Sunday, May 6, 2018

#marriageworks

Every now and then in a marriage you reach a periodic "boiling point." By definition, the boiling point of a substance is the temperature at which the vapor pressure of the liquid equals the pressure surrounding the liquid and the liquid changes into a vapor. It could be called, in less scientific language, a turning point--the point at which something turns into something else.

That 'something,' in our particular circumstance today, seemed to be external. "Can you put away the junk from the car that I brought inside to the front room," I asked Deb earlier this week, "I don't know where it goes." "Sure, I will." Three days later it was still there. It seemed like a simple request that would have taken all of five minutes. I know we are different in that regard; mess bothers me...a lot. My wife isn't as affected by it. When I come home from a trip, the first thing I do is unpack my bag and put everything away. My wife is the opposite (in fact, the suitcase from our trip last week is still sitting, full of clothes). It bothered me that it, as well the stuff by the door, was still there, but I kept it to myself.

Later in the evening, I asked if she would like to watch a movie together later. "Yes!" she said. She had been working overnight shifts the past couple nights, but had gotten some good rest at her dad's this afternoon, so I was hopeful. There's nothing I like more than just sitting on the couch with her and hanging out. But before I could even start watching something after the kids were asleep, she was too, and again chalked up another feeling of slight internally. I'm used to her falling asleep, which I don't mind. I just wish she hadn't promised to watch a movie with me at all, as I had been looking forward to it most of the evening.

After I carried the kids up to bed, I tried to get her to come upstairs, since she still had her contacts in (another pet peeve) and that she would be more comfortable in our bed rather than the couch. She promised she would be up in five minutes. I waited in bed for her (I had slept alone the past three nights and thought she would want to come up) but five minutes turned into half an hour. When I came down, she was asleep. That's when the cumulative effect of all the little things from the past couple weeks started to weigh and tip the scales.

When she finally came up (I rudely woke her), I was angry, and I told her so. It wasn't about the junk by the door, or the falling asleep, or the contacts, or the ten other things that weren't followed through on. When I translated it, for myself, it came down to feeling like I could not count on her. Which translated to what I was asking was not important enough to take care of. Which translated to a lack of respect. And for men (at least for me) respect carried a lot of weight. It is one of the 'big ones,' just like love is for wives.

When I made a point of all this, the liquid started to turn into vapor. Deb had her own things she was holding on to. She hated working. She loved being home on maternity leave. Even though it was only three nights a week, she hated not having energy for the kids, being short-tempered with them, feeling like a failure for not wanting to clean up a house that would only get tornadoed again. We figured that going down from full time manager work to part time shift work (where she could leave work at work) and not having to do childcare would be a better step. But the same difficulties remained. Every time she looked at a calendar and thought "when am I going to sleep? When am I going to be able to homeschool?" and every time she was in the midst of being with the kids and thought "how can I do anything with them hanging on my every move?" the feelings intensified, she felt like she was letting me down, and she had no energy to do the things she so enjoyed while on leave--spending all day with the kids, cooking dinner for the family, having the energy to do what needed to be done around the house. She wasn't divided then, and she was divided now.

I, for my part, have felt guilty that I didn't make more money so that she didn't have to work at all. I wasn't fulfilling my vocation as a provider, at least how I imagined it should be. I had my own feelings of failure, but was trying to keep a perspective that many people are struggling much harder, and that we actually have it pretty good. Plus a nursing job that pays well is a hard thing to give up. But it became clear tonight that what I thought was working, and what she thought would work, in fact, wasn't. What we were in seemed like it should work, but it just wasn't. Otherwise she wouldn't be crying and saying how much she hated having to leave the kids, even for a couple nights a week, and how she just wishes she could be home. She was sacrificing time for money. That is my job, and like it or not, I felt like less of a man for putting her in this situation. The boiling point is when one thing changes to something else entirely. What started as petty grievances had in fact given way to deeper-root things--about our marriage, about how we raise our kids, about work and responsibilities. It was overdue, but I still didn't see a way out of it. So I did what I always do when my back feels like it is against a wall--I went into the other room, and prayed.

It wasn't formalized, wasn't desperate. I had full confidence, after years of seeing God come through for us in ways only He could pull off, that He could do it again, something, anything. I began my prayer as I often do when I need to hear His voice: "Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening" (1 Sam 3:10). With full confidence, again, that God speaks and makes Himself known in the Word, I trusted him to lead me. And so, quite randomly, I opened my Bible to Proverbs 22, and read:

"A good name is more desirable than great riches,
and high esteem, than gold and silver.
Rich and poor have a common bond:
the Lord is maker of them all.
The astute see an evil and hide,
while the naive continue on and pay the penalty.
The result of humility and fear of the LORD
is riches, honor and life.
Thorns and snares are on the path of the crooked;
those who would safeguard their lives will avoid them.
Train the young in the way they should go;
even when old, they will not swerve from it.
The rich rule over the poor,
and the borrower is the slave of the lender.
Those who sow iniquity reap calamity,
and the rod used in anger will fall.
The generous will be blessed,
for they share their food with the poor.
Expel the arrogant and discord goes too;
strife and insult cease.
The LORD loves the pure of heart;
the person of winning speech has a king for a friend.
The eyes of the LORD watch over the knowledgable,
but he defeats the projects of the faithless.
The sluggard says, "A lion is outside,
I might be slain in the street."
The mouth of the foreign woman is a deep pit;
whoever incurs the LORD's anger will fall into it.
Folly is bound to the heart of a youth,
but the rod of discipline will drive it out.
Oppressing the poor for enrichment, giving to the rich:
both are sheer loss."


Every word I read felt as if the Lord was the one speaking them to our particular situation; that is how the Word works:

A good name is more desirable than great riches. 

[Was I idolizing money at the expense of our children's legacy and my family's well being?] 


The result of humility and fear of the Lord is riches, honor, and life.

[I came to him in humility...would he provide?]


Train the young in the way they should go; even when old, they will not swerve from it.

[The energy needed to discipline our children often went to work for Deb. Would we pay the price for nice things later at the expense of our children?]


The borrower is the slave of the lender.

[Was I putting my wife in a position in which she was paying her time to someone else (work), when it was more needed at home?]


The generous will be blessed, for they share their food with the poor.

[Were we trusting enough in God's providence, or being tight-fisted in building up grain silos to store everything?]


Expel the arrogant and discord goes too; strife and insult cease.

[Were we both arrogant in our own ways towards each other, feeling slighted, clutching our hurts and throwing them back in one another's faces?]


The Lord loves the pure of heart.

[I trusted in my motives for coming to Him. Can he make a way?]


The rod of discipline will drive it out.

[We have been struggling so much with our son...has the lack of energy due to Deb working more than needed and laxity towards discipline brought it on?]


Oppressing the poor for enrichment, giving to the rich: both are sheer loss.

[In the end, our time is worth more to our kids and family than our wages. One of us needs to work, but do we both need to? Can it work some other way so that my wife doesn't have to? Or are we giving our time away, resulting in sheer loss?]



I closed by imploring St. Joseph's help again to make a way for me, present an opportunity, something to alleviate my wife's inner-strain. It felt reckless to consider Deb giving up such a good job, or at least cutting way back on hours. 

But in some ways it felt subtly like the contraceptive and abortive mentalities, "Do the right thing. Be responsible. You can't do this." Seemingly sound advice couched in fear and a lack of trust that God will provide. But we live by faith, and so I have assurance that He will make a way for us somehow, some way. Close doors, open doors, Lord I don't care. We trust in you. We are stepping out in faith

I closed my bible, finished my prayer to St. Joseph, and went to bed, thankfully to even have such options to consider to make things better for our family. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses...as we forgive those who trespass against us.

Monday, April 30, 2018

A Bed Undefiled

I've never liked staying in hotels, especially when traveling, and especially when I'm alone. I don't know why; I guess there is an air of collective loneliness, targets of temptation when one is alone. I've stayed in budget inns and three hundred dollar a night five star hotels, but the sterile aura is the same--it is not home, and it is not my bed. I try to stay in monasteries or with friends, even when traveling for work when they are footing the bill. When I do need to stay in a motel or hotel, I try to carry holy water with me (though I forgot it on this most recent trip).

So, I don't like staying in hotels, especially alone. I feel like a target for the devil--not because I'm looking to be unfaithful, or am uncomfortable being alone, but because these spaces tend to hold for me a kind of uneasy spiritual air of everything that ever happened there, like a house that has been smoked in for thirty years where the smell of stale smoke and tar stains on the wallpaper just never really get out.

I'm very sensitive to my environment, as well as inter-personal energy. It sounds strange, but within five minutes of meeting someone new, I almost always either feel repelled or attracted by them; that is, if they have good energy, conversation is engaging and I feel at ease; if I pick up on an uneasy energy, or a disingenuousness, I shy away. This all happens within a few minutes, like a weird Spidey sense, both with people and with places.

When someone decides to have an affair, seek out a prostitute, order porn on Pay-Per-View, hook up at a conference, or engage in self-abuse, many times it happens in hotel or motel rooms. The fact that such places serve as a kind of 'neutral territory,' a quasi-moral DMZ, makes them prime meeting space for potential indiscretions. You've heard the expression "what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas," as if the geographic local or intoxication makes opportunities for indiscretion 'not count' somehow. But we do not live in a moral vacuum; they do indeed 'count' in the moral economy.

Even quote-unquote 'good' sex is shallow, empty, and an affront to human dignity when it is in violation of the moral law--that is, outside the sacred covenant of marriage. In affairs and indiscretions, people use one another--not only their bodies in a counterfeit way, but in the avoidance of responsibilities and suffering in their current situations. Affairs feed on fantasy, much like the strip club or any kind of engagement with a prostitute. Of course there can be emotional affairs that are a different (but no less hurtful) betrayal, even when they are not physical. But physical affairs carry with them a desperate kind of longing to escape--escape one's wife or husband, one's responsibilities, the drudgery of everyday life. They are addicting in the sense that they are exhilarating--sin always is in some degree.

But they can not, by definition, be self-sustaining. They rely on fantasy and escape and a kind of manipulation, even when consensual, because they are self-satisfying. And self-satisfying endeavors always end in dissatisfaction and even disgust eventually.

Whereas the pleasure and misplaced satisfaction in adulterous sex degrades over time, married sex--when it is chaste, open to life, self-emptying, and respects the dignity of the other--has the potential to improve and deepen over time, much like (if you'll excuse the cliche) a fine wine. Scripture admonishes us to "keep the marital bed undefiled" for good reason--sex within marriage is a kind of sacred communion, a mingling of flesh and spirit, that is so powerful that it has the potential to bring forth new life and new souls into existence.

But how can you have sex with the same person for ten, twenty, thirty years and not get 'bored?' How can precluding things like anal sex or oral sex or other aberrations not in accordance with Natural Law be creative? If sex within marriage was purely a physical act, that may very well be true. But anyone who has been married for some time knows that your relationship and communication is the barometer for your sex life. When you are sacrificing yourself for the good of the other, dying to self, communicating and serving one another's needs, sex tends to be 'good' in that it reflects this healthiness. It is mutually satisfying in that each partner does not feel used or exploited for secondary purposes.

Physical, non-verbal communication in the sexual act is deeper than any purely mechanical act could ever approach, and when you've lived with and known someone long enough that you can intuit their moods and anticipate their feelings, that gets communicated sexually in the bedroom via deference and fulfilling the other's needs. When selfishness enters in and is manifested sexually, the other person can usually tell. All without a word spoken.

The Church's wisdom in laying guidelines for sexual conduct, both outside of and within marriage, is only for our good. Monogamous, 'vanilla' sex gets scoffed at in the secular world, but the fact is sex is so much better, more fulfilling, without guilt or remorse, when it is operates chastely within marriage, as it is meant to be protected. Openness to life--removing the tightrope, so to speak in not using artificial contraception--lends itself to plenty of excitement and mystery. Chastity--keeping one's thoughts pure, and concentrating the sexual drive only on one's spouse--is a solid mortar for one's sex life, building a house with brick, not sand. It honors the Creator, and it honors the other. Precluding unnatural sex acts that are so often seen in pornography and mimicked by those that view it keeps things in Right Order--that is, in accordance with Natural Law. And the house is cemented together with love, a love that dies to self for the other, does not use or manipulate, a love that is modeled on Christ's relationship to his bride, the Church.

Adultery, fornication, masturbation,"hooking-up," sexual favors--no one ever leaves these encounters feeling deeply satisfied and fulfilled. They are an empty currency, devalued to the point of buying nothing but addictive self-satisfaction that always comes up short. It doesn't hold it's value, because it was never meant to...because God designed sex to be within marriage.

I'm not sure what any of this has to do with hotel rooms like the one I am currently typing in, but there is a reason we like to sleep in our own beds. It roots us to a place--a home--that we find safety and true rest in. It is reserved for intimacy, the kind of intimacy that cannot be bought or traded with sexual favors with strangers.When the marriage bed remains undefiled, love flourishes, and ages gracefully.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Letter To A Housewife

I have a friend who I have been corresponding with for a year or so who is curious and exploring the Faith. She, like me, was not raised in a religious household, and I have been so edified in her openness to Christianity, coming from a secular Jewish background. She has been reading a Bible I sent her, and we talk from time to time about the things of faith. I am so encouraged by her, and pray for her regularly.

We all are looking for meaning in our existence here on earth. Before I came to faith in Christ, the emptiness and futility of life here on earth was palpable, and I was often filled with despair. Followers of Christ are often chided to having a 'crutch' in belief, but I have found in my own life that without faith, without the transforming power of Christ, it is true: nothing really matters, and nothing makes sense.

But the fact is, through the eyes of faith, you begin to see that EVERYTHING MATTERS. From the smallest detail to the largest life decision--when we are living for the Lord, our lives matter. They matter to Him, and they matter to the world. The smallest act of faith is larger than the greatest secular accomplishment, and nothing escapes His view. The "reason for our hope" can sometimes be hard for Christians to articulate if they do not have a real, meaningful relationship with the risen Lord but instead sit back in the comfortable hollow veneer of cultural Christianity or religion devoid of belief. But once you have encountered the living God, you cannot remain unchanged.

The following is from a conversation with my friend, in which I offer some meager advice on how to see the ordinary things of life, our every day duties and responsibilities, as a way of serving God and finding joy:

"That’s the beauty of Catholic Christianity. Jesus was both 100% human and 100% God. No other religion can claim this. Our humanness and everything that comes with it, including chores, work, the everyday drudgery of life can be transformed and sanctified when given over to His purposes... In the Eucharist, ordinary bread and wine become the actually body and blood of Christ... In the sacrament of matrimony we are given the supernatural grace to live our vows... 
Remember: Mary lived a very ordinary and unassuming life of everyday things: nursing, changing diapers, making a home. And she was the Mother of God!... These were not the things that ‘got in the way’ of the life of faith...they were sanctified through faith. Everything she—and you and I do—matters. St Joseph too worked as a humble carpenter to provide for his family... 
St Benedict has a saying about prayer and work (I will link good article). They go together... Living by faith is not a futile or meaningless exercise. When we suffer, we suffer for the Lord... When we have joy, we give thanks and praise, and eat the fruit of gratefulness, which transforms our attitude and dispositions. But it’s all only POSSIBLE by faith... I would encourage you to set aside a few minutes of quiet time each day to thank God for where He is leading you, and ask very specifically for what you want Him to give you, and He will do it, as long as it is in accordance with His will and good for you spiritually speaking... The next time you have an opportunity to love and serve your husband, remember St Joseph and the Blessed Virgin, the Holy Family. Ask for their intercession in your marriage... The next time you are feeding your boys or doing laundry, offer it as a sacrifice to God who notices all things done in love... 
When you are feeling downcast and lonely, remember our Lord in the garden before his crucifixion. He is RIGHT THERE with you. This is not make believe, this is real life, not counterfeit... I promise you it will transform how you approach even the smallest detail of your life as a housewife. Pray from the heart, be honest, but make everything known to the One who knows you so intimately that He knows every hair on your head... Confess your sins and failings, and trust that you are forgiven before the words leave your lips... 
There is a reason Christianity is a religion of JOY. We have been saved from death and meaninglessness by Christ’s death and resurrection. Hallelujah! 
God bless you"

Sunday, April 15, 2018

The New Abnormal

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” ― Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

Have you ever heard the expression a "Leave It To Beaver family?" I have, but it's always been in a disparaging way. The idea of a nuclear family (father, mother, children) sitting down to have dinner every night or having an otherwise conventional dynamic will often be regarded as an anomaly or alien to how things are today.

Case in point: I didn't have to search far for this little ditty from the bastion of liberal social commentary, Slate ("Non-Traditional Families Are The New Tradition"):

"Christmas is a time of nostalgia for Victorian imagery, ‘40s-style crooner songs, and the idealized 1950s family image of two parents, two kids, and a dog. But if watching the inexplicably famous Holderness family celebrating the corny joys of the nuclear family Christmas is the sort of thing that makes you want to pour a little more bourbon in your eggnog, take comfort in the fact that history is on your side. A new study by the Pew Research Center shows that the majority of American kids under 18 are not being raised in a “traditional” family, defined as two parents in their first marriage. Only 46 percent of kids have the Leave It To Beaver lifestyle; the rest are being raised by single parents, cohabitating parents, stepparents, or even grandparents. That's down from 73 percent in 1960." 

The thing is, there is something attractive about a non-dysfunctional, healthy, joyful, and traditional family. True, I think millennial kids do seem to regard it as a kind of artifact or alien to what they know family to be. Many of their friend's parents are divorced, or divorced and remarried. Some have same-sex parents. Others are being raised by single moms or single dads, or moms with boyfriends or dads with girlfriends.

But I maintain while it might be a "corny joy," there really is something attractive about an in-tact family. And by attractive, I mean it really does tend to attract people. One of Debbie and my favorite things to do still is just spend time at the house of our friends Dan and Missy, who are friends in Christ who homeschool their four kids and are very easy to be around. Some time it is to join them for dinner, sometime it is just to lounge around and be around their company. It's edifying for us and our kids because in our circle, this is 'normal,' though we realize our families are in the minority. It's where we recharge and drink from the well.

That's an example of us as a family spending time with a healthy, joyful Christian family for our own sake. But I think even more importantly is making our own family a place of invitation for that same kind of refreshment for people (especially young people and children) on the outside who may not experience it as commonplace.

Large, vibrant families are a true witness in today's society. Just a few weeks ago we spent an afternoon with such a family of 10(ish) on an invitation just talking and having tea as the kids came and went throughout the house--playing with our kids in the backyard, shooting hoops in the driveway, reading, snuggling up to their mom. In the same way as with our friends Dan and Missy, it was edifying for us to see what a large and faith-filled family looked like up close and personal. Being an example of such a family--what people see--can be a powerful way of ministering just by presence alone, and can open the door to conversations about life, joy, and sacrifice that may not have otherwise been asked. 

For Deb and I, marriage is a vocation, our vocation, and family is the expression of how we live that vocation out. Thankfully we have had good models in our own families of parents who have stayed true to their vows and sacrificed for the good of their children, while recognizing that generational sin is a real thing. (If you haven't listened to Fr. Ripperger's conference on Generational Spirits, I would recommend it, very eye opening.) We have a more-or-less "traditional" setup in our home and respect and honor the authority and proper roles of God, husband, and wife, and it seems to work. There is a reason for it.

Marriage builds a family, and family builds a society. Healthy families = healthy society. If you come from a broken home, abuse, dysfunction, etc, it can be hard to know what is 'normal.' But spending time with people of faith, with healthy families who invite you in to their hearth and home, can help heal that. We should not accept that abuse, dysfunction, divorce, adultery, same-sex partnerships, should be the litmus of the "new normal." In a wounded society, we will need the witness of healthy families, families of faith, joy, hope, and love, to stand out and help provide a marker in the fog for those wandering through the battlefield of family carnage. So, whether you've come from a broken home and are now raising your own family in the unconscious wake of that brokenness, or have been blessed with a lineage of strong and faith-filled generations, we all have an important role to play: modeling our families on the Holy Family, the model for love, obedience, right order, fruitfulness, and devotion.


Thursday, April 12, 2018

The Evidence of Grace

I have often wondered from time to time why this faith experiment of mine has not run it's course. Every since I was a kid, I have had a DaVinci-esqe interest in diverse multitudes. I was never one to follow fads or trends, but I have picked up, put on and changed hobbies, identities, friends, and devotions that numbered in the hundreds until they run their course and are traded in for something else.

Part of me always had a fear, when I became a Catholic at the age of 18, that this was "just another thing," something people would say at 28, "Oh, remember when you were Catholic? How long did that last?" I knew my conversion ran deep, I knew Truth was unchanging, and I approached my Confirmation day with the sincere conviction and recognition that I was being wed to the Church for life. Still, my track record would lend itself to speculation--was it just a matter of time before I would experience doubt, tire of the outfit of faith, and resume the eternal quest of seeking that which remains eternally elusive? Was this really the final destination, or a rest stop on the way? After all, what does anyone know at eighteen anyway?

Twenty years later, though, my faith has not gone anywhere. In fact, my belief in the lordship of Christ and the truth of Catholicism has only firmed and hardened in the mold. I've done my best to conform my life to the Christ's teaching and submit to the authority of the Magisterium, though admittedly with starts and staggers. But even that fact in and of itself contributes to what I would consider the evidence of grace.

The writer Hilaire Belloc famously noted, "As a Catholic, my faith tells me that the Church has a divine origin, but my own experience tells me that it must be divine because no human institution run with an equal mixture of ineptitude and wickedness would have lasted a fortnight."

In applying this sentiment to my own personal life of faith, I have no doubt that the evidence of grace, the working of the Holy Spirit, is apparent in the very fact that I remain Catholic, and happily so. By extension, remaining married in this day and age seems to be no small feat either, and that too, for the Catholic Christian, is facilitated only by supernatural grace--the sacramental oil that keeps the engine from overheating and throwing a piston under stress when we co operate with and dispose ourselves to it. Grace is what sustains our faith under duress, grace is what helps us to bear suffering, grace is indispensable in maintaining fortitude when ever natural tendency in our being is to turn and run from the hard work, whether that be in marriage or in religious devotion.

James Faulkner has a great line in Paul Apostle of Christ: "Men do not die for things they doubt." We're often told that it is normal and natural to doubt from time to time, and while I can appreciate the sentiment, the Christian life cannot operate in the field of the natural alone. We think of the miraculous in terms of supernatural occurrences--a tumor disappearing, a dead man rising. But the transformation of the ordinary, the mundane, the natural, and the base--is this not miraculous in its own right? Is it not a miraculous occurrence to believe--die even--when doubt is an ever-constant temptation of the Evil One sitting on the horizon?

To stay married in the face of duress, the remain true to vows when temptations abound, to sanctify ordinary work and make it holy, to face one's death without fear--this is the sacramentalization and elevation of the everyday. Earthy bread and wine become divine flesh and blood for our consumption and redemption; ordinary water becomes holy, infused with the ability to wash away sins; Oil seals and binds the Spirit in the lives of the faithful anointed. Men and women--ordinary men and women--become holy. And people like me, sinners with lousy track records and a history of fickleness, are able to remain Catholic. I can't quantify it, can't subject it to the scientific method. But it is for me, beyond refute, the evidence of grace...active, alive, and substantiated.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Begin Anew: A Midnight Meditation on the Teaching of St. Francis de Sales

Patience is an elusive virtue for me, and my impatience knows no bounds. Because of this deficiency, I think, I am attracted to people who are patient and kind. My mother has the patience of a saint and is one of the kindest people I know, and both patience and kindness are also two of my wife's crowning virtues. Paul mentions the two virtues in his letter to the Ephesians, "...with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love" (Eph 4:2).

It is maybe that same attraction that lead me to St. Francis de Sales, bishop and Doctor of the Church, who was known for these virtues, among others. It was said that Francis' unusual patience kept him working. When he set off to bring 60,000 Calvinists back to the Church during the time of the Reformation, no one would listen to him, no one would even open their door. So, Francis found a way to get under the door. He wrote out little pamphlets to explain true Catholic doctrine and slipped them under the doors. The parents wouldn't come to him, so Francis went to the children. When the parents saw how kind he was as he played with the children, they began to talk to him. By the time Francis returned home, it is believed he brought 40,000 people to the Catholic Church.

Truth be told I had never read anything by him until a friend tonight sent me some of his writings. It was enough for me to get out of bed in the middle of the night the spend some time with the words of this doctor of the soul, because his words were like a salve for mine at a time in my life where I desperately needed to hear them. It was also neat to learn that it wasn't until became friends with a widow named Jane de Chantal that they mutually edified each other on their respective paths to sainthood--a kind of catalyst if you will.

From St. Francis' Introduction to the Devout Life (in italics; my commentary beneath):

"One important direction in which to exercise gentleness, is with respect to ourselves, never growing irritated with one's self or one's imperfections; for although it is but reasonable that we should be displeased and grieved at our own faults, yet ought we to guard against a bitter, angry, or peevish feeling about them. Many people fall into the error of being angry because they have been angry, vexed because they have given way to vexation, thus keeping up a chronic state of irritation, which adds to the evil of what is past, and prepares the way for a fresh fall on the first occasion. Moreover, all this anger and irritation against one's self fosters pride, and springs entirely from self-love, which is disturbed and fretted by its own imperfection."

We can be our own harshest critic. "Giving way to vexation" would be a good summary of the past few weeks for me. I simply could not figure out my troubled spirit. My zeal had drained from my spirit as soon as Lent ended the way blood drains from someone's face, creating an ashen and pale disposition. How could this happen, I would think, I don't understand it. Me! But like a mirror, the inverse of any such perceived virtues I may have possessed became strikingly apparent--pride, vanity, self-love "disturbed and fretted by its own imperfection."


"What we want is a quiet, steady, firm displeasure at our own faults. A judge gives sentence more effectually speaking deliberately and calmly than if he be impetuous and passionate (for in the latter case he punishes not so much the actual faults before him, but what they appear to him to be); and so we can chasten ourselves far better by a quiet stedfast repentance, than by eager hasty ways of penitence, which, in fact, are proportioned not by the weight of our faults, but according to our feelings and inclinations."

We don't usually think of judges in terms of comfort, but I was comforted by St. Francis' imagery here: a judge who distributes justice "deliberately and calmly," like a father with a steady hand, who can be trusted to have our best interests at heart. Again, I find that I admire this disposition because it is one I do not possess: I am impassioned and impetuous, ruled by my feelings and inclinations. With the measure I live I tend to judge by, and it doesn't bear well especially when holding myself on trial in my own court of law. I often pray, "Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me" (Ps 51:10) asking God for this steadfastness rather than hastiness. I am a lousy judge, of others and myself, but long for a "deliberate and calm" distributor of justice to counterbalance my taciturn and hasty self-condemnations.


"Thus one man who specially aims at purity will be intensely vexed with himself at some very trifling fault against it, while he looks upon some gross slander of which he has been guilty as a mere laughing matter.
On the other hand, another will torment himself painfully over some slight exaggeration, while he altogether overlooks some serious offence against purity; and so on with other things. All this arises solely because men do not judge themselves by the light of reason, but under the influence of passion.Believe me, my daughter, as a parent's tender affectionate remonstrance has far more weight with his child than anger and sternness, so, when we judge our own heart guilty, if we treat it gently, rather in a spirit of pity than anger, encouraging it to amendment, its repentance will be much deeper and more lasting than if stirred up in vehemence and wrath."

Exaggeration is a great tactic of the enemy. It also applies to cognitive distortions to which I am prone. We ignore blessings and goodness, and magnify faults and make gross exaggerated claims. Someone forgets to call and we think "this ALWAYS happens to me," or "so-and-so NEVER does such-and-such." When we fall, the enemy will use this line of reasoning to keep us down and self-condemned. "You always fail. You will never get to Heaven." Etc. Repentance born out of wrath, as St. Francis notes, is not nearly as deep or lasting as one that is gentle with faults and pities because of weakness rather than getting angry.


"For instance:--Let me suppose that I am specially seeking to conquer vanity, and yet that I have fallen conspicuously into that sin;--instead of taking myself to task as abominable and wretched, for breaking so many resolutions, calling myself unfit to lift up my eyes to Heaven, as disloyal, faithless, and the like, I would deal pitifully and quietly with myself. "Poor heart! so soon fallen again into the snare! Well now, rise up again bravely and fall no more. Seek God's Mercy, hope in Him, ask Him to keep you from falling again, and begin to tread the pathway of humility afresh. We must be more on our guard henceforth." Such a course will be the surest way to making a stedfast substantial resolution against the special fault, to which should be added any external means suitable, and the advice of one's director. 
If any one does not find this gentle dealing sufficient, let him use sterner self-rebuke and admonition, provided only, that whatever indignation he may rouse against himself, he finally works it all up to a tender loving trust in God, treading in the footsteps of that great penitent who cried out to his troubled soul: "Why art thou so vexed, O my soul, and why art thou so disquieted within me? O put thy trust in God, for I will yet thank Him, Which is the help of my countenance, and my God."

So then, when you have fallen, lift up your heart in quietness, humbling yourself deeply before God by reason of your frailty, without marvelling that you fell;--there is no cause to marvel because weakness is weak, or infirmity infirm. Heartily lament that you should have offended God, and begin anew to cultivate the lacking grace, with a very deep trust in His Mercy, and with a bold, brave heart."

I tend to make a Big Deal out of things. Everything is a big deal. Of course sin is serious, but how rarely do I lift up my heart in quietness, without marveling? "There is no cause to marvel because weakness is weak, infirmity infirm." Are we surprised we fall? Are we surprised at our weakness? Do we forget that we are sinners? Thank God He strikes us down on our horse before we smack ourselves unconscious on the low-hanging branch just up ahead. "Heartily lament...and begin anew."


Remember the Lord's admonition to witholding mercy to others: "In the same way you judge others, you will be judged." (Mt 7:2) Others yes, but ourselves as well! It can be hard to be gentle with oneself, hard to trust in God's mercy, hold ourselves to a different standard and get impatient and disgusted with ourselves. But it is not complicated either. Let us calmly ignore the Enemy's lies, his condemnations, the voices that say we will never amount to anything and we will always fall. Let's steadfastly put our trust in God and His divine mercy, and cultivate gentleness and patience with ourselves.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Playing For Keeps

My son and I were shooting hoops in the driveway this afternoon. I found the full-sized net on Craigslist and picked it up one night, sweating and bleeding getting it disassembled and in my car to earn my dad-of-the-year award for 2017, because I knew he wanted one. It's been a fun thing to have. I never played basketball growing up besides a pickup game here and there, and know nothing about form, so the two of us are about on the same skill level.

One thing I noticed, though: every time I kept focused on the square above the rim when I shot, it went in. I remembered that much coaching from little league: "Keep your eye on the ball." In contrast, every time I put up a free throw kind of just hoping it would land through the net, sometimes it did and most times it didn't.

St. Paul writes in his letter to the Corinthians:

"Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Well, I do not run aimlessly, I do not box as one beating the air; but I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified." (1 Cor 9:24-27)

And in Proverbs, it is written:

"Let your eyes look directly ahead And let your gaze be fixed straight in front of you. Watch the path of your feet and all your ways will be established." (Prov 4:25-26)
The fact is, we do lose our focus on Christ from time to time. I have, and it can disorienting. It starts slowly...you eye catches something in the periphery, or flits to a distraction here or a thought there. This is how the devil leads us away from our Lord...a little bit at a time, the way frogs are boiled alive before the know the water has gone from warm to scalding. It is how the stage gets set in marriages for infidelity, drifting away a little bit each day, forgetting to connect a little bit at a time, until we wake up one day in separate beds. The important thing is to regain our vantage point--the cross--and bring it back into view. Focus on the cross, focus on the cross with tunnel vision.

We don't always remember the stakes of the game in our day-to-day. Fr. Lazarus El-Anthony, a modern day anchorite in the Egyptian desert does not have that luxury. As he notes in this rare interview:

"In one sense I am utterly alone (in the desert). If I want to talk to somebody, to whom can I talk? There is no one who understands my language. There is no one here who has my past, no one here who knows my thoughts. If I lose my contact with Christ for one minute, there is no one to come to help me. So this struggle I must fight every day to keep myself...balanced on Christ, balanced on the Lord."

All this is a round about way of saying: If you want to score with consistency in basketball, keep your eye on the square, and practice constantly. If you want to win the eternal prize in the only game that really matters, keep your eye on the cross, and pray without ceasing.