Blog

Monsters Under the Bed

I had never actually been that close to evil.  Real evil, not just read about it or watch a news report or documentary about it.  I was sitting in a courtroom just a few feet away from a monster, a child rapist. As the forensic video played in the cavernous courtroom all the air seemed to be sucked out of the place.

Two little girls told their story on the video.  Little girls no more than 5 and 7 drew pictures of the monster’s penis and where he put it, for the investigator interviewing them on the tape. In soul crushing clarity, the girls each independently described the pain and “burning” they felt as he repeatedly sodomized them.

I sat feet away from the monster.  I watched his back as the video played and his face as he turned to his attorney showing no emotion or recognition of his crimes.  I glanced at the jury and watched them weep, with a hand over their mouths as if to stifle the cry of horror.

I was a rather newly minted psychologist at the time. PhD in hand, I began a postdoctoral residency with a forensic psychologist believing that my clinical experience working with trauma victims during my training program would have prepared me for forensic work with sexual crimes.  I was present in the courtroom merely as an observer.  I was there to witness my then supervisor testify on behalf of the victims whom she had evaluated following their disclosure of abuse.

On the stand that day she expertly explained the grooming process of a predator, the barriers to disclosure of abuse and the predictable recantation of victims who are often blamed and pressured to keep the status quo, and retract their accusations, to keep the secret.  Towards the end of her testimony the defense attorney attacked her credibility as an expert witness by highlighting a single line of her 30 some page reports.  She had written, “He is a monster.”  When asked why a supposed professional would write such a statement, I watched as, from the stand, she thundered, “Because he is!”

I did not cry until I got home.  Safe in my bed I began to sob for the evil that I witnessed. Evil now had a face.  It was not a mere concept or literary device, it was a reality.  I could measure it in tears and the torn bodies of little children.  Now I could not stop crying and for three weeks that is what I did.

I decided after three terrible weeks of nightmares and emotional upheaval that I was done with this experiment in forensic training. If evil was in fact as real as it felt in that courtroom, then I would rather run and hide.

As all of the really important events in my life have been, the hand of Providence was to have the last say in the matter.  A dear friend called and asked if I was ok. Through tear choked words I tried to explain my terror and justify my withdrawal from this work.  Her response was nothing short of the Holy Spirit speaking, “Oh Shannon, you didn’t realize that evil is real?”  Well no, not this real, not in the flesh real!

I felt ashamed.  I wanted to pretend the world was all gentle and good and that the monsters under the bed were just stories and not realities.  I fought for three weeks to regain a fairytale reality.  God had pulled back the curtains of self-deception and there was no going back now.  I couldn’t unhear the words of little girls held down and torn apart from within.

I have pondered for nearly a decade why this experience had to occur.  Why had God led me of all people to work in the darkest corners of human behavior and sin.  Today I feel the answer to that may be a long preparation for this moment in the Church. This summer of sorrow began for me almost ten years ago.  The reality of evil is always sad.  It is always crushing and suffocating.  It is always caustic and poisonous.

I have fought with my desire to withdraw in silence or scream with each new revelation in the news.  I see the grieving of the priests around me who are good faithful men. I want to have the words to explain and comfort, but they escape me.

In these days the reality of evil is painfully clear to many faithful followers of Christ.  I know this pain.  I also know that nothing can undo it.  However, there is a grace here.  Yes, grace. God makes all things new and the purgation is painful, but the result is glorious.

The grace I could not see back then was the healing power of Truth.  Evil only has power in the darkness and secret.  Monsters hiding under the bed are only powerful because we cannot see in those places.  In shadow the evil one works.  In secret he deceives and destroys.  In the light and truth he is annihilated.

The clarity I have today is that we are not fighting “monsters.”  My well-respected mentor was an atheist and could not see evil for what it was; she could only see “monsters.”  Such mythology is the way of the secular world, but we as Christians are not deceived. See evil for what it is and acknowledge the spiritual battle, and FIGHT!  Fight with prayer and fasting.  Fight with the sacraments.  Fight with integrity of action and word.

My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, it is not surprising that monsters are often found “under the bed.”  We fight evil in the most intimate of places.  For whatever else this summer of sorrow is, it is a scandal of unchastity.  In purity and fidelity we win this battle against evil.  No one is exempt from this expectation and rightfully so we are called the Church Militant; we are baptized into this battle.  The spiritual life is perhaps more real than the one of flesh and bone.  We will win, but not without clearly seeing where the battle lines are. 

Now pick up your cross and carry it high, though the war rages on.

 

He Has Loved You From Eternity

And He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace and be healed of your affliction.”Mark 5:34

This verse is the only example of Christ referring to anyone as His “daughter” in the Gospel of Mark.  The woman with the issue of blood has become a daughter of the King through her faith. The gravity of this transformation could not be overstated!  A woman in Jewish culture of the time was considered ritually unclean due to the blood that flowed from her body.  She was isolated from her own people as they too would be considered unclean to come into contact with such a person.

The Gospel story has weighed heavy on my heart.  What is it like to live as an outsider?  The pain of her condition could not have been greater than the pain of the world’s rejection.  Imagine also that her condition likely permitted no marriage or children.  All the ordinary comforts of the world, in terms of friendship and family were beyond her grasp.  She was alone in the world.

Having some means, she appears to have applied all efforts to correct her condition and having lost even her material comforts of wealth, she approaches Our Lord, well . . . empty.

Few of us are unfamiliar with loneliness and loss. It is often our relationships, which give color and energy to this life, yet also the brokenness of relationships which can bring an incomparable pain.  Of all the catalysts that bring patients to my office, broken relationships are the most painful.  Be it infidelity or conflict or loss, we are not creatures who do well alone.  We mourn the lost friends and missing family members. We dwell on memories of closeness and grieve them over and over.

Into this pain the woman in Mark’s Gospel pushes through and grasps at the one and only relationship that will not fail.  It is not her touch that heals her.  It is not the garment that accomplishes the act, but her love for Him. She is drawn in and becomes forever His daughter!  What is healed is not merely her flow of blood, but her truncated existence, her separation from Life Himself.  What she has mourned all these years has been given to her in perfect love, – familial love!

We are son and daughters of the Father and we are loved!  How hard this is to hold on to, I know.  How can the King love me?  This is impossible to imagine especially when those earthly beings, who are supposed to love us, do not.  When a parent abuses us, a long cherished friend or child rejects us; we can’t imagine a God who is Love.  The face of God becomes distorted to our eyes.

Look to the woman in the Gospel once more.  Like us, she approached Our Lord from the back.  She could not see His face clearly either.  Her loss and her loneliness did not prevent her from approaching her Lord; they propelled her toward Him. She saw Him with eyes of faith, and this was enough.  It is enough.

“When did God’s love for you begin?  When He began to be God.  When did He begin to be God?  Never, for He has always been without beginning and without end, and so He has always loved you from eternity.”– St. Francis de Sales

 

A Letter to My Godchild on Her 1st Holy Communion

To my dear godchild on her First Holy Communion,

Praise be to God for this day!  How blessed you are to have come to the moment when you receive Jesus in the Holy Eucharist for the first time!

Before the busyness of this day begins and the importance of the first sacrament of the Eucharist gets lost in the parties, gifts, and endless pictures, let me share a few thoughts to focus the day on the miracle that it is!

First, do not forget your Baptism!  Yes, I know you cannot remember that day as you were so small.  I remember it well and the joy I felt when you were baptized. We truly became family that day. With God as our Father, you and I are one in the same family!  I watched as the holy water was poured over your little soft head and I wondered how your life would be a gift to God even in little ways.  I promised that day to never stop helping you on your spiritual journey toward heaven, and today as you receive the Eucharist for the first time, you are tasting a little bit of that heaven to come.  The Life of God came to dwell in you as the priest pronounced the Trinity and poured the holy water over the crown of your head, and today in the Eucharist you are able to experience the Real Presence of God as the Host is placed on your tongue.  What love is this God to share His very life with us!

Second, your soul is the most precious thing you will ever own!  Guard it well.  Keep it clean.  Be a friend of the confessional!  Today you will wear a beautiful white dress just as you did on the day of your Baptism. White for purity of body and spirit just as you were on the day of baptism when you became a new creation in Christ.  God is a good and loving Father who gives us a clear direction on how to live His command to love Him and to love each other.  Remain in His love by staying away from sin and returning to the confessional when you have stumbled along the way.  Our loving Father always receives us with great joy when we return to Him when we have lost our way.  My dear child, ALWAYS TRUST GOD.  Never doubt that His will for you is good and true.  Trust that His desire for your obedience is so that you may be holy as He is and be able to be with Him forever in the next life.

Finally, there will be times when you are, well, bored with Mass.  Let me share a secret.  Our Lady is there at every Mass as her Son’s Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity is made present on the Altar.  Ask her to help you!  Oh what a precious treasure our Mother Mary is to our spiritual life!  Her only desire is to lead souls to her Divine Son. She will help you “see” the Mass spiritually as all of heaven and earth come down onto the Altar to worship Jesus in the Eucharist.  Do not forget also that you are there to “assist” at Mass.  You are there to make an offering of yourself!  Just when the ushers are bringing up the basket of money and bread and wine to the Altar, imagine your guardian angel bringing up your offering as well!  Make sure that your angel’s basket is full!  Fill it with all your prayers, petitions, and sacrifices.  Offer your entire self to Jesus.  Whatever you offer to God, He returns back to you with even greater value.  This is the cycle of grace!  God is always desiring to shower His grace and mercy down on us.  He loves you so much!  Love Him back!  My dear child, every time you approach the Altar to receive Him in the Eucharist you are inviting God to pour His love into your soul.

If I could fill one thousand more pages it would not be enough to explain this mystery of the sacrament of love!  For now it may be enough to end with the nearly unimaginable truth that the God of the universe, the one who created you out of nothing, has humbled Himself to come to you as bread and wine.  He has done this so that he can share His Life with you and be near to you in a very real and tangible way.  This Amazing Nearness is a sign of His perfect love for you.  

I love you so very much! You are always in my prayers!

– Your Godmother

 

Word Marriage Day and the Patroness of Housewives

I was torn between finishing the eight baskets of laundry from our family vacation or writing this blog. My choice is obvious and certainly evidence that I need more self-discipline. This has been a really long winter so far. I have added my fourth (maybe fifth) year of failing to get out Christmas cards. I’m consistent like that. Additionally, we are also at the tail end of an epic 2018 flu outbreak that reached its climax intensity while on our once in a life-time (because of the expense) Disney Cruise. Yeah.

Family life is messy.

I thought I would take a minute to reflect on this underappreciated vocation. This Sunday is World Marriage Day. According to the webpage, World Marriage Day honors husband and wife as the foundation of the family, the basic unit of society. It salutes the beauty of their faithfulness, sacrifice, and joy in daily-married life.

I’m so glad they included that word sacrifice. Note to all working in marriage prep ministry; do not gloss over this. If this is my vocation and God’s plan for my sanctification, please show me the dignity, purpose, and eternal reward in the very difficult and messy moments of family life.

Providence would once again bring a certain book into my life at just the right time. While rushing to pack for this trip of a lifetime, I tossed in my bag a book about Blessed Anna-Maria Taigi. It had been sitting on my nightstand for a few months, no doubt binge ordered with several other books! Oh Amazon I just can’t quit you!

So as I gave my 4-year-old with a high fever a cool bath, on Mickey’s magical ship of dreams, I began to read about this little woman who was a wife, mother, and mystic. Born in Siena, Italy on May 29, 1769, Blessed Anna Maria’s life and holiness flourished at the same time the world clamored to devour the new thought of Voltaire and Free Masonry. Anna Maria was born just months before another notorious Italian – Napoleon. Oh how lovely God’s ways are that when the world is in such darkness he sent a great light in a holy little soul like Anna Maria.

For nearly half a century Anna Maria was gifted with a glowing sun always at her side. With just a glance into her sun, she could find the truth of things, the manner of a person’s death, future events, and the state of a person’s soul. She predicted popes and they consulted her. She followed the events and moments of the popes imprisoned by Napoleon. She foresaw Napoleon’s fall and eventual death and that of his mother so many years later in Rome. Anna Maria also had the gift of physical healing yet she never used it on her own ailments and very poor health.

The mystics have always fascinated me, but Anna Maria is different. She was married. Yes, I also cherish St. Therese’s parents, Zelie and Louis Martin, but . . . well . . . it is easy to be a saint when you are married to one!

Anna Maria’s husband was so very much not a saint. He was prone to anger and excess and materialism. He was too harsh with the children and his temper was notorious. When a spiritual director suggested Domenico and his wife Anna Maria live in continence (as brother and sister), Domenico would have none of that! He desired his wife to be decorated in fashions of the time and attend popular amusements as well.

Anna Maria had seven children, two of whom died young. She “homeschooled” all of them and taught them their catechism and the life of virtue. She ensured they had their sacraments as soon as possible. Anna Maria’s life was a mixture of receiving kings, queens, and princes of the Church for spiritual direction, and making sure dinner was hot and ready when her husband finally came home from work. She never failed to put her spouse and children first. Popes and queens waited while she made sure Domenico and the children had what was due.

She lived in intense poverty and would not accept alms or favors, except when there was no bread to eat. She worked hard to bring income into the home through her needlework and yet she still gave away whatever she could to those who had less than she did. She sacrificed for expiation for the sins of Napoleon as well as her husband, any unknown person on the street, and the people lost to popular atheist thought of the day.

Her wealth was found in her humility and self-sacrifice. God blessed her not with a saint of a spouse or even an easy family life, but with the vocation best suited for her growth in holiness. God gave her the means to achieve heaven and there is no doubt that through her efforts even Domenico is there with her now.

As I sat through so very many Disney movies in my cabin with four sick children, I contemplated how even this unexpected family illness is working toward my sanctification. My husband’s imperfections and all of mine, when sacrificed to God’s will, are brought to perfection.

On World Marriage Day (and every day that follows) let us renew our commitment to this vocation and restore it to the special dignity found within God’s Divine Plan. I see no accident that God would raise a humble little wife and mother as the expiatress for a world fallen into an illusion of existence without God.

Perhaps she is equally as relevant for us today. Anna Maria is an antidote to a culture trying to establish itself as “god” and asserting that marriage has no need of HIM.

Like Anna Maria, let us embrace our vocation and in it find the fullness of our sanctification. Because, when we are sanctified through the vocation of marriage, we begin to sanctify the world, and this is the goal of the Christian life.

Blessed Anna Maria Taigi, pray for us, and our spouses!

(Blessed Anna Maria Tiagi’s incorrupt body is preserved in a glass coffin in Rome.)

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.