one cannot possibly wish it to cease, nor is one’s soul then content with anything but God.” – The Life of Saint Teresa, by herself.

Even in Bernini’s art, formed in rigid marble, she appears to fully abandon herself to this person of Love! She surrenders completely and falls back in ecstasy. In the end, I think a bit of the golden arrow touched my heart as well.

I’ll conclude with one of my favorite quotes on suffering from St. John Vianney, and I hope the heart and spirit of his words have been honored in my meandering thoughts:

“Once they’ve been transformed in the flames of love, crosses are like a bundle of hawthorn that you throw on the fire, and that the fire reduces to ashes. The hawthorn is thorny, but the ashes are soft. Hawthorn exudes balm and the cross exudes sweetness. But you’ve got to press the thorns in your hands and clasp the cross to your heart if you want them to distill the essence they contain.”

The Consequence of Worshiptainment

All choices have consequences. This is an unfortunate reality for my children. Yeah, I’m that kind of mom. I love parenting (teaching) through natural consequences. I make sure my children see the clear connection between their failure to observe good judgment and obey their parents (4th commandment) and the unhappy consequences of early bedtimes and loss of beloved snack and TV privileges.

You choose the behavior and you therefore choose the consequences – a frequent declaration often heard in my home and psychology office. Patients sometimes spend repeated therapy hours pondering the mystery of a failed marriage or wayward children especially after one or more parents have been dedicating endless hours absorbed in an addiction to work, alcohol, or an extramarital affair. If I fail to water a plant – it will die. Clear?

The same truth applies to the spiritual life.

On a recent weekend out of town, my husband and I attended a Catholic parish near our hotel. This was an unfamiliar area and our options were limited as is common in most of the southern US. I was actually a little bit excited to attend a Catholic Church built by some of the earliest Catholics in the south! Pictures from the webpage included a beautiful back altar recently restored with a spectacular tabernacle flanked with six enormous altar candles displaying delicate carvings gilded in gold. The white marble altar encased the real presence of Jesus in the most beautiful antique tabernacle.

All this was enough to thrill this Catholic girl, until the doors swung open. Clear from the back of the long aisle I could see them! Not one but TWO giant projector screens hanging down in front of the stained glass windows and the exquisite back altar, obscuring nearly all but the golden tabernacle.

Taking our seats near the front, I found myself sitting next to a young man who’s flip-flops and swim trunks made a fairly odd contrast to my black chapel veil, but the woman sitting in the front row wearing a baseball cap throughout Mass may have rounded out the odd picture underneath the jumbotrons flagging the altar.

Prayer time before Mass included all the Matt Maher lyrics streamed across the projector screens. Silence was apparently not acceptable. Hymnal books or Missals were not needed as all prayers and music lyrics were provided via electronic media. The historic building had been renovated to the tune of about 1.8 million dollars according to their bulletin and although the building actually possessed a choir loft, the choir and all the instruments were placed next to the altar for some inexplicable reason. The sanctuary looked more like a concert stage with a band and video screens (no this was not a protestant church). Worshiptainment at it’s finest.

When finally the priest stood behind the ambo to deliver the homily I felt a wave of reassurance come over me. It was Transfiguration Sunday! The priest began with a cogent message and dynamic delivery and then three minutes into the homily he turned from the ambo after declaring, “And now watch this.” Down went the lights and the entire congregation sat through a five minute Youtube video about an Olympic runner. There was an audible gasp (that came from my mouth). The tears were flowing and the parishioners were stirred by the images on the screen. None of it, and I mean none of it had anything to do with the readings for that Sunday.

When the lights came back on it was hard to adjust. Was I in a movie theater? Someone’s living room? Now I understood the swim trunks and ball cap in the first row.

The Liturgy of the Eucharist began and I made an effort to focus on what was happening. The constant streaming of every prayer and response on the screen was stealing my attention so much so that I kept taking my eyes from the altar to look to the screens above. Children ran back and forth on both sides of the altar throughout the consecration (living room again?).

As Communion began and parishioners filed out of the pews (ball cap lady removed her hat), ushers positioned themselves in front of every door. The sanctuary included side doors just off the front rows, a few steps from the center aisle. And then I saw it. Moments after receiving the Eucharist with Jesus not yet dissolved on their tongue, parishioner after parishioner approached the doors only to be stopped by the ushers from leaving without consuming the Host. Instead of turning from the doors and returning to their pew for prayer they merely stood at the door waiting to be released. The show was over.

Mass quickly concluded and my husband and I kneeled once again in a prayer of thanksgiving only to watch a crowd of people meander about the altar in loud casual conversation. Not one person reverenced the altar or the tabernacle. Living rooms don’t have a need for such things.

The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is perfection. The consequence of worshiptainment supplanting this perfection is a Church full of people looking for the show and the nearest and quickest exit. The Eucharist becomes a sideshow, and not the Source and Summit of our faith. Ushers to block the doors for a people who no longer remember Who they are receiving in the Eucharist becomes the consequence of a worship that entertains, but is devoid of Love.

The Slow Creep of Evil

My summer vacation this year has been rudely interrupted by the most ridiculous news. I think the world has lost its mind. Some sort of mass psychosis or something has set in.

It began with a Princeton professor, with a blatant disregard for logic, attempting to articulate the most absurd argument for abortion. Then continued with mobs of highly agitated people destroying various civil war monuments because it is always better to forget our history that way we can relive it again and again with all the old familiar mistakes.

Let’s not forget the white nationalists/Nazi group marching with lit torches (a bit dramatic). If Planned Parenthood hadn’t taken a position of righteous indignation against this racism, the left would not have this fantastic opportunity to see their hypocrisy! Yes, Planned Parenthood kills way more people of color than the KKK ever has or ever will. This is why their “clinics” are located in mostly low-income areas (not to mention the clear intent of their founder to root out the “human weeds” of minorities).

To top off this apocalyptic news cycle, CBS has been so good as to bring us the news of Iceland’s successful efforts to eliminate 100% of Down Syndrome – or rather just the people who have it by killing them in the womb. CBS seems to think this is laudable news.

What is the common thread in this nonsense? Perhaps it is easiest to see the answer if we paint the picture of the logical conclusion when we follow this path of dystopia. Lois Lowry gives us a terrifying answer in the classic book, The Giver.

Most middle school or high school students read this book and quickly see the truth in this satire. The protagonist, Jonas, lives in a world where all is sameness. All elements of difference and individualism have been eliminated, including music and color, and love, and natural families. Those who reach a certain age or who demonstrate an undesirable difference (even babies) are sent to “Elsewhere,” which is a way of saying they are killed or euthanized. There are no grandparents or history as even memories are forbidden. No memories of love or suffering to give meaning to life. Jonas is the Receiver of memories from the one Giver in the community allowed to hold all the memories of humanity (good and bad). Jonas is allowed to experience love as part of his roll as Receiver. He reflects:

“I liked the feeling of love,’ [Jonas] confessed. He glanced nervously at the speaker on the wall, reassuring himself that no one was listening. ‘I wish we still had that,’ he whispered. ‘Of course,’ he added quickly, ‘I do understand that it wouldn’t work very well. And that it’s much better to be organized the way we are now. I can see that it was a dangerous way to live.’ . . . ‘Still,’ he said slowly, almost to himself, ‘I did like the light they made. And the warmth. . . ‘Gabe?’ The newchild stirred slightly in his sleep. Jonas looked over at him. ‘There could be love,’ Jonas whispered.”

What would Jonas say about the Icelander’s decision to send all the inconvenient babies with Down Syndrome to “Elsewhere?” He lamented this ruling ethic of convenience, “The life where nothing was ever unexpected. Or inconvenient. Or unusual. The life without color, pain or past.” Jonas found this false life of sameness to be a crime against nature that is full of color and even inconvenience. He saw love as the higher good or ethic for humanity, not convenience and control (nothing unexpected like illness).

Even Jonas knew that fear brings about our own destruction, “I knew that there had been times in the past-terrible times-when people had destroyed others in haste, in fear, and had brought about their own destruction.”  The crazy lunatic who plowed through a crowd in Charlottesville killing a young woman has only brought about more fear and destruction.   That’s what fear does; it destroys. Fear of a genetic abnormality or illness destroys a life as well.

What Lois Lowry’s book does not explain well is how we get from here to there. I would argue that we have already arrived. Evil is insidious. Evil does not conquer in giant leaps, but in small steps of convenient lies.

Roe vs. Wade was made law in 1973. Nearly twenty years later, the “Casey Decision” offers us the result of the slow creep of the earlier decision to alter reality itself. The famous “mystery clause” from the Supreme Court’s “Casey Decision,” (1992) which declares: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” Jonas lived in a world that put this clause into action. When humanity decides to play God and define life and meaning and the universe (narcissism run amok) we lose what makes us human in the first place.

 

Detachment From The World

“Don’t have Jesus Christ on your lips and the world in your hearts.” – Ignatius of Antioch

The writings of Ignatius of Antioch are some of the most important of the Apostolic Fathers. The writings on the Real Presence in the Eucharist are often a catalyst for conversion for many non-Catholics. In fact, the word Catholic in reference to the Church was first used in the writings of Ignatius of Antioch. We owe him much in reference to our identity of faith as a people of the Eucharist – The Catholic Church.

Writing at a time of savage Christian persecutions by Emperor Trajan, Ignatius of Antioch was fed to the lions of the arena. Failing to renounce his faith, he died a martyr.

What if Ignatius of Antioch had merely professed Christ with his lips yet reserved his heart for the things of this world? Would he have quickly recanted his faith and preserved his physical life for a while longer? Certainly, modern man cannot imagine the threat of death by lions! Having your flesh torn from your bones by sharp teeth and claws would no doubt produce a retraction of faith in all those who did not have Christ in their hearts.

But what does this mean to you and me, modern humanity? Although there are still Trajans in this world (ISIS etc.), most of us live comfortable lives of distraction (thank you Facebook and Netflix). Our faith is tested, yes, but often in smaller less lion-esque ways. How do we know if we too profess Christ on our lips, but keep the things of this world in our hearts?

Pride might keep us from admitting that the world is too great an influence on our choices and thinking. Looking at my own life I can see clearly a pattern of worship for the things of this world. It is hard not to love what the world loves. In fact, if we do not love as the world does, we quickly become – an outsider. Now this is the beginning of conversion!

Who were these early fathers of the Church? These trailblazers were not the celebrities of today; they were set apart from the world. They were hated by the world. However, the Christ they professed with their lips became the fire in their heart with which they set the world aflame!

So, I write this to you my fellow social outsiders. Perhaps you have chosen to live with a radical love of Christ in your heart. Maybe this means your life looks a bit different than most. To all my fellow Catholic homeschooling moms, and those with more kids than “average,” I see Christ’s love in your heart. To all those friends who have rubbed the color off of their rosary beads and know every saint and novena by heart, I see you at every daily Mass and your heart expands with Eucharistic love. To all those little modest souls who veil and kneel before the Eucharist at Mass, your devotion to Jesus is spectacularly sweet.

No, none of you reflect the values and priorities of the world, and that is more than ok. Your heart is rightly ordered toward God. Although the world will mock and criticize a heart conformed for Christ alone, grace flows freely upon these little acts of martyrdom of the self. Have courage as the lions of today circle about. We live in the world, but are not of the world.

Act as if God alone existed and nothing else.” – St. Ephraem the Syrian

Wanting What God Wants

“Life Himself came down to be slain; Bread came down to suffer hunger; the Way came down to endure weariness on His journey; the Fountain came down to experience thirst. Do you, then, refuse to work and to suffer?” – St. Augustine of Hippo

St. Augustine has a way of cutting to the heart of a thing. Suffering has been the greatest and most challenging paradox and enigma of the Christian life. How do we suffer and why? Nearly all arguments against the reality of God can be brought back to the question of suffering. Too easily, we forget the ultimate suffering and the ultimate innocence of the One who suffered not for His own merit or advantage, but for ours.

Christ did not come into our humanity so that we did not have to suffer, but so that our suffering would not be meaningless, – so that we would know how to suffer. He elevated humanity’s suffering to a redemptive reality. No, the Incarnation came not so that our lives would be easy, but so that our lives and the suffering in them could have the greatest value.

Too often in my life I have uttered the prayer, “Lord take this cross. Remove this suffering.” There are times and contexts when this prayer is the most natural. Some sufferings seem too great to shoulder and asking God to rescue you comes before any other thought.

These are times when I am low in the valley of suffering and confusion. Trusting God feels impossible and His love feels withheld. If He loved me He would not test me like this! However, Scripture reassures us that God does not test people, “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am tempted by God;’ for God cannot be tempted with evil and he himself tempts no one.” James 1:13

The prayer that is needed in the midst of suffering is in fact not natural, but supernatural. If by nature we demand to be rescued and treat God with suspicion and recoiling at His love, then in that moment of suffering we must pray for the supernatural grace of trust.

In moments of encroaching despair and confusion, our prayer becomes, “Yes, Lord, I want what you want. I trust in Your merciful love.” We pray this even if God is not bringing us what we think He should. What God in his Divine Wisdom permits to come into our lives will always be for our ultimate good, even if it is pain and loss. St. Ignatius of Loyola said, “If God causes you to suffer much, it’s a sign that He has great designs for you, and that He certainly intends to make you a saint.”

As we pray for the supernatural grace of trust in the midst of our suffering, let us not forget that we are merely pilgrims in this place. Our final destination is Heaven. Do not become overly attached to and concerned with the struggles of this life. Do not lose sight of your heavenly goal. If you are filled with anxiety and agitation, then you may be too filled with the worries of this world while relying too much on your own natural ability to respond. What nature cannot understand or reconcile, supernatural grace within us accepts as God’s loving will.

Lord, help me to trust in Your merciful love. Grant me the grace to trust when my fallen humanity tempts me to despair of Your love. Merciful and loving God shower upon my soul the supernatural grace to trust in Your love even in the dark and lonely places of this life. Amen.

The Gift of Hope

“The most hopeful people in the world are the young and the drunk: the first because they have little experience of failure, and the second because they have succeeded in drowning theirs.” – St. Thomas Aquinas

Hope is a topic of great contemplation in my household this spring. Hope rode high the tidal wave of Easter morning this year and my heart was filled with the promise of Christ Risen! We are an Easter people after all!

Of course life has a way of challenging hope. This season has brought many changes and with them many losses for my family. What illness hasn’t stolen from those I love, time and circumstances have. To hope in the face of loss or failure as St. Thomas points out is no small thing, and I am neither young nor given to excess consumption of alcohol.

Humans seem to miss the gift of hope and instead focus on the despair or presumption that wall off our hearts to God. It is easy to despair of the good in the world especially when one’s efforts seem to fall like a grain of sand in the desert. Like Frodo lamenting his role as the ring bearer and the darkness of the age, we seem to get lost in the dark caverns of Moria without hope of seeing the light of day once more. In despair we forget the ever-moving hand of Providence that always “works for good with those who love Him, who are called according to His purpose.” (Romans 8:28)

Many bible loving Christians like to quote Romans 8:28, while leaving out the last phrase. “Who are called according to His purpose?” Scripture here is referring to those who love God. This is not those who think God is a super cool guy, but those who do His will. Love here is a verb. This love is ordered toward God’s will and not our own. Presumption that our will and discernment is best, lays God’s purpose aside in service to the false god of our feeble plans and designs. This is destined to fail.

We cannot bring about our own salvation no matter how clever or sophisticated our arguments are for the sin we commit. We cannot work against God and presume his blessings. This is not how mercy works. In God’s mercy we find our greatest hope! It is false hope to assume that the life of grace remains in us when we continue to say no to God. Mercy follows repentance and this is true hope!

My 5-year-old son posed a question this morning at breakfast. He asked, “Mommy, what exactly is sin?” Son, keep asking the questions that will get you to heaven! If only more adults pondered this question, I thought. I replied, “Saying ‘no’ to God.” Oh, and how many ways we humans say no to God. Sadly, we say no to Love.

But there is reason yet for hope! The antidote for despair is faith. This is faith in God’s love and the ever present work of Providence for our good, even if that good is only to be experienced in the next life with Christ in heaven.   We are pilgrims after all and heaven is our true destination.

The antidote for presumption that robs humanity of authentic hope (eternal life) is now settled as breakfast table conversation with a five-year old. Don’t say no to God. Only through Him and His will for our lives can we truly have hope for eternal joy.

So if the dark clouds have gathered in your world this spring, have hope! “These things I have spoken to you, so that in Me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world.” John 16:33
 

Love Tested, A Lenten Challenge

My role as wife and mother is my primary vocation – and also my most challenging! Because I am also a psychologist, I joke that dealing with psychotic patients all day is a lot easier than settling an argument about in-laws and who is going to fold the laundry or give the youngest a bath. I’m not alone, right? These everyday moments of family life are HARD, really hard!

Pope John Paul II in 1981 wrote an Apostolic Exhortation (Familiaris Consortio), in which he declared, “Love is the fundamental and innate vocation of every human being.”

  • Then why is it so hard?
  • If it is so “fundamental and innate,” why is it so messy and confusing?

Love is tested, every day, in big ways and lots and lots and lots of little ways. Regardless of the source of marital stress and conflict, couples in distress always present to the therapist with the same primary complaint, “I’m just not happy anymore.” Love Tested. This time the test is “Does it make me happy?”

I struggle with this as a psychologist and also as a cancer survivor. I wonder how my husband might have answered the question of happiness as he watched his wife lay in bed for months sick from chemo, bald, and now missing some important body parts. Joy and happiness were in pretty short supply. Love Tested? Well if feeling happy day in and day out is the standard and ultimate goal for marital love then we fail this test when life gets real.

Don’t get me wrong; the CCC says, “The desire for happiness is of divine origin.” God has placed in our heart the desire for happiness, but let’s be clear about what the Church means about happiness and what modern culture means by happiness. Catholic couples have gotten these definitions very confused.

The world says happiness is a feeling erupting from pleasure. Satisfying every impulse and desire brings happiness – or so we are told. However, ask any addict and they will show you the lie in this.

St. Thomas Aquinas said, “God alone satisfies.” This is happiness.

So how do we bring that joy into our marriages and families? How do we reclaim God’s perfect plan for love and marriage and allow our unions to set the world on fire?! How do we live out the sacrament and vocation of marriage in order to achieve the ultimate good of eternal life with God in Heaven?

This Lent I challenge you to make your marriage the focus of your conversion during this liturgical season. Through living faithfully and sacrificially the sacrament of marriage, we may have the perfect means through which to achieve holiness. Marriage has the potential to perfect us in love! Marriage when accepted with the truth of God’s plan can transform our weak hearts.

So instead of giving up chocolate for Lent, I challenge you to take on one of the following marital behaviors to address. Read through the list with your spouse and chose one (or more) to focus on this Lent. Allow this list to help identify the areas of your marriage in most need of triage!

Once you as a couple find your focus then make a list of concrete behaviors each of you are to encourage in yourself and in your spouse. Document your progress! Keep a daily journal of your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, which apply to (or detract from) your goal. Don’t be afraid to use this list to seek spiritual direction or professional counseling to transform your marriage this Lent.

How does your marriage apply these ten tests of love?

  1. Strong couples pray for and with their spouse; at-risk couples pray about their spouse. Do you pray together as a couple? Is your prayer a complaint about your spouse or a prayerful plea for grace and mercy to be showered upon your spouse in their need?
  1. Strong couples see their marriage as a path to holiness; at-risk couples see their marriage as a contract that can be dissolved when it no longer satisfies. Do you both share the same understanding about the sacramental nature of your marriage? Have you entered into a non-sacramental marriage and need to seek pastoral care and convalidation? Are you both not exactly on the same page about intimacy and the Church’s teaching about Natural Family Planning?
  1. Strong couples fight to help their spouse in all of life’s hardships; at-risk couples just fight. Do you treat your spouse as an ally or as an adversary? Are you on the same team when hardships arise or do you war with each other in order to always win or be right?
  1. Strong couples encourage and build each other up; at-risk couples criticize and tear each other down. Do you actively seek to praise your spouse everyday? Do you spend most of your time picking out every failure?
  1. Strong couples communicate emotions and needs without feeling threatened; at-risk couples blame each other without even trying to listen. When problems arise do you have a plan for how to resolve them? When you attempt to “communicate” does someone get defensive and do feelings get hurt?
  1. Strong couples are interested in helping to heal each other’s old wounds from their youth; at-risk couples develop great skill in provoking each other where it hurts most. Are you protective and considerate of your spouse’s emotional struggles and needs or are they weapons to win an argument? Are old wounds ignored and allowed to drive negative behaviors that create recurrent problems?
  1. Strong couples strive to outdo their spouse in life-giving service to the family; at-risk couples keep score and always complain the family burden is unfair. Do you find yourself saying “your turn” often? Are you resentful of your spouse’s “lesser share” of the household and childcare work?
  1. Strong couples show respect for each other in words and deeds while showing mercy and forgiveness when problems arise; at risk couples hold grudges and retaliate. In an argument do you offer a list of every similar offense committed to prove your point? Do you truly forgive or just drop the argument (for now)?
  1. Strong couples find happiness in placing Christ at the center of their families; at-risk couples are always chasing the fun and pleasure owed to them by their spouse. Do you pray as a family (beyond grace before meals)? Do you treat your faith as a once a week Sunday obligation (unless a game or something is on) or is God’s will the focus of your family life?
  1. Strong couples willingly accept sacrifice as Christ did; at-risk couples feel unfairly burdened by sacrifice. Are you in the middle of a great trial in your marriage (job, health, addiction)? How have you chosen to carry this cross (are you allowing your faith and the sacraments to help you)? Is the suffering bringing you closer together or breaking you apart?

If you are suddenly thinking, “I would rather give up chocolate than address any of these problems” then this challenge is for you!

St. Francis de Sales wrote, “The state of marriage is one that requires more virtue and constancy than any other; it is a perpetual exercise in mortification.” So there you have it, there can be no more perfect Lenten challenge!

I’ll be praying for you and I hope you pray for me! I’m taking the challenge too!

Catholic Identity

I love to talk about Catholicism and God in general, except with other Catholics. I know how terrible that sounds. I’m exhausted trying to convince fellow Catholics of the truth and beauty of their faith. I’m worn out by Catholics who reject the teachings and Sacraments of the Church, but still consider themselves “practicing Catholics.” It’s time to address the problem, so hang on because the Come to Jesus Meeting is about to commence. Here we go . . .

  1. Stop being ashamed to be Catholic. Don’t give in to the modern world’s view of sacred tradition. Your faith and your Church are beautiful gifts established by Christ Himself. It is ancient and true and breathtakingly beautiful.
  1. Saying you’re Catholic is not an insult to people of other faith traditions and Catholicism is NOT less than or equal to other faiths. The Catholic Church possesses the fullness of truth. Full. Not less. Yes, there are rays of truth in other faith traditions, but only the Catholic Church has the fullness of truth. Own it and celebrate it – then invite others!
  1. The Eucharist. We have HIM! This should not require clarification, but apparently it needs to be said. The Catholic Church through apostolic succession (broken in the protestant reformation) makes Jesus truly present to us in the Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist. Through a total gift of love, we are able to take into our bodies The One who created us. In the Eucharist we receive God’s love and supernatural grace! No amount of praise and worship music or Zen meditation can achieve this intimacy with God!
  1. Christ gave St. Peter the keys to the Kingdom, not you. Three chapters into the creation story, humanity is messing things up. We ate the forbidden fruit and then hid from God. At that very moment God declared his plan for our salvation (Genesis 3:15). God knew that after the sacrifice of the new Adam he would establish His Church on earth and give it a leadership to preserve and protect God’s truth. Guided by The Holy Spirit, the Pope in conjunction with the Bishops (Magisterium) protects and discerns God’s truth. There is no option as a Catholic to “follow one’s own conscience” in moral matters that have been dogmatically settled by the Magisterium. The Church clearly and consistently teaches the truth about the sanctity of life and God’s plan for marriage among other topics. As a lay Catholic you don’t get to decide you know better than the Church. You can’t be pro-choice and Catholic. To be Catholic means you assent to the truth taught by the Church – all of it. All. Of. It.
  1. You can’t ignore the sacraments and still call yourself Catholic. People love to tell me they are Catholic when they find out I write and teach about the faith. The next question is usually me asking them where they attend Mass. The response is usually an evasive statement about planning to consider maybe trying the local parish downtown next Easter. Life is just too busy. We have a lot going on after all. Awkward silence. Let me clarify; Mass is not optional and neither is Confession. Mass attendance every Sunday and Holy Days of Obligation are required as is regular Confession (once a month is a good routine). If it has been 10, 20, 30 years since your last Confession, now is the time to return and to be reconciled to your Heavenly Father. God’s love and mercy is waiting for you and so is your authentic Catholic Identity.

St. Thomas Aquinas wrote, “The things that we love tell us what we are.” This reality is on display in the Church today. Do we love our faith, our Sacraments, and our Sacred Tradition only on Christmas and Easter? Do we treasure the truth or just convenient truth, you know, the one that makes us popular with our liberal trendy friends? Do we move with the political and cultural sentiment or do we stand for Someone who is Eternal Truth?

Your Catholic faith is not a sometimes identity to put on and take off according to the calendar or political climate; it is a supernatural and indelible seal placed on your soul. As Catholics we are set apart from the ordinary world and called to greatness/holiness. Through the Catholic Church we experience an intense and intimate relationship with God, which is made possible through the Sacramental life. This is what and Whom we love and this is what we are.

Reclaim your Catholic Identity.

The Peace of Forgiveness

I am a spiritual toddler. I take a few steps in the right direction and then I stumble and fall. I scramble to my feet again and now forgetting my intended direction, I wander off before falling again. Overwhelmingly, I seem to be moving more often with gravity than with direction or progress. I am falling again and again and wondering at my painful lack of progress.

St. Catherine of Siena said that true progress in the spiritual life must include “perfect self-knowledge.” I am perfectly aware that I have so many blind spots in my self-knowledge that I am not even perfectly sure of my own name sometimes.

Recently, I have been thinking about forgiveness. What does it mean to forgive? Admittedly, I am not good at this. Actually, it would not be a stretch to say that I do not forgive – not really. Not fully.

Only weak people forgive.  Yes, this is the lesson of my childhood.

I have fantastic parents, but one side of the family makes holding a grudge an Olympic Sport, and they win Gold Every. Single. Time. The other side of the family could sit in a room with their hair on fire and not even acknowledge the smoke in the room. The CIA can’t keep secrets as long as they do.

So between ignoring problems and holding resentment and grudges for decades, I didn’t really learn much about conflict resolution. What I did learn was to hold onto pain and never forgive. That’s how you win, right?

That’s the thing about not being able to forgive. It is painful. It bothers and festers and sickens the soul. It does not bring peace yet that is the one thing a hurting heart thirsts for most when it has been hurt. Peace. I just want peace.

What now St. Catherine? Here is some kernel of self-knowledge, but what do I do with it?

Now we pray she would say. So I pray and I pray, and then the silence. I talk too much when I pray. My head becomes a noisy monologue and so now I have learned to sit near the tabernacle in silence and listen.

Show me Lord how to forgive and how to heal and how to have peace when others offend and hurt me! Then silence. This is usually when I’m reminded that peace isn’t the absence of something (conflict, anger, pain) but the presence of someONE.

I don’t think of forgiveness in the same way I once did. It isn’t winning or losing or punishing someone or admitting defeat. It isn’t controlling someone or being under his or her control. It is about peace – restoring joy to life.

I’m still stumbling along. Forgiveness is still a struggle, but I know that when I am filled with the fire of God’s love and grace, I have peace and I am able to surrender the pain and hurt caused by others to God’s providence.

Fill me Lord with your grace and love. Remind me that your grace is at work in me. Lead me to your heart and conform my own heart to your will. When I am filled with the Holy Spirit there can be no room for anything but love. Through that love, may forgiveness and mercy materialize in me.