Tag Archives: God’s will

No Fear in Love

Today, my community did an exegesis of John 20-21.

What struck me the most is found in John 20:21 and 21:3.

When Jesus appeared to His disciples (who were hiding in fear, locked up in the upper room), He said “Peace be with you”.
These words were uttered to the very disciples who betrayed Him through denial; who fled the cross. Jesus didn’t reprimand them, neither did He bring up anything about the past. He simply said: “Peace be with you.”

This brings me so much hope. It is a prefigurement of Heaven. When we see Jesus face to face, I know that He will say “Peace be with you”.

Indeed, peace drives out fear. And in the past month of struggling, I’ve come to realize that peace cannot be attained until we surrender everything to Jesus — to simply say to Jesus “This is all I have, it’s not much. But take them. All I have is Yours.”

It is in the surrender to God and the vulnerability of our very selves that His love can penetrate our souls. Jesus can do nothing if our hearts are closed to His will. Often, I wonder: how do I know what is God’s will for my life? I’ve come to understand through experience that it’s probably the thing that brings most peace in your heart. You’ll know it when you feel it.

Back to the story of Jesus appearing to His disciples. After that encounter with Christ, they allowed the love and mercy of God to penetrate their hearts, and the very next day they were no longer fearful and stuck in that room; they went about their day and went fishing (Jn 21:3).

Indeed, God is love and He is the bringer of peace. Love indeed drives out all fear, only if we allow our hearts to be open and vulnerable and receive the peace that God has promised to us.

___

Originally posted at Catholic Rambles.

Image: PD-US

Making Sense of Suffering

By guest writer Sarah Coffey.

Why do we suffer?

I’ve wrestled with this question and with God for a long, long time. It’s still a struggle sometimes, more often than I’d like to admit.

If God is so good, and if God loves me like He says He does, then WHY do I have to fight a chronic illness? Why do I have to watch my family members suffer? Why did my grandfather have to die a slow death from cancer? Why did my grandmother have to suffer so much with loneliness and illness? Why did her death have to be slow and painful, too?

I’ve never understood suffering. The first time I came face to face with people telling me that suffering is redemptive is when my husband (who was at that time my boyfriend) lost his mother unexpectedly. I read things about suffering. Catholic things. Things written by literal saints.  They told me that suffering — the pain of losing someone, the pain of seeing someone else hurt, and your own hurt be it physical or emotional — can bring you closer to God. It’s redemptive and salvific.

But suffering didn’t do that for me — it didn’t bring me closer to God. Instead, it made me quite frustrated, and even mad at Him.

This was not just a battle I faced every so often, when a big life event like someone becoming sick, hurt, or dying occurred. No, this was something I faced every month for the past several years as I battled the effects of endometriosis and severe PMS (medically diagnosed as PMDD, which goes WAY beyond typical premenstrual mood swings) plaguing me every four weeks and many, many days in between.

Relentless pain, emotional turmoil, and at times, the feeling of being incredibly depressed for days that interrupted almost every facet of my life and relationships. It made me constantly say WHY, God, WHY do I have to deal with this, when you could so easily will it away? Is this fun to you? Am I just not faithful enough, tough enough, strong enough to deal with this, because this sucks so much?

My dislike — no, loathing — of suffering went on until a few months ago when after it looked like just about every feasible medical option for treating the ridiculous effects of this awful illness had been tried and found wanting. That’s when, by God’s grace, I finally relented in my anger and took this struggle to the foot of the Cross. I prayed that if this was a struggle I had to deal with, that God would give me the grace to carry it better. That He would help me understand this Cross and have peace with why I had to carry it. Just as with St. Paul wrote, that God won’t take away the thorn in our side, but He’ll give us the grace to deal with it: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

My answer, my help in understanding this suffering and all others came in the form of a talk by none other than Fulton Sheen.

I watched a clip of him giving a talk, in his lofty, articulate, awesome voice about a time he had a toothache as a child. To paraphrase, he was a young boy and he HATED going to the dentist. But he developed a severe toothache — an abscess, even. He hid it from his father as long as he possibly could to put off going to the dentist, which he HATED and wanted to avoid at all costs. But his father eventually found out. And took him to the dentist.

Now, mind you, this was the dentist’s office in like the early 1900s. So you can imagine the kind of suffering that went on in there when you came in with an abscessed tooth. Fulton Sheen talked about how, as the dentist began to work on fixing his tooth, Sheen became so upset at his father, wondering why he wasn’t helping him, protecting him, sheltering him from this immense suffering of the dentist treating his tooth.

At the time, as a child, it didn’t make sense to him. But his father knew that ultimately, even if he protected his son from this momentary suffering of going to the dentist, which he really hated and didn’t want to do, it would be very bad, would result in even more suffering, and at that point in time could eventually have caused serious illness or death if left untreated.

Fulton Sheen’s father allowed him temporary suffering for his ultimate good.

And it sort of clicked after I listened to this story. God doesn’t enjoy watching us suffer no more than Fulton Sheen’s father enjoyed watching his little boy writhe in pain in the dentist’s chair. For Fulton Sheen, his father allowed suffering because it was for the good of his ultimate health. For us, God allows suffering because it’s for the good of our souls.

When I heard suffering presented in this way, I was able to finally pray, Lord I don’t like this suffering. In fact, I HATE IT. But if this is for the betterment of my soul, I trust in you, I trust that you, the loving Father that you are, know what is best for me, and that you’ll give me the grace to bear it.

It became so much easier to carry that cross.

Peter Kreeft wrote, in Spiritual Direction from St. Thomas Aquinas, that “Nothing more powerfully helps us to bear pain than the realization that God wills it.” And I can say that in my own life I have experienced that this is true.

Not more fun — as the struggle was and still is definitely there. And I. don’t. like. it. But seeing it as something God allows for my ultimate good — something that can help me grow in faith for the sake of my eternal salvation — helped make me less bitter and more at peace.

I was challenged again by this as I watched my grandmother suffer in her last few weeks of life. And in watching my family members suffer, too, as they experienced her suffering at her side. Those questions crept back: Why, God, why do you allow her to suffer so much? Why can’t you just take the pain away?

But I am not God. So I don’t know why these things happen. But He does know why. And His ways are higher than mine. And just as Christ’s suffering led to the resurrection and the promise of eternal life, God allows our suffering to bear the fruit of our redemption — even though we probably can’t see it now or even until after our own death.

Our sufferings here on Earth make sense if we trust that there is something after this earthly life. If there’s nothing after that, then suffering means nothing. It is just endless pain and sadness and sorrow and heartbreak. But if there is something beyond this, as Jesus promised and as the Church teaches, then our suffering has so much meaning. Because God wills it for sake of our eternal salvation.

Peter Kreeft also wrote, “… God in His wisdom wills that we suffer because He sees that we need it for our own deepest, truest, most lasting good, or the good of someone else.” For our own deepest, truest, and most lasting good. May this truth help us to take suffering to the cross, and say Lord, use this to mold my heart even more into Yours so that I may spend eternity with You.

_____

Originally published at Sarah Coffey.

Sarah Coffey is a convert to Catholicism who enjoys delving into Church history and the Theology of the Body. She is blessed with a wonderful family, husband, and a cat named Stella (as in “Ave Maris Stella”, of course).

Sell Everything

I began my discernment journey 11 years ago with these two words that kept coming up in prayer, but I wasn’t sure what it really meant.

Months later, I attended a Vocation Discernment Retreat, hoping for God to give me an affirmation that I wasn’t called to the priesthood, so that I could get a confirmation on marrying the girl of my dreams then. But God instead revealed a path that immediately gripped my heart with excitement and joy, even amidst the pain of knowing I would have to leave the one I love with all my heart. I then realized: God was asking me to sell my dreams of marriage, for a higher calling to the priesthood.

Many years later while in my 6th year of seminary formation, I went through a vocation crisis. I was experiencing desolation in prayer, unworthiness in sin, and even an attraction towards someone. I thought God changed His mind, and I was close to calling it quits. That’s when I learnt that just as love is more than a feeling, but a choice, so too is my vocation dependent not just on my feelings, but on a choice to remain faithful regardless of how I was feeling. At this stage, I was asked to sell my need for spiritual consolations.

Recently, after having completed my seminary formation and waiting for my ordination, I went through another round of crisis, feeling frustrated and disappointed with things that seemed to obstruct what I wanted to do in my eventual priesthood. It wasn’t till someone challenged me if I had fully given up my life to Christ that I realize I had placed so much emphasis on my priesthood as the pearl of great price, that I hadn’t really fully given my life to Him who ought to be my pearl of great price. This time, God was asking me to sell my attachment to the vocation of priesthood in order to more fully give my life to Him and really do whatever He tells me. And when I did, all desolation was removed, and I felt immense peace once again.

For now I’ve learnt, that seeking one’s vocation is not about the WHAT, but about WHO am I giving my life entirely to, so that I do whatever He tells me to, even if it means SELLING EVERYTHING.

___

Originally posted on Instagram.

Belonging to Christ — Salt of the Earth

Mark 9:41-50

In this Gospel passage there is seemingly a huge disjuncture between the 1st and 2nd half of the Gospel, but dig deeper and you will find a gem.

In the first half of the Gospel, we see that Jesus says:

“If anyone gives you a cup of water to drink just because you belong to Christ, then I tell you solemnly, he will most certainly not lose his reward.”

The keywords here are “who belong to Christ”.

What does it mean to BELONG TO CHRIST? It means that our whole life is about Jesus: every thought word and deed draws others to Jesus and allows Jesus to shine!

So what does all this have to do with cutting off your hands and being salt of the earth, as seen in the second half of the Gospel?

The answer lies in these two ideas:
1. Turning away from sin
2. Rooting our identity in Christ

Everything that stops us from belonging to Christ must be removed. If we are the obstacle, then we are better off dead (being thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around you pretty much equates to death). If we are living a life of sin that causes scandal, or living a wayward life that draws us and others away from God, we need to STOP.

Jesus appears harsh by telling us to cut off the body part that causes us to sin. Let’s look deeper.

Are we willing to cut off whatever draws us away from Christ?
We ARE the salt of the earth. If salt loses its saltiness, it’s worthless. If we lose our identity in Christ, it renders us useless.

NEWSFLASH: We didn’t need to exist! We were created for a reason and purpose — we are created by God for God, in His image and likeness.

Fulfilling the will of God will help us to live a life of peace. It will never be a peace that the world can give. Nay, they will persecute and condemn, claiming us to be holy.

God’s peace is offered to us daily. We can only do that by being the salt of the earth, by belonging to God, and by doing God’s will.

___

Originally posted at Catholic Rambles.

Learning to Listen to the Divine Whisper

It has been a crazy past few months here. I have been facing the usual high school senior dilemmas regarding the “afterlife”, so to speak, of high school — whether to go to college or not, whether I should go immediately or postpone it, what I would do in the meantime, and to which colleges I should apply to and visit. All of this on top of my normal activities: finishing up my schoolwork so I DO have a joyful afterlife, working, taking guitar lessons, and the million-other household tasks which are forever regenerating themselves. Ugh. Never before have I been so stressed out about the calendar and fast-approaching deadlines!

In deep waters.

A few weeks ago my dad and I drove to a college here in the Southeast. It was an eight-hour drive, but a comparatively uneventful one. We were attending Scholarship Day at the college. I was excited to be interviewed for a prestigious scholarship, tour campus, attend seminars, and meet students. My dad and I were very impressed with the college.  As we were leaving campus I knew that it was the school I hope to attend.

Over the next couple weeks, I feverishly worked on applications for some outside scholarships. I wrote essays, tracked down signatures, and received letters of recommendation. Yesterday I was informed that I hadn’t received my much sought-for scholarship from the college, although I was eligible for some minor scholarships.

At the end of all this, I just want to laugh the laugh of a treasure-seeker who has searched the world for years for a priceless treasure, beautiful beyond imagination. When he finally finds the treasure, in his exultation he slips on the damp floor of the cave. The treasure slips out of his hands and into the mouth of the volcano. There are only two possible reactions: to weep or to laugh. He begins to laugh.

Perhaps my problem is I am too anxious to discover God’s plan for my life. I stress out too much about what it could be, and the fastest way of obtaining it. Hence, I will run in all directions hoping that I will find a billboard screaming “THIS IS IT”. But of course that is not how God works. I need to remember how God spoke to Elias: not in the wind; not in the earthquake; not in the fire; rather, in the whistling of a gentle air.

Let’s Hear It For The Church!

While I was thinking about all this, it dawned on me. I already know what God’s plan for me in this life is. As a matter of fact, it is what the Church has been telling me my entire life!!

Q. Why did God make you?
A. God made me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him for ever in heaven.

—Baltimore Catechism (Lesson 1, Question 6)

That is exactly what I have been looking for, right in front of me the entire time! As long as I truly know God, love Him, and wish to serve Him, everything else will fall into place!! I don’t need to worry about the college I go to, or whether I am to be married or enter a convent. God will tell me in a whisper when I can no longer serve Him in my current situation. He will lead me on the path to Him. All I need to do is to follow. If I know Him, love Him, and serve Him in every “now”, I will forever be living His plan for my life.

I am still looking at my options for this coming year. I don’t know where I’ll be six months from now. It might very well be that I’ll be working overtime at some job trying to save up for college. But right now I am surprisingly unstressed about it; I know that God has a perfect plan for me, and for right now He wants me to swing along behind Him until He can trust me with knowledge. Until then, if anyone wants to hand me $68,000, that would be all right, too. You’ll know where to find me: just follow the trail of empty coffee mugs, chocolate crumbs, Rosary beads, and Divine Intervention.

Ora et Labora

fra_angelico_031St. Benedict gives us a remarkable example of discipline. His simple motto, Ora et labora—pray and work—is still relevant to our own lives, so many centuries after his death. We need both prayer and work in order to live a truly Christian life and finish the race. If we were to embrace prayer without also embracing the work that comes along with our calling, we would stagnate. God has given us the incredible gift of cooperating in our own salvation; He calls us to offer our daily work up to Him. We can’t just sit back and expect Him to fix all our problems; instead, we suffer, and we unite those sufferings to His sacrifice. When we are guided by His will, our labors bring us closer to God.

Likewise, our work loses its meaning if it is not grounded in prayer. We can’t pretend that everything in our lives is within our own control, that if we work hard enough, we can fix the problems before us and improve the state of our own souls. We cannot do anything except through the grace of God. Ultimately, our salvation will come from His mercy, not from our own efforts. Before we begin the work of His Kingdom, we must first turn to Him in prayer, knowing that He cares for us and that His will is beyond our understanding. Rooted in His love, we will be able to carry out His work.

Let us pray to St. Benedict that we might learn discipline, so as to stop making excuses and to stop settling for less than the glory to which we are called. May we acknowledge our weaknesses and temptations so that we can face them, and may we call upon God in prayer so that our efforts will be directed toward His will.


Image: Fra Angelico / PD-US

Living at the Ends of the Earth

Growing up, I heard two things.

One was that I could be and do whatever I wanted if I put my mind to it. The other were stories about saints. The former spoke to my work ethic, high ideals, and diligence. The latter sparked my desire to do great things, be something great, and impact the world for the better in a bold and dramatic way.

Since stories about saints often involve romantic notions of leaving everything behind to go to the ends of the earth in service of the Lord, they also served to energize my natural wander-lust and implant the idea that it is only in great big sacrifices that holiness is realized.

The combination of these two culminated in a very impassioned desire when I graduated college. I wanted to give my life to God, and I knew that that was possible because I could do anything I wanted if I worked hard enough! I knew (or thought I knew) that I was supposed to leave everything behind and gallivant off to the yet undiscovered rain forests of Cambodia to serve the natives there (because that’s how you become holy, duh!) and by golly, I was ready to do so.

However, soon after graduating, I found myself working a retail job in Columbus, Ohio. Then I found myself living in a small, heavily depressed town in southern Michigan. Newly married, away from my friends and family in Ohio, and most certainly not at the farthest ends of the earth feeding the homeless of Transylvania.

For a while, I kept telling myself that this was just the first step in the grand plan to bring the Eucharist to the natives of Madagascar. Yet, my husband and I became more established in Michigan and the plan seemed to change. As I slowly began to realize that Iceland and I were not going to meet anytime soon, I also had to ask myself the question “how do I become holy here?” and then the insecurities had to be dealt with: “why am I not good enough for the Lord? Why doesn’t He want to send me to the ends of the earth?”

As I searched for the answers to these questions, the same stories of saints from my childhood kept popping up. As I got to know many of these saints better, I also began to understand that the stories of the saints paint an incomplete picture.

These stories make the saints’ lives out to be a great adventure, and surely they are, but the stories never delve into what the saints were truly experiencing during their great sacrifices. Sometimes the stories told mention that Saint so-and-so didn’t really want to go to China/Indonesia/Africa/you-pick-the-place, but it is usually presented as “but that’s why this person is so cool.” No doubt it is cool, but this approach cuts short the nature of their sacrifice.

The places considered to be at the ends of the earth several centuries ago were not at that time the hip, trendy, social justice places they are today. As I learned to live in (and even love!) my small, depressed town, I began to realize that when St. Francisco Álvares went to Ethiopia, he wasn’t going on a Christian Safari. He was going to the equivalent of my Michigan town. Ethiopia wasn’t some neat, exotic place to travel to, it was a place of loneliness, poverty, and distance from all that was known, familiar, and comfortable to him.

My little Michigan town is, perhaps, the absolute lowest on the list of places one wants to travel to. It is poor and distant from my family and friends in Ohio (even hostile at times to a natural-born Ohioan!). It was, consequently, lonely when I first came here, and certainly not comfortable.

As I began to put my situation next to the those of the saints, I slowly began to realize that my dream had, really, come true. As we live four hours away, I have in a sense, been asked to “give up” my friends and family, and live in a small town that in many ways, I didn’t at first want to be in. I consider my situation to be living at the ends of the earth in many ways. There is no good place to get a hair cut, no good date places, and we are surrounded by cornfields. Yet I am also living in a town that desperately needs love, mercy, and the Eucharist.

The ends of the earth aren’t in some far-away country. They are right here in our own nation. Africa isn’t the ends of the earth, Flint, Michigan, Hillsdale, Michigan, Cranks Creek, Kentucky, Harlingen, Texas and numerous other towns like them are. What’s more, the work the saints did wasn’t glorious in and of itself. It was – and still is – glorious because it made Christ present in the world in a place and a manner which He previously wasn’t.

That is glorious.

The work the saints did was really hard. It wasn’t, to them, the most romantic thing in the world. It probably stunk a lot of the time. No doubt, they asked themselves “am I really going to live the rest of my life here?” Yet knowledge that you are doing God’s will provides peace which surpasses such earthly discomfort.

Sometimes, it is really hard for me to be joyful or to believe that what I am doing is good and important. It is really hard to be away from a state, family, and friends that I love. Yet, holiness isn’t dependent on where you are, but rather who you are and how you respond to where God put you. Holiness isn’t about some misguided passion, it is about being passionate about your faith even in the smallest, most overlooked, most forgotten towns in America. Holiness is about trusting that God put you there for a purpose, and that if you can love this small town with great love, and do little things with great charity, then you’ve done more good than any mission trip you could have done to Australia. When it comes down to it, these humble towns and seemingly invisible callings do more for the development of humility, the interior life, trust in God, prayer, faith, hope, and love than any great work I could do elsewhere. Moreover, the peace and subtle, yet strong joy that comes from this town far surpasses any worldly comfort I could gain elsewhere. Indeed, I have fallen so hopelessly in love with this place that I wonder if I could ever leave, if given the choice. Indeed, how great is our consolation when we do the works of the Lord and allow Him to be present to us!

So, let us not be misguided by the shiny, exciting “calls” to Japan or India. No doubt, some are called there and God bless them. But for the rest of us, stuck with a “mediocre” calling in a boring old town, embrace it! The Lord has chosen you to go to the ends of the earth and make Him known there! The greatest adventures, and the greatest joy, await you right here, in the homes of your neighbors and the backyards of your neighborhoods.

radical-obedience

Discernment Games

One thing I am grateful for is the fact that we live in, what I call, a “Discernment Culture.” An emphasis on discernment and a focus on living your life in accordance with the Divine is fantastic. I love that many youth groups and catechists focus on this and attempt to help those in their spiritual care to grow in knowledge of God’s will. No doubt, openness to God’s Will will better our world and help us grow in holiness, which is the point.

However, as is the case with all good things, there are elements of our discernment culture that, in best-case scenarios, leave something to be desired, and in worst-case scenarios, backfire on this wonderful culture of openness to God’s will.

One of the problems with Discernment Culture is the pressure it puts on the discerner. How many times have we heard something like “God has a plan for your life” and “if you discern your vocation, God will take care of the rest.” That sure puts a lot of pressure on the discerner! The negative effects from this pressure then present themselves in a variety of ways and levels of severity. From the panic of “What if I miss my calling?!” to a distorted understanding of the nature of desire, the over-emphasis on God’s plan for your life and your duty to discern it sets people up not to discern God’s plan and, moreover, not to be open to it when they do discern it.

Why? I think it’s because discernment culture leads the discerner to discern about discerning. I know this makes little sense, hang with me for a second. When we emphasize the importance of discerning God’s will through prayer, we place such an emphasis on it that those discerning can easily become scared away from it. The sacredness of discerning holds such prominence, that they have almost too much respect for it. Or, such fear is created that one might “miss their vocation,” that rather than begin discerning and risk missing their vocation, the discerner takes it especially slow in order that he won’t miss anything.

Thus, rather than enter active discernment, discerners find themselves praying about whether or not they should discern. This lends itself to postponing active discernment and replacing fruitful prayer with furtive over-thinking. By focusing on discernment, we’ve done the exact opposite of what we were trying to do. We haven’t encouraged a deep relationship with Lord, instead we’ve told the discerner “what are you going to do? Have you figured it out yet?” thereby taking the focus off of God and placing it entirely on the shoulders of the discerner. Perhaps, we should emphasize less praying for discernment and more praying that God’s will be done.discernment-crossroad

When we pray that God’s will be done, then stuff begins to happen. We allow the Lord to increase in our lives, and thus truly allowing the Lord to work in and through us in the world, which is the point after all. Moreover, when we get stuck in our heads simply praying over and over, we give God less ways of making His will known to us. We are physical creatures, after all, and more than that, we are co-creators, co-operative individuals in God’s work in the world. If that’s the case, then we rely on the physical world to experience and discern the Lord in our lives, and if we get stuck entirely in our heads, we cut off the main ways the Lord helps us to know His will.

What does this mean? It means, we need to create a better balance of work and prayer. We need to take to action the fruit of our contemplation, not take to contemplation more contemplation. If in prayer, a vocation presents itself, rather than praying on it for months, channel your inner St. Joseph and act on it. Don’t spend days over-thinking whether or not to go on that discernment retreat or visit that convent, just go. The Lord will give you greater clarity in your experience of that retreat or visit than if you sit at home thinking about it.

We also need to re-order our understanding of desire. We’re constantly bombarded with stories of saints who gave up all of their earthly loves to follow the Lord’s will. This easily leads the discerner to believe that if he desires something, he must abandon it if he is to do God’s will. Yet God does not give us desires solely to laugh in our face when they are not fulfilled. Rather, we can come to know ourselves and God’s working in our lives better through those desires. We psych ourselves out half the time when we say to ourselves “I want to marry this person” or “I want to be a priest,” and take that as a sign that it is not what we are meant to do.

Yet that is not how the Lord works, and our emphasis on these saints is an incomplete record of their life and decisions. Sure, saints gave up stuff in order to do the Lord’s will, but it was always a decision of love. They gave up a secondary love for a primary love, or, in other terms, they gave up something they loved less for that which they loved the most. And surely, we all do that periodically. I give up ice cream for dinner every night because I love my health more, and I give up snapping at my husband out of anger because I love him and our marriage more than showing my anger.

That is the sort of sacrificial love the Lord asks of us. Sometimes it requires us truly to delve into our passions and the ordering of our loves, but it never – or should never – ask us to give up something we love more, because really, we should love the Lord the most.

Basically, let us not see discernment as a mental game. The Lord does not play those sorts of games with us and we get ourselves into trouble by playing them with ourselves. We should take action when an interest in a vocation presents itself to us, we should see vocation as an outgrowth from that which we love, and we should place the emphasis not on us figuring out this vague plan God has for us, but on us opening ourselves to become handmaidens of the Lord. If we let it be done to us according to His will, then we truly have nothing to worry about.

Catholicism Vs. The Cult of Choice

This week, I was called upon to exercise my civic duty and present myself at the federal court for jury selection. While I was there, a woman said what many seemed to feel: “Democracy is about choice. I should get to choose if I want to be called for jury duty or not.” Now, I grumbled with all the rest about being expected to wake up early, drive downtown, and leave my life behind to sit all day in a court room. Her words, however, did not sit right with me. I know enough about the foundation of our country to realize that this kind of “democracy” was a far cry from what the founders had in mind. I also know enough about our culture to know how innocuous, and even commendable they sound to ears accustomed to modern American rhetoric.  Americans have become obsessed with choice, and anything that requires the submission of the will to another is viewed with suspicion and even disgust.

We have come to the point in American culture where the ability to choose, regardless of the effect on our own or others physical,  spiritual, and emotional health, is seen as a sacred right.  How often we hear “just do it,” “it’s my choice,” “do what makes you happy,” “march to the beat of your own drum,” and other such platitudes?  Even soda machines trumpet 140 flavor options.  But a glut of options does not guarantee happiness or health.  They may simply be 140 ways to fill your body with high fructose corn syrup and empty calories, for example.  The love of choice extends into American religion as well.  If one does not like the music, preaching, people, or doctrines at a particular church, they simply find a new one that speaks to them.  The individual, the ultimate arbiter or, at least, interpreter of truth chooses the teachings that align with their own.

This fascination with choice is natural to the human condition. Even my three-year-old loves to list the choices of what he can have for breakfast or which movie he can watch.  Free will is a gift from God, something that sets us apart from animals driven by instinct.  Without free will, we are little more than pawns in a cosmic game.  In fact, Catholicism celebrates our ability to choose to participate in our own salvation — to work with God. We make a choice to baptize our children and raise them in the faith, and they themselves choose again that faith at confirmation.  Yet, choice in itself is not seen as a positive good, something to be pursued for its own sake.

When those who do love choice for choice’s sake come into contact with Catholicism, they simply cannot imagine what would possess someone to give up their autonomy of choice to the Church’s authority.   The difference is particularly stark during the season of Lent.  When the world says, “it’s my body,” the Church says “Fast, abstain, be chaste, and respect the temple of God.”   When the world says, “It’s my time,” the Church says, “Attend mass when required, confess your sins often, give to the Church and the poor, and spend time each day in prayer.”  The Church insists on helping her members get to heaven, by making good choices a requirement and labeling bad choices what they truly are — sins.

On matters of faith and morals, members of the Catholic Church cannot simply decide what to believe. Despite what so-called “cafeteria Catholics” feel, Catholics are not allowed to pick and choose from the doctrines of the Church.  They cannot make the Church into a democracy that will change with times.  The Catholic submits not only his soul and his body, but also his mind to the Church.  It baffles outsiders that extremely intelligent people could forfeit their choice in this way. But those who accept the Church as the vehicle of God’s truth on Earth, guided by the Holy Spirit, and entrusted with the salvation of men, have already made their decision. As St. Peter said, “Lord, to whom else should we go? You have to words of eternal life.”

To those who belong to the cult of choice, Catholicism seems stuffy and stifling.  The narrow road doesn’t attract many who want to go their own way.  Yet, to those who have experienced the freedom of following Christ in His Church, the possibilities for loving and serving the Lord are as many and varied as the saints in Heaven.  In sacrificing our ego, our desire to control our lives and decide our own right and wrong, we discover the joy of choosing Christ daily.

surrender

 

The Ultimate Planner

I’m a planner.

While I cannot remember when I first developed this identity, my affinity for planning, having a plan, and keeping a plan has grown significantly over the past few years. I love lists, knowing what’s happening ahead of time, and looking forward to planned events.

Surely, spontaneity is great. And I’m not opposed to having days, weekends, or even weeks without a clear plan. But the big things? Trips, life events…..LIFE itself? Yes. Plan needed.

So, as a Christian attempting to align my hopes and dreams and plans with the will of God, what am I to do?

For years, I’ve been praying to know His will and to know His plan for me. I find myself constantly attempting to discern His will and what next steps He’s placing in front of me.

And this practice is good; it’s necessary. Desiring to choose His will over my own is essential to living the life God has planned for me.

But there’s a danger in this that I’ve realized.

Being the planner I am, a control enthusiast if you will, I want to know what God has planned. And I want to know it NOW. Yesterday would’ve worked, as well.

I become so consumed with running after “The Plan” that I lose sight of “The Planner”. Rather than seeking God first and foremost, I get lost in the chase after His plan. Finally, I hit a wall and have to ask myself, am I seeking His plan, or am I seeking Him? Which do I desire more?

See, there’s a huge difference between the two. In seeking Him, you eventually find His plan for your life. If your focus is Him, He’ll lead you where you need to go. But in seeking the plan, God can become an afterthought.

I’ve been reminded recently of what Jesus asked in John 1:38:

“What are you looking for?”

At the beginning of this new year, I had to let Him ask me that exact question. Have I been seeking our Lord? Or am I looking for something else?

It’s been a difficult transition, thus far, pushing my plan-seeking desires aside and simply focusing on Him. And, yes, I’ve already failed…one month in.

Yet, the change I’ve seen already is drastic. My soul is at peace, more than ever before. When He consumes my life, worry has no place.

And so I ask you: what are you focusing on? Him or His plan? Is it time for change?

Not A Game of Chance: What Marriage is Really All About

“Yeah, I’m getting divorced too,” one of my co-workers replied to my boss the other day. The two ladies then exchanged stories about their horrible husbands and that “awful institution” called “marriage.”

Both of their husbands cheated on them, and both of them dealt with aID-100210227 multitude of other issues with their husbands that only served to add to the pain of their failed marriages. It was awful to hear what they went through, and I don’t blame them for feeling hurt by the whole experience.

“There’s so much of that out there!” my boss exclaimed. “I know one of my girlfriends who is cheating on her husband and I know a couple of other people where both of them are cheating. I guess you’re lucky if it doesn’t happen to you.”

Then my boss looked over at me and, knowing I’m engaged, said “sorry, but I never want to get married again.”

“No,” I wanted to say, “I’m sorry.”

But I didn’t get it out. I was too busy sorting through all of the reactions in my own head. I ended up remaining silent for the entire conversation because somehow I didn’t think that these women would understand.

I didn’t think they’d understand that if I said, “my fiancé and I are never going to have that issue” that my statement would be one of fact and confidence, not one of blind love and young bravado.

I didn’t think they’d understand what I mean if I said “marriage isn’t just a luck of the draw. It doesn’t work like a lottery.” Because, to them, it does, while for me, I know that it doesn’t.

Marriage isn’t a drawing of the straws, where if your spouse cheats on you, well, “sorry, you just drew the short straw. There’s nothing you could have done to prevent it!” It’s not an institution where if you are a strong, happy, and healthy couple you’re just “the lucky ones.” It’s not an institution where the fates decide who “wins” and who “loses.” It’s not a promise you enter into like buying a lottery ticket – someone will win the jackpot while most people just buy empty tickets.

Yet this is how our society has been trained to see marriage. This approach to marriage has so infiltrated our society that people refuse to believe that there should be anything like “marriage prep,” because how do you prep yourself for a game of chance? There’s no way of making yourself any luckier, so why are you bothering to work on it? Our society has abandoned the idea that marriage is something you work on, and even more so, it has forgotten, and thus doesn’t understand, that marriage is a calling.

It is a foreign concept that one would be able to say with complete confidence “my spouse will never cheat on me.” And yet, I can say that. I can say that because I have a faith and a God who stand behind me in that statement. And I can say that because the love my fiancé and I share is not human, it is divine.

We love each other because we love God and we have discovered that in loving one another, we get to love God more fully. Moreover, the love that we have for one another is divine in origin. God gave it to us at our baptism and it had a full 15-20ish years to grow and mature so that when we met, it blossomed.

That makes us blessed, but it does not make us lucky. We both worked hard on ourselves and on making God the center of our world before we even knew the other existed. In doing so, we returned to God the gift He gave us in that first sacrament. We returned to Him our hearts, and with them we returned to the Creator the divine love placed in our hearts for one another.

God knows how to nourish our hearts and souls better than anyone. In nourishing our hearts, He nourished the love that grew in them for each other so that when we met, my soul immediately knew who my fiancé was. (And it only took me a couple of months to catch up with what my soul knew at first sight!)

We have a faith that can make these promises. Promises of faithfulness, love, commitment. Our faith allows us to make these promises because He who gave us love was faithful in His love until the end. He who originated love in our hearts died for us out of that same love. We as Catholics are granted the same strength of faithfulness to the end when we return our love to the one who is love.

When we participate in making our love a sacrament, when we make a way for God’s grace to enter the world every day, when we demonstrate outwardly our inner devotion, we can say with full knowledge and confidence that we are not in a game of luck. We are in an institution of work and prayer, and we can rest assured that our success rests squarely on the shoulders of our prayerful work and the support of a God who made the universe.

Blessed Pope John Paul II is famous for his line: “man finds himself only in true gift of self.” If we only receive what we give away, then we must strive every day to give our hearts and our love back to Christ.

Giving a gift back doesn’t take luck. It takes work.

A Singular Vocation

PrayingWhen my fiancé and I were still just dating, we approached our priest and spiritual director and asked him how we might discern if we were called to marriage together. He leaned back in his chair and said, “You have to know how to pray, and what to ask when you pray.”

Father went on to explain that marriage is always described as a gift, that the individuals give themselves to each other on the altar. “But really,” he clarified, “you’re not giving yourself. You’re receiving the other person. Look at the vows, you say ‘I take you,’ not ‘I give myself.’” He suggested that in our prayer, we ask God if this the person He wants us to receive.

This got me thinking. Before my then boyfriend and I started discerning together, I had been pretty sure that I was called to marriage in a general sense. All I had to do was find somebody that filled the need. However, now I was approaching marriage in a very specific way. Suddenly, my vocation was not dependent on some abstract idea of a vocation, but rather on a specific event; it was dependent on the outcome of a particular relationship.

Then I realized: I wasn’t called to marriage.

This may strike you all as odd, given that I’m now engaged to the man. But, I’m not called to marriage. I am called to marry my fiancé. That is an important difference. As I waded through my prayers of discernment, I realized that if marriage is a reception rather than a gift, then maybe that means that you can only truly discern it if there is another person for you to potentially receive. Otherwise, how can you ask God if He wants you to receive the other in the Sacrament of Marriage?

Moreover, I began to see that my call to marriage is intimately linked to the one who fulfills it, such that if I’m not called to marry this person, then I’m not called to marriage at all. In other words – I am not called to some general vocation that I then find someone to insert to make it work. Rather, I am called to marriage because I’m called to marry my fiancé, the specific calling to be with my fiancé is what makes the general call “vocation of marriage” true in my life. Not the other way round. If I weren’t called to marry my fiancé, then I wouldn’t be called to marriage. I am only called to marriage because he exists.

As I began to take this new approach to discernment, I began to wonder if it worked with religious vocations. I mean…don’t people discern their call to the religious life and then find an order to join? As I began talking to friends who were discerning the religious life, those in seminary, those becoming postulants, I began to realize that the same rang true for many of them. Many of my friends stated, “If I were not joining X order, then I don’t know if I would become a religious at all.” That is, that just as I was only called to marriage because I was called to marry this person, so too, those joining religious orders are only called to the religious life because they are called to be Dominicans, Franciscans, Carmelites, Salesians, pick your favorite order.

I see so many people struggling with their discernment and I wonder if they’re not approaching it a bit backwards. We stress over and over again, “Discern, discern, discern!” We have this odd idea that if we discern the general idea, we can then figure out the specificity of that call. We seem to miss that, perhaps, the general vocations exist on account of the specific calls to either a person or an order. People want to argue that the specifics of vocations – person, order, diocese, etc. – come from the generalities of vocations. “Oh, once you’ve discerned that you’re called to the religious life, then you choose an order.” But, it may be the other way. General callings only exist on account of the individual callings. We can only speak of the “vocation of marriage” because there are millions of people who are called to a specific vocation with a specific person. So when someone says “the vocation of marriage” it is just a way of referencing millions of specific couples in specific vocations. Thus, to discern vocations generally may be impossible for some. I mean, you can’t know if you’re called to marriage if you have no one to potentially marry. You’re only called to marriage if you are called to marry someone.

So I wonder if our answer to the vocational crisis we face isn’t to just calm down a bit. Don’t stress the vague notion of “Discern! Discern! Discern!” when the youth have no one with whom to discern. Rather, perhaps to answer this vocational crisis, we need to focus on building stronger relationships with God, stronger relationships with the Eucharist, and holier interactions with other people such that those specific relationships can be potential opportunities for clarity. We need to give our young people specific relationships to delve into, as delving into a vague idea of a vocation is often much more difficult than it may seem.