Tag Archives: spirituality

Why we should read “Gaudete et Exsultate”

Back in March, Pope Francis released an apostolic exhortation all about the call to be holy, Gaudete et Exsultate. Within just a few days, the online world was discussing (and debating) the document. As often happens in our world of constant news and digital engagement, a few weeks went by and conversations about this exhortation died down. People began arguing about other topics. The release of this apostolic exhortation seems like a distant memory, and if you haven’t read it yet, you may be reluctant to do so. We often like to read and discuss whatever is trending in the world, so if the world has seemingly moved on, what good can come from perusing these words of Pope Francis?

1. Gaudete et Exsultate is a loving note of encouragement from our Holy Father.

As an apostolic exhortation, Gaudete et Exsultate does not seek to define dogma or lay out a detailed analysis of the Church’s teachings about one particular topic. Instead, it is an apostolic exhortation that seeks to encourage us in our mission as Christians.  In this document, Pope Francis clearly states that his aim “is not meant to be a treatise on holiness, containing definitions and distinctions helpful for understanding this important subject, or a discussion of the various means of sanctification. My modest goal is to repropose the call to holiness in a practical way for our own time, with all its risks, challenges and opportunities” (#2). Pope Francis did not write this document for a few scholarly people to pull apart and debate; he wrote it for all of us to read and learn from. 

2. This exhortation takes us back to the basics of holiness.

In five pithy chapters, Pope Francis’s words remind us to stop over-complicating things and just be holy. As someone who tremendously enjoys learning about the intricacies of our Faith – especially as manifested in the liturgy – I sometimes face the temptation of forgetting the heart of Christ’s message. Like a Pharisee, I grow overly legalistic and proud, and let this overshadow the message of transformative love that floods the Gospels. In Chapter Three of this document, Pope Francis walks us through the Beatitudes, reflecting on how – looking at the Scriptures and the lives of the saints – we can embrace our call to holiness through this path that Christ lays before us.  Pope Francis notes that:

“The Beatitudes are like a Christian’s identity card. So if anyone asks: “What must one do to be a good Christian?”, the answer is clear. We have to do, each in our own way, what Jesus told us in the Sermon on the Mount. In the Beatitudes, we find a portrait of the Master, which we are called to reflect in our daily lives” (#63).

3. There are some beautiful and profound one-liners. 

I can always appreciate a succinct, thought-provoking statement that I can ponder for a while. To my delight, I found that Gaudete et Exsultate is full of these! No matter if he’s talking about the universal call to holiness (“To be holy does not require being a bishop, a priest or a religious”), the importance of cultivating peace in our world (“We need to be artisans of peace, for building peace is a craft that demands serenity, creativity, sensitivity and skill”), or the command Christ gave us to forgive others (“We need to think of ourselves as an army of the forgiven”), Pope Francis bluntly calls us forth to be holier men and women.

If you’ve been hesitant to pick up this document because it seems like “old news,” read it anyway – the reflection Pope Francis presents about holiness is needed in our modern world.

If you haven’t read this document because you think that it’s just for theologians and scholars, read it anyway – Pope Francis wrote it for us. In the conclusion, he states: “It is my hope that these pages will prove helpful by enabling the whole Church to devote herself anew to promoting the desire for holiness” (#177). He wants to help the whole Church, not just a privileged few.

If you’ve neglected to pick up this document because (based on opinion articles, headlines, and social media posts you’ve seen) you think it is chock-full of faulty teachings, read it anyway – the pope is not laying out incorrect teachings or false doctrine; he is encouraging us to be holy. While yes, there are some passages that seem a little vague and could be twisted in a variety of ways, I invite you to reflect on the pope’s words as you examine how you can practice sanctity in your own life.

Image credit: “Pope Francis” by Mikedev, via Pixabay (2017). CCO Public Domain. 

The Security Peg: Virtues vs Sins

No man can enter into the house of a strong man and rob him of his goods, unless he first bind the strong man, and then shall he plunder his house.
– Mark 3:27 (cf. Matthew 12:29)

A few Fridays ago, my friend invited me to exit the house via the garage since she was driving out. This created a problem when I returned home from work, because nobody had unfastened the security peg of the front door. Since my friend was away for the weekend, I had to seek lodging elsewhere.

The security peg was just a tiny bit of metal, but it kept me out of the house. It made me think about ways to keep Satan out of the house of one’s soul. He may steal the key from you in a moment of temptation, but he still won’t be able to enter if you have a strong security peg and window grilles in place.

What pegs would work for you? It depends on your weakness, since a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Fortunately, we have been granted the gifts of the Holy Spirit in order to live holy and virtuous lives.

Aurelius Clemens Prudentius (AD 348 – 410), a Christian Roman governor, composed an epic poem entitled Psychomachia, or Battle/Contest of the Soul. Practicing these virtues is the remedy against the Seven Deadly Sins: humility triumphs over pride, kindness over envy, abstinence/temperance over gluttony, chastity over lust, patience over anger, liberality/charity over greed, and diligence over sloth.

Be sure to securely peg the door of your soul with the virtue it needs most, lest our tireless adversary break in and defile the temple of God (1 Corinthians 3:16).

____

Image: PD-US

Leisure: Rest & Virtue vs Distraction & Dissipation

“Regret is a waste of time.” Dream said.
“No, I think regret is when people realise they’ve wasted all the time they’ve had.” Chris argued.
— Mary Borsellino, The Boy Who Gave Away His Birthday

The Christian life is a harmonization of the contemplative and the active life. We see from Genesis that God rested after creating the universe, and sanctified this day of rest. The Douay-Rheims Bible explains:

“He rested”: That is, he ceased to make or create any new kinds of things. Though, as our Lord tells us, John 5:17,”He still worketh”, viz., by conserving and governing all things, and creating souls.

In ancient Rome and Greece, leisure was a luxury afforded to the free man.

In Athens, leisure was one of the marks of the Athenian gentleman: the time to do things right, unhurried time, time to discuss in.
— “Otium“, Wikipedia

We see that from classical pagan antiquity and Judeo-Christian tradition, times of rest were to be taken seriously. Times of otium or σχολή (skholē, from which we derive the word “school”) were valuable in rejuvenating oneself and considering how best to re-engage with society, in negōtium (non-leisure: business and politics.). Philosophers like Cicero spent their otium writing profound books which are still valued today. They used their retirement to consider what constituted “the good life” (εὐδαιμονία – eudaimonia) which would cultivate a healthy civic life that would ensure the flourishing of individuals and the country.

Virtual Vices

In contrast, today we usually fritter away our times of rest. We are absorbed in television screens, computer screens, smartphone screens or movie screens. Instead of spending our precious time interacting with our loved ones, enjoying nature or a good book, we often give in to the siren call of pixelated pleasures. Before we know it, the day has turned into dusk, and we are no better for it. Indeed, we may be all the worse:

… the twin rise of the smartphone and social media has caused an earthquake of a magnitude we’ve not seen in a very long time, if ever. There is compelling evidence that the devices we’ve placed in young people’s hands are having profound effects on their lives—and making them seriously unhappy.
— Jean M. Twenge, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?“, The Atlantic

Twenge notes that instead of drinking, driving, or dating, teenagers are trapped in their bedrooms, slaves to their smartphones. Their social lives are now conducted online, assisted by the addictive allure of “likes” and “followers”. This has precipitously increased the rates of depression and suicide.

Meanwhile, the widespread availability of pornography online is wreaking havoc across the globe, contributing to domestic abuse in India and the demographic winter in Japan.

Bodily Blessedness

As Catholics, we believe in the Incarnation of Christ, and the resurrection of the body. Unlike Gnostics, we treasure the physical world, which God created good and which He died to redeem.

… the Church does not come with a mere message. The Church is meant to be a Sacrament, an embodied manifestation of a transcendent reality that, by virtue of its transcendence, escapes full articulation.
— Dr. Matthew Tan, “On Liking the Gospel: the Church and New Media“, The Divine Wedgie

Sabbath Sacrileges

Maria von Trapp, whose life was memorialized in The Sound of Music (1965), wrote a magnificent reflection: “The Land Without a Sunday“.

She contrasts the traditional restful, holy Sundays celebrated in Austria before World War II with communist Russia’s destruction of the 7-day week:

“Instead of a Sunday,” Baron K. told us, “the Russians have a day off. This happens at certain intervals which vary in different parts of the country. First they had a five-day week, with the sixth day off, then they had a nine-day work period, with the tenth day off; then again it was an eight-day week. What a difference between a day off and a Sunday! The people work in shifts. While one group enjoys its day off, the others continue to work in the factories or on the farms or in the stores, which are always open. As a result the over-all impression throughout the country was that of incessant work, work, work.”

Maria von Trapp goes on to voice her astonishment at the desecration of Sundays in the USA. She discovered the sad cause:

The climax of our discoveries about the American Sunday was reached when a lady exclaimed to us with real feeling, “Oh, how I hate Sunday! What a bore!” I can still hear the shocked silence that followed this remark. The children looked hurt and outraged, almost as if they expected fire to rain from heaven. Even the offender noticed something, and that made her explain why she hated Sunday as vigorously as she did. It explained a great deal of the mystery of the American Sunday.

“Why,” she burst out, “I was brought up the Puritan way. Every Saturday night our mother used to collect all our toys and lock them up. On Sunday morning we children had to sit through a long sermon which we didn’t understand; we were not allowed to jump or run or play.” When she met the unbelieving eyes of our children, she repeated, “Yes, honestly–no play at all.” Finally one of ours asked, “But what were you allowed to do?”

“We could sit on the front porch with the grownups or read the Bible. That was the only book allowed on Sunday.” And she added: “Oh, how I hated Sunday when I was young. I vowed to myself that when I grew up I would do the dirtiest work on Sunday, and if I should have children, they would be allowed to do exactly as they pleased. They wouldn’t even have to go to church.”

Redemptive Rest

Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatsoever else you do, do all to the glory of God.
— 1 Corinthians 10:31

Instead of “the Benedict Option” or “the Francis Option“, one of my friends is a wholehearted proponent of “the Tudor Option” (referring to the early Tudor period). In medieval days before King Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, redistributing national wealth at the expense of the peasantry, peasants celebrated over 200 holy days each year.

… economist Juliet Shor found that during periods of particularly high wages, such as 14th-century England, peasants might put in no more than 150 days a year. …

When workers fought for the eight-hour workday, they weren’t trying to get something radical and new, but rather to restore what their ancestors had enjoyed before industrial capitalists and the electric lightbulb came on the scene. Go back 200, 300 or 400 years and you find that most people did not work very long hours at all. In addition to relaxing during long holidays, the medieval peasant took his sweet time eating meals, and the day often included time for an afternoon snooze. “The tempo of life was slow, even leisurely; the pace of work relaxed,” notes Shor. “Our ancestors may not have been rich, but they had an abundance of leisure.”
— Lynn Stuart Parramore, “Why a medieval peasant got more vacation time than you“, Reuters

This was curtailed in the Elizabethan era following Henry VIII:

In the Middle Ages, all of these feast days were excuses for a day off, Popish ceremonies, and general idleness. The thrifty Protestants, of course, disapproved, and limited the observance of many of the feast days. They remained on the calendar, but people were enjoined not to stop working.
— Walter Nelson, “Elizabethan Calendar“, Mass Historia

As Catholics, we recognize that all time is given to us as a sacred gift from God, with the responsibilities of growing in holiness and serving our neighbor. Let us neither waste our leisure time, nor allow it to be taken up by work. We must rather keep our days of rest holy, spending them in fruitful ways which will cultivate our souls and bring true joy.

My life is but an instant, a passing hour. My life is but a day that escapes and flies away. O, my God, you know that to love You on earth I only have today!
— St. Thérèse of Lisieux

Image: PD-US

Article originally published at Aleteia.

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The Church Embraces All People: Thoughts on the Beatification of Fr. Stanley Rother

“They must be going to the beatification!” I yelped happily, as I pointed towards a well-dressed group of people walking down the sidewalk. It was early in the morning on Saturday, September 23rd, and I could not contain my excitement. Several minutes later, I found myself also walking down the sidewalks of downtown Oklahoma City. My husband, myself, and our toddler joined the massive throng of people who wrapped around the Cox Convention center, waiting to enter the arena. From around the state of Oklahoma – and around the world – we all came together for this historic event: the beatification of Fr. Stanley Francis Rother.

The view as we rushed through the arena, looking for open seats.

After bustling around, trying to find seats, we wound up sitting in the overflow section behind the altar. I was expecting many people to attend the beatification Mass, but the sight of so many people was incredible. Over 13,000 people crammed together to pray and celebrate the life and legacy of the first U.S.-born martyr to be beatified.

Throughout the beatification Mass, I kept thinking of how this event showed that the Church truly is universal and all-embracing. There were hundreds of priests and consecrated religious, and over 50 bishops. There were thousands of lay people. These individuals came to Oklahoma from all parts of the country – or from other countries, like Guatemala, where Blessed Stanley served and was martyred. The petitions during Mass also reflected the universality of the Catholic Church; they were read in English, Spanish, Vietnamese, Filipino, Comanche, Tz’utujil, and Korean.

As I looked out on the massive, diverse crowd of people, I thought of how Blessed Stanley Rother gave his life as he ministered in love to others. He didn’t stay in his comfortable little hometown in Oklahoma, but he went out to embrace and guide those in another country during a tumultuous time. He helped translate the New Testament into the language of the people there, Tz’utujil. He lived simply, joining in solidarity with the men and women around him. In his life and work, he sought to serve and love others.

There have been many times where I have found myself becoming self-absorbed. I’ll think that “my way” is the “best way” when doing different activities. Or, I’ll narrow my field of vision and think that a Catholic must look or act in one particular way. At times like these, I forget that Christ welcomes all people into His Church – those who have cultural differences from me, those who have backgrounds different from my own, and those who pray in ways which I do not. In his letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul writes: “As a body is one though it has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body, so also Christ” (1 Cor 12:12). As I saw during the beatification Mass of Blessed Stanley Rother, there is a beautiful diversity among the members of the Catholic Church. Let us rejoice in the unique gifts that each person brings to the Church, and let us remember to embrace and welcome all people with the sacrificial love of Christ, so that we may all grow closer to Him together.

Why We Shouldn’t “Gloss Over” Marian Devotion

I’ve always enjoyed learning about epic stories of martyrdom. Even as a young child of 8 or 9 years old, I would read, in awe (and a little bit of shock) about the ways in which holy men and women across the centuries have lived and died as witnesses of God’s love and mercy. In fact, in my zeal for learning about martyrdom, I’ve even found myself skipping over areas of a saint’s life, just to get to the “good parts” where I learn about his or her heroic death.

“So-and-so was a good child, blah blah blah…very devoted to Mary…tortured for the Faith-ah yes, here’s where it gets good.”

Learning about a saint’s martyrdom is fascinating, and it can seem extremely relevant. After all, since our world is facing much division and persecution, hearing the stories of the martyrs can give us people to whom we can relate. Shouldn’t we spend our time focusing on stories of martyrdom, and just “gloss over” other aspects of their lives?

The more I think about this, the more I realize something: We can talk about martyrdom all we want, but if that is the only thing we’re focusing on, we are missing the bigger picture. We miss the why. For example, we recently celebrated the feast of St. Maximilian Kolbe. Many people focus on how St. Maximilian offered himself. We talk about his selflessness and heroic sacrifice as he literally gave his life for another person. For years, this is the sole image I had of St. Maximilian. It wasn’t until I reached college that I began to see the “bigger picture.” I learned about how St. Maximilian Kolbe was deeply devoted to Mary, and how his love for Mary was a strong, guiding motivation throughout his life.

We cannot simply “gloss over” Marian devotion or any other devotions that the saints have practiced, thinking that we should only focus on the “good” or “relevant” parts of their lives. These practices have formed the saints and made them who they are. Not only that, but Marian devotion will always be relevant. In fact, as our society quickly plummets downward into the chaos of moral relativism and disunity, growing in our devotion to Mary so that she may lead us to Jesus seems especially relevant.

When we read the lives of the saints, let’s not just focus on their gory martyrdoms or the mystical experiences that they had. Rather, let’s look at the whole picture of their lives, and learn from them so that we can strive for greater holiness too. Marian devotion is and will always be relevant, because Mary will never stop leading us to her son. So why gloss over it?

 

Photo credit: “Statue” by Momentmal via Pixabay. CCO public domain. 

What’s Cooler Than Getting Ashes on Your Forehead?

Ash Wednesday is a fairly busy day in many places. People cram into churches and receive ashes in the form of a cross (or a big blob, depending on who is distributing them) on their foreheads. Many churches offer small midday services with readings from Scripture and a distribution of ashes for people who cannot attend Mass that day. Also, as controversial they may be, some places offer “drive-thru” ashes so that people don’t even have to leave their cars to receive ashes!

Photo Credit: “Ash Cross” by Myriams-Fotos via Pixabay (2017) CCO Public Domain

I find it admirable that so many people begin Lent by receiving this outward sign of our sinfulness and need for God’s mercy. Yet, I think it is important that we place our enthusiasm in the right places. I have heard a variety of stories in which Catholics focus more on getting ashes than receiving the Eucharist, and these stories make me a little sad. Then, I think about the times in my own life when the main motivation to get myself to Mass on Ash Wednesday was that afterwards, I would be able to compare foreheads with my friends—and I realize that I do not appreciate the gift of the Eucharist.

Many of us get enthusiastic to receive ashes each year as Lent begins, but we pay no attention to the fact that we receive the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ each week—or several times a week. Should we be proud of this fact?

Personally, I am ashamed of myself. I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with taking Ash Wednesday selfies or comparing foreheads with others, but if I’m placing more of my focus on this external marking than on our Eucharistic Lord, I think there is a problem. I cannot count how many times that I have focused more on ashes or some other external aspect of Mass than the gift of the Eucharist!

Ash Wednesday is long gone, and we won’t receive ashes again for many months (that’ll be a nice Valentine’s Day present in 2018!). Yet, while we won’t receive trendy crosses on our foreheads for quite some time, we have the opportunity to receive Jesus Christ. Will we open ourselves up to the graces that He wants to pour out on us? Will we let ourselves be changed as we eat His flesh and drink His blood? The Catechism of the Catholic Church notes that:

“Communion with the Body and Blood of Christ increases the communicant’s union with the Lord, forgives his venial sins, and preserves him from grave sins. Since receiving this sacrament strengthens the bonds of charity between the communicant and Christ, it also reinforces the unity of the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ.” (#1416)

Isn’t this amazing?

Receiving ashes on our foreheads is cool, but consuming Jesus Christ in the Eucharist is infinitely better.

Heart-to-Heart: A Look at the Pain of Love

If you love me, you will keep my commandments.[1]

On the face of it, Christ’s words seem obvious: of course we’ll obey Christ because we love Him! Yet, when it comes down to it, loving the Lord and living His commandments feel like two entirely different propositions.

Well, first off, we, as Christians, are defined by His Love. Jesus said,

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.[2]

By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.[3]

We know we are broken and desperately in need of the Love of Christ, and we love to be loved by Him, enjoying the warmth of His Love pouring down upon us from His Heavenly window through His Presence on earth in the Blessed Sacrament.

But His Presence and Love are also most truly keenly felt in the Cross. As He was “obedient unto death, even death on a cross,”[4] so we also are called to the same perfect obedience by living in true accord with the commands of Christ. What are His commands? He gave us two: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”[5]

How do we love God and our neighbor? Telling them we love them, and thinking about how much we love them, are a fine start, but do thoughts and words alone constitute genuine love?

According to St. Paul, love is manifold.

Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends… So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.[6]

The essence of love—what love is—is the union of the multiple qualities of virtue. Look at all those active verbs St. Paul uses to show what love is all about. Love “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” What can’t love do? Only one thing: love can never end. In some translations, this is rendered: “Love never fails.”

Love this strong, this pure, this beautiful is utterly invaluable. How awesome that we can share in the very essence and Life of God Himself, Who is Love[7]. Yet Love, though freely chosen, is not without a price: since the Fall, Love is uniquely and intricately bound up with suffering in this world.

Love a person, and they may deceive you, abandon you, deny you, betray you. Love any mortal creature, and again you are risking much: they can hurt you, disappoint you, test you, and even the most perfect will, sooner or later, die.

In the words of C.S. Lewis, “There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket – safe, dark, motionless, airless – it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.”[8]

Love hurts. Sacrifices and sufferings freely accepted out of love cost us much, and the cost seems heavier than the reward when Heaven seems so far off in time and space (appearing to confine us here on earth). But this kind of an approach to love, as though we could ‘earn’ our way to Heaven, seems shallow. At the end of the day, when we tally up our good deeds and (if we’re feeling especially confident!) nod contentedly because they so clearly outweigh our sins, do we find the joy and peace for which we long in this score-keeping with God?

No, not really.

Our hearts want something else. Something more. The sufferings we endure: are they really to be borne indifferently for the sake of love? If so, they seem to only have value insofar as we can ‘convert’ them to proofs of love. But what if the very moments of suffering, though apparently loathsome and difficult in themselves, are not merely the means, but the very essence of the Christian Life, the moments when we meet our Beloved Lord Heart-to-heart? What if this moment of trial and terror is not merely to be offered up and set aside as quickly as possible, nor again to be relished with a ghastly ‘heroic’ delight, but seen and embraced as the Cross of Christ, given to us? What if these moments of suffering, offered for love, are the very stepping stones to sanctity?

If this is the case, then everything has value. Getting back to the words of St. Paul, love literally embraces absolutely everything. Yes, love means suffering so often in this world, but no suffering, however great, can detract from the overwhelming share in the Life of God which we embrace when we love.

Why endure the pain of Love? Because we are, by nature, called into communion with the One Who is Love, and the pain is the price of the great joy fulfilled only in Him, for Whom we long. For, “You have formed us for Yourself,” Dear God, and truly, “our hearts are restless till they find rest in You.”[9]

 

 

[1] The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version, (John 14:15), National Council of the Churches of Christ, 1971, accessed 17 December 2016, https://www.biblegateway.com.

[2] (John 15:12 RSV)

[3] (John 13:35 RSV)

[4] (Philippians 2:8 RSV)

[5] (Matthew 22:36-39 RSV)

[6] (1 Corinthians 13:4-8, 13 RSV)

[7] (1 John 4:8 RSV)

[8] C.S. Lewis, “Charity,” in The Four Loves (Orlando, FL: Harcourt, 1960), 121.

[9] Augustine of Hippo, Confessions, I, 1, 1, at New Advent, www.newadvent.org.

The Economy of Mercy

If your brother sins, rebuke him;
and if he repents, forgive him.
And if he wrongs you seven times in one day
and returns to you seven times saying, ‘I am sorry,’
you should forgive him.

—Luke 17:3–4

Sr. Febronie served as subprioress during Therese’s early years in Carmel. She reproached Therese for teaching the novices that they could go straight to heaven after death, calling this presumption. “My sister, if you desire God’s justice, you will have God’s justice,” Therese answered her. “The soul receives exactly what she looks for from God”…

This conversation took place in 1891. The following January, Febronie was among those who died during the flu epidemic. She appeared to Therese in a dream a short time later. Therese saw Febronie was suffering. She looked as though she was confirming that Therese had been right. She was in purgatory, because she had expected to receive God’s justice rather than his mercy.

Here once more we see the importance of our participation in our sanctification. God even allows us to choose the method by which he will judge us! If we believe he will send us to purgatory because we have not been good enough, then he will. If we trust him to make up for our lack of perfection, he will do that instead.

—Connie Rossini, Trusting God with St. Therese

therese_von_lisieux
St. Therese of Lisieux

God longs to extend His mercy to us. He doesn’t want to have to deal with us in terms of justice instead of mercy. He would rather forgive us than punish us, but sometimes justice is what we choose for ourselves. When we judge others harshly instead of forgiving readily, we adopt an economy of justice. When our motivation to perform good deeds stems from a desire to “earn” our holiness instead of out of love for our neighbor, we are are measuring in terms of justice instead of mercy. When we despair over our weaknesses and feel we can never be good enough, we reject the wideness of God’s mercy and cling to justice instead. When we compare ourselves to others, wonder why we have more or less or different gifts than anyone else, and wish we could even out the scales, we are choosing to operate under a prevailing sense of justice.

But fixating on justice alone will not get us to heaven. Jesus didn’t die on the Cross because it was just; He did it out of pure, boundless love for us, love that defied justice. Unless we cultivate a sense of mercy, then we are asking for harsh treatment. Jesus wants better for us. He wants us to trust Him so greatly and to be so sure of His great mercy that we don’t despair in our sinfulness but rather call on Him right away to cover our faults. There is no sin too great for His mercy. He wants to swoop in and rescue us, but sometimes we push Him away out of pride. Once we acknowledge that we can’t do it ourselves, that we would be crushed by an economy of justice, then we can begin to embrace His economy of mercy. And when we understand the incredible gift of God’s mercy, we will be able to demonstrate it to others, joyfully forgiving again and again and again.

Giving Our Crumbs

But they said to him,
“Five loaves and two fish are all we have here.”
Then he said, “Bring them here to me,”
and he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass.
Taking the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven,
he said the blessing, broke the loaves,
and gave them to the disciples,
who in turn gave them to the crowds.
They all ate and were satisfied,
and they picked up the fragments left over—
twelve wicker baskets full.
Those who ate were about five thousand men,
not counting women and children.
—Matthew 14:17–21

albert_anker_-_neuer_weisswein_und_nucc88sse_1896No matter our reservations and fears, no matter how tenuous our faith, no matter how deep our unfulfilled longings, God will sustain us if we place ourselves within His hands. He can take our meager gifts and multiply them beyond our imaginings. Whatever is holding us back from doing His will, whatever fears keep us from Him—He can make up for our shortcomings, if we ask Him. He can take our crumbs and turn them into thousands of loaves.

Whenever we feel as though we don’t have enough strength to follow His will, we need to hand over our fears and inadequacies, entrusting what little strength we have to Him. We can trust that He will give us exactly what we need; He withholds no good thing from us.

Also, we shouldn’t allow our lack of resources to keep us from beginning to do God’s work. Even if we can’t see how the task will be completed, we ought to give what we do have, so that He can begin to fill in the rest. The disciples didn’t think their five loaves were even worth offering to a crowd so large, but it was because they put forth those few loaves that Jesus performed the miracle of multiplying them. Perhaps our actions, when we step out in faith and share our gifts, will put a grander plan of His into motion, inspiring others to contribute their gifts as well. Each of us is just one small part of the body of Christ, but each part of the body is invaluable to the whole.


Image: Albert Anker, Stillleben: Neuer Weisswein und Nüsse / PD-US

The Road to Hell is Paved with Good Intentions

“Cimourdain was a pure-minded but gloomy man. He had ‘the absolute’ within him. He had been a priest, which is a solemn thing. Man may have, like the sky, a dark and impenetrable serenity; that something should have caused night to fall in his soul is all that is required. Priesthood had been the cause of night within Cimourdain. Once a priest, always a priest. Whatever causes night in our souls may leave stars. Cimourdain was full of virtues and truth, but they shine out of a dark background.” ―Victor Hugo, Quatrevingt-Treize

I was walking with an atheist friend when he said, “Did you hear about the coup in Turkey? Both sides thought they were in the right, and called the other evil.”

It is inherent in human nature to strive toward a good, or at least a perceived good. The chain smoker or alcoholic seeks the good of relief from whatever stress they’re undergoing; the man who commits suicide seeks relief from what he perceives as insurmountable pain.

Idealism untempered by prudence and charity is often the cause of massive suffering. Look at China, shorn of its magnificent, beautiful, ancient culture by the Cultural Revolution, with intellectuals and artists tortured to death by frenzied, manipulated youth, not to mention 45 million dying of famine in the Great Leap Forward. Look at France, with 40,000 killed in the French Revolution. All human attempts to create a perfect society on earth will fail, for we are frail beings with many faults. Even religious communities are not perfect—all of them except the Carthusians have had to undergo reform in order to return to their ascetical roots.

dantes-infernoIt is said that Napoleon declared, “Je détruirai votre église”—“I will destroy your Church.” Cardinal Consalvi replied drily, “He will never succeed. We have not managed to do it ourselves.” Fr. Roger Landry explains: “If bad popes, immoral priests, and countless sinners in the Church hadn’t succeeded in destroying the Church from within, Cardinal Consalvi was saying, how did Napoleon think he was going to do it from without?” (Catholic Answers: “A Crisis of Saints”).

The worst suffering in my life came not from my family’s multiple brushes with death, but from living in a Catholic community formed by idealists who had made woefully insufficient provision for addressing the mental-health issues of its members. A few friends and I carried the weight of our suffering fellows, and it crushed us. The reality is, we live in a broken world, suffering the effects of original sin. And that is why we need a Savior, a Divine Physician Who can bind our suppurating wounds and restore us to eternal life.

It is not enough to pray. Jesus always prayed, yes, but then He acted. God has granted us reason and free will to govern our emotions and appetites. He has also permitted us to develop modern medicine (thanks in great part to countless Catholic scientists, physicians, and nurses through the ages). He has permitted us to make laws and lay down regulations to govern our earthly lives for a just and flourishing society. Medicine and law are imperfect and can be twisted to evil ends, but that is the nature of the moral life, to be able to discern both intentions and ends and act according to the law written on our hearts, the natural law that God has planted in every human soul so that we may seek out what is good in accordance with our nature—which is ultimately God, the source and end of our existence.

It is often difficult to discern the right path, as our intellects have been darkened after the Fall. We are unable to see all the consequences that may flow from our actions, no matter how well-intentioned. We are obliged to form our consciences (CCC 1798) and avail ourselves of God’s grace in every circumstance. The world is a dark place, yes—but God has entered our darkness to give us Light.

In the end, even if we go through a seemingly pointless hell, the wonderful thing is that God has entered hell to bring us to Heaven, and He is in that hell with us. Like straw spun into gold, so may our horrible sufferings be turned into the radiant glory of salvation.

“The evil that is in the world almost always comes from ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence if they lack understanding.” —Albert Camus

“Hell is full of good meanings, but Heaven is full of good works.” —Traditional proverb


Image: Gustave Doré, illustration of Dante’s Inferno / PD-US

Gossip and Whistle-Blowers

But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken.
—Matthew 12:36

610When you find out that people have been gossiping about you, you understandably feel violated and wronged. But why is gossip so bad?

First of all, what is gossip?

The word “gossip” comes from “God + sibb”—because only people close to you, like god-siblings, know enough about all your faults to really speak ill of you. Familiarity breeds contempt, and it is a challenge to remain charitable to those closest to us, because we all have weaknesses and traits that others may find trying.

Gossip is corrosive; it destroys the life of charity in the soul. It is a poison that seeps into our hearts and turns us against one another. Even if what is said is true, it can amount to the sin of detraction. One must first consider whether it is necessary to divulge such information (for instance, in order to protect others from destructive behavior); after all, people do change their ways, and we make it harder for them to change if everyone around them expects them to keep misbehaving. Also, everyone has strengths as well as weaknesses, and apparent weaknesses can be wonderful strengths in another context. And you never know what hurts or pressures someone may be suffering in order to act in a despicable manner.

At the same time, one must distinguish between gossip and valid complaints, especially in serious cases. For instance, when I was traumatized by verbal abuse and harassment at all hours of the day and night by severely troubled acquaintances (resulting in nightmares and destroying my ability to pray), I turned to various friends for support, and made official complaints in hope of remedying the deteriorating situation. One friend was comforting at first, and later lashed back, telling me to get over it and not broadcast it to the whole world. He was under extreme stress himself; moreover, one tries to think the best of one’s peers, and often there is a temptation to remain in denial about flagrant abuses. However, as it is necessary to bring a suppurating wound to a doctor to be cleaned and dressed, so it is necessary to speak out about toxic patterns of dysfunction within our communities and have them addressed in a timely and professional manner before things spiral out of hand. Otherwise, things will blow up in the end and cause far greater scandal and damage than if they had been attended to in the beginning.

Dysfunction and disorder have always been part of our world since the Fall. There is no need to be surprised or overly troubled by it. What falls to us is to reorder the chaos within ourselves and society as best we can, in accordance with right reason, justice, and mercy. Thus will God’s Kingdom come and His will be done on earth as in Heaven.

Sometimes, people are hesitant to be whistle-blowers because they know the effect of bringing dark things to light. There will be pain and dismay as others behold the full ugliness of sin and how it has disfigured us and our fellows. But we are called to look always to God’s mercy, which transfigures the lowliest and most sinful humans into the sons and daughters of God.

This, then, is how to address the sin of gossip—to always remember your core identity and the identity of those you speak of—and to—as children of God. Putting others down may give you a dark joy and make you feel superior for an instant, but it will destroy you in the end. Likewise, always focusing on the faults of others will make you feel terrible about the state of the world. We can choose to delight instead in the miracle of their being, and to maintain a safe distance if we cannot help them with their issues, commending them to God. In the end, we are not God, Who alone knows the hearts of men, and Who alone can heal their wounds and free them to walk in His joy and peace, world without end.

Be nothing solicitous; but in every thing, by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your petitions be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasseth all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. For the rest, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever modest, whatsoever just, whatsoever holy, whatsoever lovely, whatsoever of good fame, if there be any virtue, if any praise of discipline, think on these things.
—Philippians 4:6–8


Image: Artemisia Gentileschi, Susanna and the Elders / PD-US

The Disfigurement of Sin

“He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
   nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by mankind,
   a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces
   he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.”
—Isaiah 53:2b–3

“My beloved Jesus, Your face was beautiful before You began this journey; but, now, it no longer appears beautiful and is disfigured with wounds and blood. Alas, my soul also was once beautiful when it received Your grace in Baptism; but I have since disfigured it with my sins. You alone, my Redeemer, can restore it to its former beauty. Do this by the merits of Your passion; and then do with me as You will.”
—St. Alphonsus Maria de Liguori, The Way of the Cross (The Sixth Station)

Sin corrupts what is good; it is a parasite that eats away at its host, leaving the host hollow and lifeless, and branding the host with its ugly character. The victims of those with narcissistic personality disorder often end up exhibiting the very traits of their abusers, driven mad by their constant emotional battering. They lose their sense of self and may develop Stockholm Syndrome, clinging to the one who is wounding them, struggling to make sense of senseless behavior.

Soldiers back from war are often stuck in fighting mode, unable to escape the horrible memories of callous mutilation and death. For trauma victims, the world appears as a dark, irredeemable place, with the suffocating snares of sin all around. The cruelty of people and tragedy of circumstance seem arbitrary yet inescapable, and the universe a chaotic void. In such a world, what room is there for hope?

tumblr_m1bty52xam1rrutr7o1_500Christ became sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21). John Zmirak writes: “I read long ago in St. Anselm that Christ could have redeemed us by spilling a single drop of His precious blood. Divine justice could have been appeased, man’s fall and all our subsequent sins—from Cain’s slaughter of Abel to the mass murder of Europe’s Jews—could have been blotted out by the blood Jesus shed… at His circumcision” (“No Morphine on the Cross,” Crisis Magazine, 31 March 2010).

Zmirak reflects: “It may be that Jesus so emptied Himself to show the immensity of His charity, to give us a tantalizing peek at the secret love that fuels the Trinity.”

On the flip side, it may be that, by the instrument of the crucifixion, that terrible way for humans to torture and kill other humans, God wished to display to us the ugly reality of sin, which brings disfigurement and death to that which He created as a wholly good and beautiful gift.

Seek, then, what gives life and beauty, and shun that which brings corruption and death in any way. When you receive a bad impression of someone, try to find goodness in them, or to at least understand their circumstances and what pain they must have been through to turn out the way they are, for it is said, “Hurt people hurt people.” Also, no matter how twisted someone may be, there is always hope, as St. Thérèse knew when she prayed ardently for the eternal salvation of Henri Pranzini, who had murdered two women and a girl in their bedrooms. Every human being is someone God created and Christ died for; no matter how marred by sin, he carries within him the image and likeness of the One Who is Love, and this indelible identity can only be revealed to himself and to others through the eyes of Love. Herein lies our hope, and the antidote for sin—to behold one another and ourselves with the divine eyes of Christ, and treat all accordingly.

“So how can you see what your life is worth
Or where your value lies?
You can never see through the eyes of man
You must look at your life, look at your life through heaven’s eyes.”
—Brian Stokes Mitchell, “Through Heaven’s Eyes,” The Prince of Egypt (1998)

“Remember: God’s grief at the unspeakable things we do to one another is beyond measuring, but so is His mercy. It might seem a terrible thing to say to people who’ve lost and suffered so much at the hands of hatred and violence. But true courage is not to hate our enemy, any more than to fight and kill him. To love him, to love in the teeth of his hate—that is real bravery. That ought to earn people m-m-medals.”
―Tony Hendra, Father Joe: The Man Who Saved My Soul

“It may be too much for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbour. The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbour’s glory should be laid on my back, a load so heavy only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud shall be broken. It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting you can talk to may one day be a creature, which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of those destinations… There are no ‘ordinary’ people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, artsthese are mortal, and their life to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploitimmortal horrors or everlasting splendours… Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses.
―C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory


Image: Signum-Crucis