Often, I wonder what an authentically Catholic, person-centered approach to evangelization looks like. So many goods, particularly sex, love, the body, and the family, have been twisted and misinterpreted by the culture. The truth is ours to reclaim.
I still can feel the floor under my little carpet square. Seven years ago, I went on my first Steubenville-style retreat, Mount 2000. There I experienced the lack of sleep, shortage of showers, and crowdedness of floor space otherwise known as the youth conference for the first time. The featured speaker, Matt Smith, a Catholic who’d been on MTV’s The Real World, came to discuss being in-but-not-of the world and the various worldly situations he faced while on the show. To my surprise, he spoke at length about how much he welcomed these situations as opportunities to witness to faith and virtue. In fact, he said, he soon began praying to feel uncomfortable, the better to form himself more into who he was meant to be.
How ridiculous, thought my exhausted, unshowered self, who had been semi-permanently contorted, Indian style, all day. At the time, I received the idea that someone would actually seek out discomfort as patently absurd. That weekend, beautiful things happened as the Lord began His long work of refining my rough edges, yet I still couldn’t fathom a desire for awkwardness, self-consciousness, and vulnerability.
Maybe it’s the Lord’s way of humbling me, then, that in the years since my high school self struggled to comprehend that prayer for discomfort, I’ve faced plenty of sensitive, potentially embarrassing matters. I didn’t even have to pray for them. I never wished differences of opinion in moral matters would strain some of my relationships, never hoped to be reviled as I prayed and counseled outside an abortion clinic. And I certainly never harbored childhood dreams of approaching strangers and talking to them about sex, as I found myself doing on my first day as a pro-life and chastity speaker, on a mission trip to the Jersey Shore.
No; surely I wouldn’t have desired any of those circumstances, but this life is a constant lesson to me that it’s not about what I want. The Father gives generously, in ways we didn’t even know we were wanting, and He gives mercifully. It really is a mercy and an act of love to let ourselves be broken and remade in pursuit of Heaven.
I’ve seen firsthand that many times, it’s only when you sacrifice comfort that you begin to honestly, fragilely connect with another person. During my year of service after college (the same one where I talked about chastity on the boardwalk), I spent a week traveling between several Florida college campuses for an initiative called the Genocide Awareness Project (GAP), which involved standing all day next to graphic images of abortion and engaging students in dialogue about life issues and personhood. Rightly so, passerby did not come quietly.
Like the other exhibit volunteers, I’d received extensive pro-life apologetics training beforehand, rooted in logic. I began our first day apprehensively, though, unsure if I even felt at peace with this avenue of sharing the pro-life message. Around me, a few other volunteers seemed to take a rather combative stance and challenging tone, relying solely on arguments to strike up conversation.
I wanted so deeply not to view GAP as a debate to be won so much as an opportunity to speak the truth with love. The truth was certainly there, in the form of twenty-foot high graphics, and it seemed to me that in the midst of such a polarizing, emotionally charged environment, charity was imperative. I spent parts of the days in prayer, parts of them in conversation, and as the week progressed, I noticed something.
Logic-based discussion, I found, sometimes changed someone’s mind on abortion and sometimes didn’t. Those conversations tended to end inconclusively, with each of us unsure of when to say goodbye. Ultimately, without even making a conscious effort, my tactics began changing. Somehow, I stopped seeing them as tactics and more as opportunities to listen and offer my attention to stories that some individuals had never told anyone before.
Instead of launching into a series of questions after asking a student, “What do you think of the images?” I started saying to students, honestly, that I hated the pictures as much as they did, and that I’d much prefer not to be standing there, except for the fact that I’d seen how men, women, and children have been so hurt by abortion and deserve so much more.
Something changed. Being real, in a way that defied most stereotypes of a typical Christian, opened up so many ways to communicate. I spoke with post-abortive women, with victims of rape, and with students whose beliefs fell all across the spectrum. It occurred to me that if I and each person I spoke with had stayed on the fringes of the issue at hand, afraid to wade into the messy center, we might have had an intellectual discussion, might have considered new viewpoints, both of which are good, yet we would never have truly seen each other.
Loudly tossing off arguments from a distance, I realized, was a safety blanket, and so were all of my talking points. Yes, they were valuable, but getting up close and personal was so much better. After all, what’s personal is oriented toward the person, as an individual and not just another passerby.
I learned that honesty, empathy, and showing someone my scars go so much further than the safety of simple platitudes or surface-level discussion. Leading with my heart let me get out of the way, so the Lord could enter the cracks and flood them with healing. You have to literally cast out into the deep, to not fear the places in a soul where there’s darkness and hurt.
I certainly don’t say this because I feel qualified to judge or to preach; I say this because I know for myself what it’s like to feel called out. Hearing the truth is rarely a comfortable experience. Not when, like me, you face rejection upon sharing a message that the culture desperately needs to hear. Not when another person draws attention to your flaws, and not when you’re faced with hard realities you’d prefer to ignore. It requires such a willingness to receive.
I used to be so afraid to make myself vulnerable. And yet, I’m slowly learning that it’s only in letting the Lord break me open into my realest self that I’m purified and that I truly become, in my limited way, a vessel of His love to others.
Matt Smith was on to something. A willingness to be uncomfortable, I think, is a major part of self-knowledge and of bearing the Gospel. Discomfort doesn’t indicate that something’s gone wrong; it means something is going right. Look to the Cross: we’re not meant for comfort, but for greatness. What better way to be great than to cast embarrassment aside; to be humble, with no falseness and no interest at all in our own glory?
My prayer is simply this: that I might do the Father’s will and His work only with pure love. May I be humble, bold, and sincere. May I be not afraid.