Sunday, November 18, 2018

"What I Hate, I Do"

I am the king of bad habits. I think of them like a Whack-a-Mole game at Dave & Busters--you bop one down into one hole, and another just pops up to take its place from another. It may be eating, drinking, gambling, or a myriad of others depending on your proclivities.

Something I see as a bad habit right now that I've gotten into is having my phone by my bed. I don't have a watch or an alarm clock, so I justify this because I need it to check the time and help me get up in the morning. I seem to be especially prone to addictive tendencies, though, so this can create some problems.

I tend to be on my phone a lot. I realize it and I don't even make any attempts to curb it. Part of it is pragmatic (texting my wife, coordinating pickups on FB Marketplace, looking up a recipe, checking my calendar, etc), but the majority of it is not. It's simply habit, and an addictive one as well. I did turn 'ding' notifications on Facebook off, which helped a good bit. But the onus is on me to curb my use, and I simply don't.

All that would be okay, I guess, though we do know the people that invented these things don't even let their own kids use them.  So there's definitely something addictive about these devices, or at least habit forming. But I've quit smoking, which is no easy feat, so I know this I'm able to at least cut down on this as well. But there is one aspect of this bad habit that bothers me the most, and that is this:

The first thing--the very first thing, without pause or exception, I do when I come to consciousness in the morning, when I open my eyes to the day, before I do anything else is...I check my phone.

I'm giving it honor and homage. It has taken the #1 seed at this point. And that is not a good thing.

We are commanded to have God first in our lives, having no strange gods before Him (Ex 20:3). Well, this powerful little device surely is a strange master. Like many idols, it sneaks in and makes a home without you really realizing the place of honor and dependence you're giving it.

My 'first thing'--what I honor the day with--should be indicative of where my priorities are. As Christians, we know what they should be. "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind" (Lk 10:27). Which makes me a two-faced liar. I don't even confess it in the confessional--that I have failed to put God first, failed to love Him will all my heart, soul, strength, and mind. I should be confessing this every month I go, by matter of course, since it is the a priori failing in my life: to put God first.

What I should be doing, is putting my phone in another room after a certain hour, buy an alarm clock to put by my bed, and when I wake up in the morning, give the honor and glory to God in a "first-things-first" prayer, the honor and glory I have been giving to my phone instead. This too would set the tone for the day, for when we put God first in our lives, everything else falls into it's rightful place. It's easy to say I do that, but my actions say otherwise.

So, pray for me. Bad habits can be reversed, but it takes work and intentionality, and I have had so many balls in the air recently I have not been focused enough to attend to it. But maybe that's part of the reason why I am scattered--because I do not have First things first. Idols can be smashed, but it takes replacing fear and desire for control with trust, and that can be hard too.

Lord,  I want to put you first, even in my so-called "busy" life. From the moment I rise and open my eyes, to the moment I lay down and close them, please make Your home in my consciousness. Be my First Thing. Be the light to my eyes. I do not want idols in my life. I want to put You first, even when my actions betray that desire. Conform my will to Yours, so that I am only doing what is pleasing to You. Help keep my priorities in line, and heal me of my faults and addictions. Please...take the seat of honor in this house. I want you first in line.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Suffering And The Divine Will

I have full confidence in the healing power of our Lord and the intercession of the saints to obtain miracles on our behalf. I believe our Lord longs to heal us of our wounds. His public ministry attests to this, as he went out to all the towns and villages, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness while he was alive (Mt 9:35). Not only that, though: he also gave the twelve apostles authority to drive out impure spirits and to heal every disease and sickness (Mt 10:1). Even when others were healing in the name of Jesus who were not part of their circle, Jesus did not prevent them from doing so, saying “whoever is not against you is for you” (Lk 9:49-50).

I have seen it happen with my own eyes, this healing in the name of Jesus. While in Detroit at the Saint Paul Evangelization Institute conference last year, a priest who is involved in healing ministry said to the crowd, "I am getting a word...does anyone have a hand with pain?" Sounds very Pentecostal, doesn't it? I probably wouldn't have believed it if I didn't see it: a man approached him later, and I caught the healing out of the corner of my eye. I saw his hand shaking, and he was healed. Steve, a layman who had been trained in healing by this particular priest, also received a word that there was someone in the crowd with pain in the foot, and hand. A woman with a cyst in her left hand came forward, and was healed--it simply disappeared. The woman with the pain in her left foot was also healed. Nothing is impossible with God.

And yet in the spiritual life it is easy to assume things, assigning our minds to the mind of God, forgetting the word of the Lord who proclaims, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways. As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9). God does not think as we think. He sees everything in its context, in scale, and in its rightful time and place in the divine economy.

The early disciples must have felt that the death of Jesus on the cross was an abject failure, a waste of a holy man and prophet who taught good things and healed many, a lost opportunity to restore Israel and overthrow the Romans once and for all. Through natural eyes, all this is true. And yet it was not the whole story. The suffering of Christ on the cross was necessary for our salvation. There was no workaround, and even if there was, to avoid his fate was in fact a temptation for Jesus in his agony. His prayer is a spirituality unto itself: "Father, if You are willing, remove this cup from Me; yet not My will, but Yours be done." (Lk 22:42).

When it comes to suffering, we as Catholic Christians have a deep theology. Suffering is not an empty currency, and yet no one can escape it. Those who try to insulate themselves from it typically bring more misery upon themselves in the long run. We are all destined for the grave. We think to ourselves, “Because I don’t want to suffer, God must not want me to suffer as well.” It means, in our minds, that something is wrong. And so we avoid suffering and tend towards things that please our senses. This is completely natural. But it may not be the will of God.

When our Lord was explaining to the disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer at the hands of the chief priests and elders, and that he must be killed, his closest confident, Peter, rebuked him, crying “God forbid it, Lord! This shall never happen to you!” It was a natural and human response. And yet Jesus turns to Peter and rebukes him strongly, saying "Get behind Me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to Me; for you are not setting your mind on God's interests, but man's" (Mt 16:21-23).

At the Transfiguration, when Jesus appears conversing with Moses and Elijah, Peter (again) seems to miss the bigger picture. He confidently states that it is good for them to be there, and that he will erect three tabernacles: one for Jesus, one for Moses, and one for Elijah. But a cloud covered them and a voice booms, "This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased; listen to Him!" He and the disciples fall flat, terrified and humbled (Mt 17:1-5).

Our sole goal in life should be to do God’s holy will--in sickness or health, in riches or poverty, in good times and bad. St. Alphonsus de Liguori, in his thin treatise “Uniformity With God’s Will,” recounts two stories of miraculous healings, but with a twist.

In the first, a client of St. Thomas Becket went to the saint’s tomb to pray for a cure for his sickness, and he was indeed cured. But upon returning home he thought to himself, "Suppose it would be better for my soul's salvation if I remained sick, what point then is there in being well?" So he returned to the saint’s tomb and asked for St. Thomas’ intercession again but with a different request: that God would grant him what would be best for his eternal salvation. His illness returned, and it was reported that the client was perfectly content, convinced that God had disposed of him for his own good.

The second story is similar. A blind man prayed to St. Bedasto, bishop, to be cured of his blindness, and he regained his sight. But he too thought the matter over and reconsidered his prayer. This time, he prayed that if the possession of his sight were not expedient for his soul, that his blindness should return. And that is what happened--his blindness returned.

St. Alphonsus states, “Therefore, in sickness it is better that we seek neither sickness nor health, but that we abandon ourselves to the will of God so that he may dispose of us as he wishes. However, if we decide to ask for health, let us do so at least always resigned and with the provision that our bodily health may be conducive to the health of our soul. Otherwise our prayer will be defective and will remain unheard because our Lord does not answer prayers made without resignation to his holy will.”

We don’t need to go looking for suffering, because as long as we live, suffering will eventually find us. But how we respond to it is the make-or-break, what determines our fate. To transcend and be transformed by whatever it is that God sends our way has the potential to give us a deep and abiding peace. When we have mastered being resigned to the Divine will in all circumstances, we can say with St. Paul, “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.” (Philippians 4:12)

Nothing is greater than to do the will of God, to be obedient to His will. He can use everything, and nothing is wasted in the Divine economy, when we dispose ourselves to His will. We pray for healing in our sickness and sufferings and trust with everything we have that God can do it. And yet how much more perfect our prayer when it is qualified by that trusting anguish of Jesus in Gethsemane, when we unite our will with his and lift up our suffering as an oblation--”yet not be will, but Yours be done.”

Friday, November 16, 2018

Subsidiarity and Evangelization

In my line of work, we use something called a CRM system for recruitment and marketing, which is corporate acronymic jargon for Customer Relationship Management. It’s a system meant to automate emails, create customizable templates, and manage prospective customers. The ironic things is, whenever I get what I determine to be a CRM-generated email in my inbox, I immediately delete it without opening it.

Why? Well, for one thing, in my late thirties, I would still make the cut-off for being considered a Millennials, and Millenials are notoriously suspicious of mass-marketing, eschewing logos, slogans, and bright packaging. In fact, they are actively disengaging from direct marketing altogether.

They do, however, respond to user generated content (UGC), one of the few marketing techniques that have succeeded in engaging a millennial base. In essence, it is a shift in focus from marketing to to marketing with--something important to this age demographic. Millennials trust consumer opinions. Authenticity is important as well. Customer reviews unedited by the company (even for grammar or spelling mistakes) are by far the most trustworthy.

I have supported companies in the past that I believed in or that matched my values, companies that I felt valued my business and spoke to me with their message, delivered a quality product that met a particular need, whose customer service department was responsive and personal. The decision to buy a particular product or support a particular business was also made in large part based on reviews and word-of-mouth sharing of people’s real-life experience with the product.

What does any of this have to do with evangelization and the Church?

There are some of the opinion that as Catholics, we should not have to do any “marketing” to attract a new believer base at all. “Let them come on their own,” they reason, “if they want the Truth, they know where to find it. We’re not Protestants, after all.” This nonplussed attitude toward the demographic crisis facing the Church is, quite frankly, a little startling to me. While it is true I believe we are witnessing to a time in which “the Church will become small,” as then Father Joseph Ratzinger predicted, it is also true that “the future of the Church...will be reshaped by saints, by men, that is, whose minds probe deeper than the slogans of the day, who see more than others see, because their lives embrace a wider reality.”

I don’t want to give the impression that the Church is a business, or that we should take a kind of top-down corporate approach in evangelization. Quite the opposite. In my experience, the most effective kind of evangelization is grassroots, personal, and authentic. It doesn’t rely on programming or expensive advertising or top heavy initiatives, but responds to the lived experience of joy, fulfillment, and hope, a visible light shining in the midst of a gray and macabre postmodern environment, among ordinary Catholics simply living the faith with joy and conviction. In the light of such witness, mass-marketing and corporate advertising rings hollow and proves superfluous. But we need people to be such witnesses, to be saints, and that takes a degree of of investment in becoming an intentional disciple of Jesus Christ.

What does this look like in real life? What do “young people” want? They want the Truth, the whole Truth, and nothing but the Truth. They can see through the jargon, and they don’t want to be marketed to by people who think they know what they need or want. They want a more traditional liturgy, the liturgical equivalent of “anti-marketing.” They want to hear testimonies of young people who have woken up to the lies of a secular, postmodern culture. They need to encounter people living the Faith and being public, joyful witnesses.

Although the principle of subsidiarity is typically applied to political and economic systems, the overarching concepts can be applied to the work of evangelization as well. In the Catechism we read that according to this principal “a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to co-ordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good” (CCC 1883).

So what is this “community of a lower order?” In the social context of a subsidariast witness, it is, quite simply, the family. The family is a kind of domestic church (CCC 2204) and the essential building block of society. In the language of subsidiarity, “Authority, stability, and a life of relationships within the family constitute the foundations for freedom, security, and fraternity within society” (2207). The family, therefore, as an “institution is prior to any recognition by public authority, which has an obligation to recognize it” (2202)

St Teresa of Calcutta’s wisdom as it relates to evangelization was simple: “If you want to change the world, go home and love your family.” The family “is called to partake of the prayer and sacrifice of Christ,” and it “has an evangelizing and missionary task” (2205). In today’s day and age, in which half of children are not living with married parents and the nuclear family has become an anomaly rather than the norm, the family as evangelistic witness in opposition to the world cannot be overstated.

Evangelism starts at home. It can be the opening of one’s home to others, to invite them for dinner, to talk or bear their struggles over tea, to share the faith in an authentic and personal way. It doesn’t have to be formal and it doesn’t have to be scheduled. These are things we do as a family to instill an evangelistic spirit in our children and to teach them about charity and love of neighbor.

When I evangelize in the public sphere, I try to employ some basic practices.

I smile, because as St. Teresa of Calcutta said, “A smile is the beginning of love, and joy a net of love by which you can catch souls.” A smile is disarming, and makes approaching or interacting with someone a non-threatening prospect.

I share from a place of authentic experience of encountering Christ, and how he has changed my life. I try to do this in a place in which I meet the person where they are in their spiritual walk, and not make assumptions about them.

I speak to each person not with a one-size-fits-all message, but adapted to their particular experiences and circumstances. After all, St. Paul did not mass-produce a singular epistle and send it to the Romans, Corinthians, Ephesians, and Philippians. He knew to whom he was speaking--their unique struggles and experiences, their culture, their background--and tailored his letter accordingly.

I make every effort to be trustworthy, to not put forth falsehoods or empty promises about what a life of faith entails. If someone does not feel they can trust you, they will not listen to anything you say, no matter how well you pitch it. Many people have lost trust and been betrayed by those in the Church. I must not be one of those people.

I try to follow up periodically with those I’ve encountered, which is simply good business practice. It may be an invitation to attend Mass, sending a book to read or a sacramental, or simply a check in email. It should not feel pushy or threatening, but it should be regarded as an open invitation.

Finally, I pray regularly of course, because any kind of evangelization effort without prayer precludes the work of the Holy Spirit and is doomed to fail. If one is not committed to holiness and leading a life of prayer and integrity, you don’t have your “money where your mouth is,” so to speak. You have to walk the walk as well as talk the talk. “Do as I say, but not as I do” is a sure fire way to turn someone off from the faith. Millennials can smell a hypocrite from a mile away.

Catholicism is not a product that needs to be sold. But the pearl of great price, the teachings and saving power of our Lord, should also not be stuffed into a closet or left to gather dust. The world, especially the young, need Christ, and it is YOU that needs to bring it to them. You don’t need to wait until your parish develops a “program” to address this need, nor do you need permission from the Vatican to evangelize. You don’t need marketing material or a big budget, because you have everything you need in Scripture and the Catechism to proclaim the Good News. You don’t need a CRM or a mass-marketing campaign, you just need to be yourself.

The time is ripe for authenticity and witness. By nature of your baptism, you are called to be a worker in Christ’s vineyard, a light to the world, and, yes, a saint!

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Scrupulosity: "A Thousand Frightening Fantasies"

My seven year old son has a big personality. He is insightful, tender, and sweet. He can also be a fireball, with a larger-than-life presence that can be commanding at times. My wife and I tend to think his emotional state is very attuned and in many instances his acting out is a result of him not being able to express himself adequately. He also can get "stuck in a rut" where his mind sort-of "loops" in a closed circuit on particular thought. This has happened on more than one occasion where he had gotten so worked up and upset he couldn't get out of it, mentally. It was all we could do between bear hugs (restraining him) and calmly reassuring him to bring him back down. Those behavioral-type instances have lessened in the past couple years, but he still gets a bit obsessive about things sometimes. He will tell my wife and I that he "just can't get it out of my brain," whether it's a toy or a fear. The apple doesn't fall far from the tree in our family. My father has mild-OCD and I have some tendencies myself, as well as my son. It's not severe "As Good As It Gets" style, just an inclination towards obsessiveness.

I'm not super type-A though, am more of a generalist than a specificist, so it could have been a lot worse. But being prone to anxiety and having been trained in the art of worrying from a young age (a habit learned from my father), I can say that at the root of such struggles, when you drop down in the well, you find the issue most prevalent revolves around control. Loss of control can be an nauseatingly fearful thing. The Israelites were constantly falling into the trap of not trusting God and preferring the illusion of control that idols and false gods gave them.

I certainly fell into the trap early of the self-reinforcing "worry trap": if you worry about something enough, you can change the outcome. When you worry about something and the bad thing doesn't occur, it reinforces the erroneous thinking that your worrying is what prevented it. And so you learn that worrying can change things, when in fact nothing could be farther from the truth.

I tend to believe that worry, anxiety, fear, and scrupulosity are all cousins. Early in my conversion, I struggled with scrupulosity of the religious type. The priest who instructed me in the faith and the catechism as not a particularly healthy (psychologically, emotionally) man. I remember the fear of being hit by a bus before I would make it to Confession, and living in the fear of Hell. Religion is a poor antidote to such dispositions when it is not accompanied by a real relationship with the Living God.

Over the years such scrupulosity melted away and was not as much a struggle for me. I think this was in large part due to grace, to a deepening prayer life and friendship with the Lord, and also in meeting me wife, who is as Type B as you can get. Loosening the reigns on feeling I had to control everything was aided by having children. I distinctly remember when my daughter was born and feeling overwhelmed at how to raise two kids. I drove to a Wawa while my wife and newborn baby were asleep at the hospital, sitting outside my car smoking a cigarette and just saying to God, "this is too much. There's too much that can go wrong and if I think about it or worry about it I'm going to go crazy. So you take it. I'm turning it over to you." Because we believe in a loving God and Father, we can do this in full confidence that He WANTS to drive for us, wants us to trust Him. His yoke is easy, and his burden is light.

As my own scrupulosity gave way to trust and confidence in God providing for us, I had a friendship with another guy who suffered from religious scrupulosity as well. He struggled with sin, as I had, but also in feeling forgiven. He felt, erroneously, that God was tired of him and tired of his crap and just didn't want to be bothered anymore and that he wasn't worthy of God's love. I gave him information about Scrupulous Anonymous and encouraged him to reach out to them. Unfortunately this also translated into our friendship, and I felt there became more and more distance between us. When I finally brought it up to him, he confessed he didn't feel "good enough" for me or worthy of our friendship. I tried to reassure him that wasn't the case, and while I felt hurt I respected whatever distance he wanted to maintain and we eventually fell out of touch.

There is a kind of hellish neuroticism in scrupulosity that wants the lock-tite assurance of being saved. It is also a tool of the Devil. I think Martin Luther had these kinds of OCD tendencies and this motivated him to develop his theology of justification. As a Catholic, I trust in the mercy of God. I trust that I have been invited to share in the Heavenly Banquet but that this does not depend on anything I can accomplish on my own. And yet, I cannot just sit back and not cooperate with grace. I trust that I am saved, I am being saved, and I will be saved. That freedom, when it trusts and is based in the confidence of a child for his father, and is motivated by love rather than fear, has the potential to burn away the restricting sterility of scrupulosity when it is the presence of the burning Sacred Heart of Jesus.

Salvation is not a human endeavor, but is a gift that rests completely on the goodness of the Giver. Christ as man both human and divine synthesizes this need in our human economy as a counter to the rote Law and the limits of wooden idols. He became fallen man so that we might become divine. Spiritual health requires moving beyond mental obsession or spiritual fixation and invoking the heart, the mind, the body, and the spirit in synthesis. This is what makes us human beings able, in freedom, to fall rather than test-taking robots. The Devil does not want us to trust our Father. He does not want us to live in love, but in fear and servitude. He is a legalistic and will flex the Law if it helps him in his purposes. Don't let him. Relish your humanness, know that you can fall but trust that God is greater than your sin and failings. Exercise your will in a way that offers your choices as a gift, an oblation to God, in loving obedience. Trust in the unfathomable Divine Mercy of God in Christ. If you struggle with scrupulosity, I pray you will grow in love, trust, and confidence so that you can leave behind such mental legalism like a cicada's shell, a snake's skin, and just rest. It can be hard to rest in Love. But once you have, you know there is no place better to be as the antidote.

"I know longer fear God, but I love Him. For perfect love casts out fear (Jn 4:18)." 
--St. Anthony the Great.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

A Glutton And A Drunkard

"Heretics are unhappy men."
--St. Jerome

Once a month I have the privilege of visiting men at our local prison for two hours. I go by myself and pretty much have free reign, a set up I appreciate because it gives room and freedom for the Holy Spirit to set the agenda rather than having a scripted program. Because Christ is present in the Word, I find it typically suffices and is most beneficial to simply read scripture to the men, rather than giving any kind of "life lessons." I do take the opportunity,  if the Spirit leads,  to instruct on Catholic teaching using the particular scripture we are listening to that evening. For instance, when I started the book of Job, I spoke about trial and how God allows us to be tempted, about suffering and righteousness, and about counsel.

Last month I was reading from Romans chapter 5, where Paul speaks of Christ as the new Adam, when a couple of the men brought up the Trinity. I forget how it came up, but I used it as an opportunity to mention that Catholics do not believe in "sola scriptura" (Scripture alone). "We believe in One God in Three Persons, but the term 'trinity' never appears in the Bible. That is because the theology was developed over time and in the context of tradition to help explain this concept." But still, I told them, such a thing is a Christian mystery, and it is easy to slip into heretical explanations...even priests inadvertently do it in their homilies from time to time!

So, you have this complex and precarious idea of three persons in one God that we can use our reason to explain to a certain degree, but something that should also be appreciated and understood as a mystery that can never completely be comprehended by reason alone. This is faith and reason, will and grace, the humanity and divinity of Christ, feasting and fasting...these are the beautiful "both/ands" that marks Catholicism and which we hold and celebrate in healthy tension.

But sometimes tension can be hard to sustain, and we are faced with the temptation to veer harder in one direction or another. The will > grace. Piety > charity. Christ's divinity > Christ's humanity. Justice > mercy. And so on.

I've always been fascinated by the almost immediate cropping up of various heresies not only in the early Church, but throughout Her history, and how the Church has survived them all. Some were more pernicious than others and harder to stamp out; others were a 'close but no cigar' that drove home the importance of getting it right when it comes to Christology, soteriology, and ecclesiology. Two in particular come to mind that I think have something to teach us today: Donatism in the 4th century AD, and Jansenism in the 17th century AD.

Rather than retype a summary of the principal points of both heresies, I'll relate some background from Catholic Answers. Regarding Donatism:

"His predecessor, Majorinus, was elected as a rival bishop in Carthage because the bishops who had elected Caecilianus had dealt leniently with the traditores, men and women whose faith was compromised during Diocletian's brief but bloody persecution, initiated in February, 303. The Catholic Church was outlawed, and professing the Catholic faith was a crime punishable by death. Those who refused to offer incense to Roman idols were executed. Churches were razed, relics and sacred vessels were seized, and any copy of Scripture that could be found was burned.
The traditores were those who renounced Christ to avoid martyrdom or who, when their churches and houses were searched by the Roman authorities, handed over sacred artifacts rather than face death. In light of the many who endured martyrdom rather than renounce Christ, those who survived the persecution (which ended in 305) were outraged that priests and deacons who were traditores were allowed to resume their ministry after being reconciled to the Church through confession. This perceived injustice provoked a popular backlash with grave theological implications.
Majorinus and other leaders of this faction asserted that the sacraments were invalid, even wicked in the eyes of God, if dispensed by a traditor bishop, priest, or deacon. This view expanded to include clergy who were in a state of mortal sin of whatever sort.
By denying the intrinsic efficacy of the sacraments the Donatists claimed the sacraments could be celebrated validly only by those in the state of grace. They required the re-baptism of any Catholic who came over to their sect."

On Jansenism:

"In the wake of the Reformation, theologians turned much of their attention to the issue of grace and to reconciling the efficacy of grace with man's free will. One tradition, the Augustinian, saw the divine role in providing grace as primary and the human capacity to receive and act on grace as real but weak, owing to original sin. The newly-formed Society of Jesus put forth a more optimistic view. Summed up in the writings of Luis de Molina, this view ascribed a greater role to man's free will.
In the universities, where the Augustinian tradition was firmly rooted, there arose a movement against the new Jesuit ideas. Cornelius Otto Jansen, better known by the Latinized "Jansenius," rose to become the spearhead of the conflict. A professor at Louvain University in Belgium, Jansenius became convinced of the Augustinian position in 1619 and eight years later set out to produce a great work presenting the complete thought of Augustine on grace. He was appointed bishop of Ypres in 1636 and completed his work, Augustinus, shortly before his death in 1638. What we know of Jansen shows him to have been a thoroughly orthodox Catholic. Ironically, it is quite possible he would have recoiled at the heresy which was to be his namesake.
His multi-volume work covered the heresies of the Pelagians and semi-Pelagians, as understood by Augustine, and tried to connect Pelagianism, which overestimated man's role in his own salvation and was clearly heresy, with the teachings of Molina and the Jesuits. Though condemned by the Holy Office in 1641, a year after its publication, and again in Urban VIII's 1643 bull In Eminenti, and dismissed by many as nothing but a rehashing of the errors of the reformers, Jansenius's ideas as expressed in Augustinus gained a small but loyal following of Jansenists, who became known for the extreme moral rigorism which is today commonly connected with the name."

When we are living in an age of severely compromised prelates and clerics not in a state of grace, the Donatist heresy helps us to remember that the ex opere operato (by the work worked) nature of the sacraments do not depend on the work of the minister, but on Christ's work. The Jansenist heresy helps temper the rigorism that downplays the need for grace that is so easy to slip into when one starts to undertake practices such as fasting and various mortifications as a way to sanctification. We must never forget that we are helpless without grace.

And yet I don't think most people living uncritically in a post-modern 'meh' age today have the intellectual integrity or fortitude to challenge the doctrinal foundations of Catholicism outright. As a result, the dominant heresies of the immediate culture today are less based in the theological questions about the nature of God and Christ and more in a kind of relativistic cultural passivity, especially among the young. The term Moral Therapeutic Deism comes to mind to describe this phenomenon.

For those inside the Church seeking to change accepted traditional practice--laity and clergy alike--we see a push for a kind of 'relaxing' of doctrine and pastoral approach to issues such as divorce and remarriage, Communion for those living in a state of adultery, and backhanded acceptance of homosexual unions, among others. Charges of rigorism and legalism rise up in such factions when those concerned with the integrity of Church teaching raise the point.

From a practical and personal standpoint, it can be hard to navigate these various moral and theological dangers today when we are not grounded in prayer and the Holy Spirit. So, that's where I start. Always pray, every day. When you let that slide, you open yourself up to the potential to be lead astray. He who does not pray will certainly be damned (St. Alphonsus)

Secondly, strive for balance. Jesus had balance. He feasted and fasted. He picked grain on the Sabbath and still asserted that the slightest letter of the Law will never pass away. He instructed his followers to observe and do what the Pharisees tell them, but not to follow their example.

Thirdly, maintain a sense of humor, charity, and humility. Take to heart when you do fast to wash your face and anoint your head. Don't be grumpy. Give alms generously recognizing everything you have is on loan, and that you can truly encounter Christ in the poor person as much as you do when you receive Him in the Eucharist. Keep in mind the publican's disposition in the Temple, not raising his eyes but striking his breast saying "God be merciful to me a sinner."

Fourthly, be willing to live for Christ as much as you might be willing to die for him. Doctrine is important, and the martyrs went to their death rather than deny Catholic teaching. So don't downplay it. But keep it in it's proper context and don't clean the outside of the cup while neglecting the inside.

Finally, be ok with the tension of mystery. Don't try to figure everything out. Marvel and be awe inspired by the Incarnation, the Eucharist, the Trinity, and Creation itself. Mystery is what makes life worth living.

Don't be intellectually or morally lax, and don't be a rigorist unless Christ calls you to it. For most of us, we would do best to find a balance, always maintaining the integrity of teaching and tradition while making room for grace, forgiveness, and human frailty in how we live it out. We can't save ourselves. We need Christ. We need grace, mercy, and forgiveness. We need Our Lady to help lead us to Christ. We need the friendship of the saints, and the poor to remind us of our duty to the least among us. Fast when you feel called and when called for. Have a dance, and have a drink.  Remember your death, and remember to live.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Blood, Sweat, and Fears

"If your enemies see that you grow courageous, and that you will neither be seduced by flatteries nor disheartened by the pains and trials of your journey, but rather are contented with them, they will grow afraid of you." --Blessed Henry Suso

I was happy to make it to Confession this past Saturday. I try to go once a month. Typically, I leave the Confessional and am awash with a sense of renewal, so grateful for the love and forgiveness of the Savior, a kind of spiritual high that lasts a good while. This past time I went, however, I experienced relief and gratefulness, but it was not long before I got home that I started to feel really...afflicted. It wasn't doubt in forgiveness, or ungratefulness, or the opposite of any of those consolations received. It was, simply, a lack of consolation that is persisting still.

It's hard to recognize what's going on sometimes in the spiritual life when you are just an amateur Joe Catholic, not a professed religious or someone advanced. You can feel like a baby sometimes who has a fever but doesn't know what a fever is, who is coming down with something for the first time. The difficulties are somewhat compounded by the occasional intersection of spiritual and mental malaise, as it pertains to my particular situation.

Though I have had minimal symptoms in the past eight years or so, I am always cognizant of the fact that I have a clinical diagnosis and that my brain may be especially sensitive in ways other people's are not. It is a vulnerability, can be a target. So I have to guard it by due diligence in as much as I am able, and ask my guardian angel to stand watch when I am not able.

My fear has always been that authentic spiritual experiences (not that I go looking for them; I am referring to those I have had) would be offset or discounted on account of being a person who could be labeled 'mentally ill' and have the medical records to prove it. I could do without a "spiritual" experience for the rest of my life if only I was able to be faithful to God and do His will in all things. But that itself--resting and having the assurance of doing His will--is a consolation that is of supreme comfort.

So, my responsibility as a man, a husband, father, provider, etc, is to stay healthy, physically but especially mentally, and avoid to the best of my ability that which would compromise my mental equilibrium. Being in a state of grace and committed to prayer and spiritual exercises has really strengthened and fortified not only my spirit but my mind as well from malevolent influence. That has not always been the case in the past, as my mind is a vulnerable portal for the influence of the Enemy to get a foothold in. It can be scary, too, because if your mind turns against you, how can you fight? How can you fight your own mind, your own self?

Back to that topic of delegitimization of the spiritual on account of the mental. Like I said, I could go without spiritual experiences, but what's hard is when you're trying to discern between the two. My brother (who is not a believer) asked me one time when we were took a break in a shelter while hiking a snowpacked trail in the Green Mountains of Vermont--"how do you know when you're talking to God and when you're just talking to yourself?" Now this was maybe 15 years ago, but it was hard to answer. Today, too, I go back and forth: when am I flooded by the euphoria of grace and love, and when am I, in fact, gripped in a state of mania? When in the depths of the pit spiritually and when I need to make an appointment with my psychiatrist to help counter an extended bout of depression?

I strongly dislike when people who suffer from mental illness will conflate their experiences in these states with the mystical, calling their depression a "dark night of the soul." Depression may be a dark night, but it is a dark night of the mind not the soul. I have experienced, painfully, the former, but I am not mystic and my dark nights of the soul have been the relatively minor (but still painful) periods of desolation.

Desolation, a temporary darkening of the mind and disturbance of the will and emotions, is permitted by God to purify the souls of his followers. It may be caused by the evil spirit or brought on by a variety of other causes, but it is always purposeful, namely to withdraw a person's affections from dwelling on creatures and bring them closer to the Creator.

Prayer is, well, hard. Harder than usual. That doesn't mean you don't do it. My spiritual affect is lower. Fervor has died down to an ember. You're just kind of putting one foot in front of another. It's best, according to St. Ignatius and other masters of the spiritual life, to maintain trajectory and not make major decisions in such a state. I know it's not forever, that it's a period. My faith sustains me in those periods even when I can't feel it. It is a comfort because it is supernatural, from outside myself, not reliant on myself--unlike in depression, when you feel it will never end and you have no mental recourse to tell you otherwise. For great saints like St. Teresa of Calcutta, that period of spiritual desolation, the withdrawal of comfort and consolation, can last years and decades even. It is a proving ground, a furnace of white hot love that sears in it's seeming absence, especially for someone who has grown to rely on God in all things. When He feels as if He is not there, it can be excruciating.

But without desolation, consolation means very little. Without crucifixion, there is no resurrection. It is part and parcel of what we are called to as Christians. So, we have to go through it. We don't always know how long it will last, but that is up to God, since He uses it for His purposes. Our job is to remain faithful, even in our self-doubt about what we are doing and how we are serving Him, when the Enemy fills our head with negative thoughts and temptations, when he seeks to exploit our (my) vulnerable mind to get a foothold. Double down, even if the rituals of prayer seem like just that. Keep praying the rosary, despite the dryness. Keep going to Mass, every day if possible, when it's tough to get there. Keep the faith, when you don't know if you'll come out the other side.

I know there is a reason for this present period of temptation and desolation. I have something I'm dreading coming up next month that I am responding to out of obedience, to what I feel I am called to do by the Spirit, but I don't want to do it. There are little things, little "yes"s in our life, and there are big "yes"s too, and this feels like one of those big yes's. So, maybe this is God's way of preparing me and getting me ready, I don't know. All I know is I trust Him more than I trust myself, and just want to do His will and be faithful. This too will pass, I'm sure. But it's hard when you're in it--the loneliness and desolation, the doubt, the flat dryness, the effort it takes being compounded. Thanks be to God for it all.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

When You Can't Take The Stairs

Many days--most days--I'm really not sure I'm going to make it. I know that sounds overly pious and fatalistic. It does not minimize my hope for salvation. I try to keep my eye on the prize, on the cross. But my sins and weaknesses, my pride, my self, runs so deep, knocking me down as soon as I get back up from the last beatdown, it is very very clear that I am too weak for perfection and that I have no hope for salvation in the slightest under anything I could every accomplish.

That is not a bad thing to realize. We are not meant to save ourselves in the Christian life. "Good people" do not go to Heaven because they are good. The more we realize our dependance on Christ for salvation, the more we will embrace our weakness and (paradoxically, bien sûr) it is in weakness that we are made strong (2 Cor 12:9). I am too weak to do great works, to attain great heights of mysticism, contemplation, or prayer. But I have a guide that I look to and lean on à la place de.

When I was in Detroit this time last year for a conference and was listening to a talk on the stages of divine ascent of a soul, I realized with some sweat on my brow that I had grossly, grossly underestimated the trials and tribulations of spiritual fortitude. By God's grace, I was introduced to the 33 Days to Morning Glory devotion in preparation for consecration to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. I realized that the words of St. Louis Marie de Montfort about her held a key in my hapless helplessness spiritual life: "Mary is the safest, easiest, shortest and most perfect way of approaching Jesus." There may be hope for me yet.

This idea--total consecration--was a complete paradigm shift for me. Rather than trusting in my own way, I would entrust myself (and my family), turn over my rights, to Mary to show me the right way. My judgment can be suspect, my ideas of what I should be doing, how and for whom I should be praying--I wanted to turn it over to someone closer--indeed, the closest--to our Lord than I to show me. So in October of last year, we did just that.

This idea of 'turning everything over,' as I said, was a Spiritual paradigm shift for me, a totally different way of approaching prayer, mortification, salvation. It also renewed in me an interest in a saint I had until a year or two ago had previously dismissed.

Ten years ago I regarded St. Thérèse the Little Flower as an insufferable "nervy" saint whose little infractions in the convent were, in my eyes, a nauseating expression of a piety I simply could not relate to. Now I am beholden to her.

Her "Little Way" may be little but it is not easy by any means. Whenever we accomplish a scrap of virtue in our lives our heel can slip from that spirit of helpless dependency on God's love and mercy to an attitude of self-determination in which we set our sights on Heaven by the sweat of our brow. That's when things quickly fall apart, at least for me. So, to follow this way, it's like a GPS constantly recalculating as you veer off course, trying to bring you back to the road you should be on. I did a "big" thing (fasted for a day, spent a long time in prayer, did a noble work of charity, etc) and suddenly I feel justified. Off course. Recalculating. When we come back to repentance, humility, love, directing the will to good, we are back on course. But that does not come from mighty acts, but a deep trust, one that can meet resistance in being developed.

To remember what it means, how St. Thérèse sought to be united with her Savior, the image of the elevator is what stuck with me. From her autobiography, The Story of a Soul, she says,

"We are living now in an age of inventions, and we no longer have to take the trouble of climbing stairs … I wanted to find an elevator which would raise me to Jesus, for I am too small to climb the rough stairway of perfection. … The elevator which must raise me to heaven is Your arms, O Jesus! And for this I had no need to grow up, but rather I had to remain little and become this more and more."

There's an expression in the business world: work smart, not hard. Of course the teaching of the Church is that we are saved by faith and works, not faith alone. But this is not about "working towards Heaven," but a different approach that leads to radical trust, radical dependency, radical love--because it's all one has. Not everyone can fast like St. Antony or hear Confessions for as many hours as St. John Vianney or write volumes like St. Augustine. But everyone has the capacity to love, to will, to trust. It can take some real "work" to get there, but it is a different kind of work, an inner work, a work that leads to trust and dependency in one's helplessness. The strength of the Little Flower is in her helplessness, her weakness, and her Little Way should give us great hope that Heaven is not beyond us, but that Christ desires we commune with him there forever.

Even if we have to take the elevator.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Upcoming Marriage Talk

My wife and I are giving an online marriage talk on Thursday, Sept. 27th at 8pm. Instructions below if you would like to join us. We will be taking questions and it will be interactive as well as personal. Please join us, below is the write up from the Philly Mercedarians, who are sponsoring this event, which is a precursor to our in-person talk in November:

The St. Raymond Nonnatus Foundation is pleased to announce our next on-line event. Rob and Debbie have a story to tell of their conversions to the faith and marriage. Rob was featured on EWTN's "The Journey Home" with Marcus Grodi. The date is Thursday, 9/27/18 at 8 p.m. To sign up, email and write "Rob and Debbie" in title. Free event on GoToMeeting. See you then!

"Rob and Debbie are lay Catholic evangelists with no formal ministry to their name, but who take to heart the words of G.K. Chesteron, “The most extraordinary thing in the world is an ordinary man and an ordinary woman and their ordinary children.” They have been married since July 2010 and have three children on earth and two in Heaven. Rob recently appeared as a guest on EWTN's "The Journey Home" to tell the story of both his and Debbie's miraculous conversion with regards to the turning away from the use of contraception in their marriage and returning to a state of grace as a result of finding and wearing a Miraculous Medal. Rob and Debbie consecrated themselves and their children to the Immaculate Heart of Mary on the 100th Anniversary of Our Lady of Fatima and have experienced much grace and mercy in their lives and their family as a result. Rob is active in Catholic street evangelization and prison ministry, Debbie is a budding home schooling mom, and they open up their home to guests and visitors regularly as a way of practicing Christian hospitality, strengthening and encouraging Christian marriage, and spreading the Gospel in an ordinary way."

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

The Witching Hour

I don't write about writing much, probably because I don't think of myself as a real writer. I try to keep this blog focused on issues of faith and Christian living. But that always intersects with the ramparts that hold up the theme, and that is the act of writing itself. So it may deserve a little in memoriam post of its own.

Despite the fact that I have been writing without pause for over twenty years, I will usually refer to myself as 'a guy who writes,' and not a writer. Anyone who wants to be a writer sees it as a blessing endowed which holds the key to unlocking their dreams. Anyone who knows what it means to be a writer (ie, one who writes) knows that is is really a curse which has you under compulsion, a compulsion you often beg in earnest to be taken from you. If you find yourself in bed at 3am, consider yourself blessed.

I don't know any other way to be, any other way to live, but I will tell you this: writing is a shameful exercise. We rightfully recoil and seek to cover up someone who disrobes in the public square. And yet those who write, who are urged forward by silent muses, do it all the time, for the public and in the public square, for all to see. It's almost like a koan: if a writer writes his words, and there is no one to read it, does it make a sound? I'm not a journaler. I have no use in writing secret words for my eyes only. I write to be read. The depths of my pride and exhibitionism know no bounds.

Every writer knows they are at heart a kind of fraud, or at least that is the fear. Aren't we all, in some way or another? Don't we all curse the day we were born, at some point? But here's the rub, and the honest truth: I don't like who I am. It took a searing private message from a virtual stranger taking me to task to remind me of this. It was something I was grateful to receive, but man did it sting, and in the best most humiliating way possible. Social media is both a blessing and a curse. I want to do the work God has set before me and honor Him in that, but that public exhibitionism so inherent in writing--about everything--often bleeds into this work, and it shows up there. It's not enough to do something for the greater glory of God in obscurity--I need to make it known to the world. Because everything in life you see as a story, because you see opportunities to write and exhibit and make sense of your life as narrative in everything you do, when you end up doing the work God calls you to, you write about it shamelessly. You hope it is for the benefit of others, you want your light to shine before others, but pride is pernicious, and the capacity for self-deception runs deep. When you are filled with doubt in the dead of night, there's no one to turn to. The people you love most are asleep upstairs, the friends you rely on for building up and support have retired to their respective beds, and the God you serve is silent in the vigil hours. My wife has heard me lament ad nauseum: why can't I be normal? What is wrong with me, and how can you stand to be married to me?

In reading the words of the prophet Jeremiah tonight, I found some solace--not because of anything prophetic on my part, but because his lament is one I have uttered myself.

O Lord, You have deceived me and I was deceived;
You have overcome me and prevailed. 
I have become a laughingstock all day long; 
Everyone mocks me. For each time I speak, I cry aloud; 
I proclaim violence and destruction, 
Because for me the word of the Lord has resulted
In reproach and derision all day long. 
But if I say, “I will not remember Him Or speak anymore in His name,”
Then in my heart it becomes like a burning fire 
Shut up in my bones; 
And I am weary of holding it in, 
And I cannot endure it.
For I have heard the whispering of many,
“Terror on every side!Denounce him; yes, let us denounce him!”
All my trusted friends,
Watching for my fall, say:
“Perhaps he will be deceived, so that we may prevail against him
And take our revenge on him.”

But the Lord is with me like a dread champion;
Therefore my persecutors will stumble and not prevail.
They will be utterly ashamed, because they have failed,
With an everlasting disgrace that will not be forgotten.
Yet, O Lord of hosts, You who test the righteous,
Who see the mind and the heart;
Let me see Your vengeance on them;
For to You I have set forth my cause.
Sing to the Lord, praise the Lord!
For He has delivered the soul of the needy oneFrom the hand of evildoers. 
 Cursed be the day when I was born;
Let the day not be blessed when my mother bore me! 
Cursed be the man who brought the news
To my father, saying,“A baby boy has been born to you!”
And made him very happy.
But let that man be like the cities
Which the Lord overthrew without relenting,
And let him hear an outcry in the morning
And a shout of alarm at noon;
Because he did not kill me before birth,
So that my mother would have been my grave,
And her womb ever pregnant.
Why did I ever come forth from the womb
To look on trouble and sorrow,
So that my days have been spent in shame?"
(Jer 20:1-18)
As Monsignor Pope said of Jeremiah, the best kind of prophets are the reluctant ones.  Nobody should want to be a spiritual director, or a prophet, or a writer, or a guider of souls, or a person of influence. As Msgr Pope writes,

"Prophets suffer because they love and care for the ultimate well-being of God’s people, not merely their present comfort. They suffer because they do not fit into tidy political or tribal categories. They speak for God, who transcends such groups. Yes, although the prophet is totaliter aliter (totally other), the human cost is high, and he comes to resemble Christ on the cross. The prophet’s own notions of grandeur must be crucified. The idea that most people will ultimately accept the truth must be crucified."

This is not my issue, because I am not a prophet or called to that task. But my struggle to simply avoid sin, as well as self-recognition and affirmation, is burdensome. It's the 3am dawns, when you've been up most of the night wrestling and then the embarrassing compulsion of being driven to write about it, as you do with everything, drives home an even deeper truth of how tied you are to the world, how amateur in the spiritual realm, how sensitive to criticism, how unable to sit with tension, how unsure, how weak, how prideful, how effeminate in the need to express and how far from the strong and silent type you are, how unwilling to do what is arduous and uncomfortable, how quick to complain and seek out consolation.

And yet...

And yet despite all that, I do not doubt God's love for me at 3am, steeped in sin and pride and worldliness. As much as I lament with Jeremiah the day of my birth, I also read the words of David and share the quiet acknowledgement of His wonderful deeds, His intricate creations.

O Lord, You have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; You understand my thought from afar. You scrutinize my path and my lying down, And are intimately acquainted with all my ways. Even before there is a word on my tongue, Behold, O Lord, You know it all. You have enclosed me behind and before, And laid Your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; It is too high, I cannot attain to it.

Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence? If I ascend to heaven, You are there; If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, You are there. If I take the wings of the dawn, If I dwell in the remotest part of the sea, Even there Your hand will lead me, And Your right hand will lay hold of me. If I say, “Surely the darkness will overwhelm me, And the light around me will be night,” Even the darkness is not dark to You, And the night is as bright as the day. Darkness and light are alike to You.

For You formed my inward parts; You wove me in my mother’s womb. I will give thanks to You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; Wonderful are Your works, And my soul knows it very well. My frame was not hidden from You, When I was made in secret, And skillfully wrought in the depths of the earth; Your eyes have seen my unformed substance; And in Your book were all written The days that were ordained for me, When as yet there was not one of them.

How precious also are Your thoughts to me, O God! How vast is the sum of them! If I should count them, they would outnumber the sand. When I awake, I am still with You.

O that You would slay the wicked, O God; Depart from me, therefore, men of bloodshed. For they speak against You wickedly, And Your enemies take Your name in vain. Do I not hate those who hate You, O Lord? And do I not loathe those who rise up against You? I hate them with the utmost hatred; They have become my enemies.

Search me, O God, and know my heart; Try me and know my anxious thoughts; And see if there be any hurtful way in me, And lead me in the everlasting way. (Ps 139)

He knows my anxious thoughts. He searches me and knows my heart, even when I don't know it, or am caught off guard by it. He knows everything about me, and has a plan for me--yes, that grand narrative lens I see the world through as a writer, as a Christian, as a sojourner. When I try to keep it in, keep the screen clean, the page blank, my bones groan. Please leave the thorns in my ribs, if they be for Your purposes, since your grace is sufficient (2 Cor 12:9). See in me, Lord, if there be any hurtful way in me. And don't leave my side, even in the dead of night. My sin is ever before me. When I am awake, let me still be with You.

Please pray for me.

Friday, September 14, 2018

The Real and Heavy Pain of Loneliness

I spent most of my twenties waltzing with loneliness. I loved going out but I also loved staying in. I was an introvert with extroverted tendencies. I never turned down an opportunity to party. But I also relished the isolation of my apartment. It was always a strange dance.

When I was out, I got on well with everyone and liked meeting new people. If I met someone who I felt was interesting, I would talk to them one on one most of the night (as most introverts and ambiverts tend to do). Sometimes my mind would get away from me though, as happens in manic-depression when you're not completely healthy--getting too excited, talking too fast, drinking too much, thinking too much.

When I was in a depression and out with friends, it was pure pain. I was a bear to bear around, sensitive to the slightest criticism, prone to tears, scared of was not fun, and neither was I. Mental illness is a huge stress on relationships and friendships. People don't know how to handle you, you push them away when you want them close and pull at them to come close when you want to be alone. You make them walk on eggshells. You make loving you...tough.

When I was in, in my apartment, I was often happy to be alone. I did not feel a compulsive need to go out, was generally comfortable with myself. When I was manic, for my own good, I would shut up in my apartment during the worst of it. I figured, keep it contained. I would write ten hours a day and chain smoke cigarettes and watch movies and do projects and not sleep. I didn't need drugs or alcohol because the euphoria that comes with mania was enough, like something from another world.

When I was depressed, though, the pain was acute and searing. One Friday night after a crash (the crash into depression after a period of acute mania) I curled up into a ball and just laid for hours by the inside of the door, bereft of comfort. The pain was as physical as it was psychic, like stab wounds. It was the closest I had come to desiring death.

These moments are "never real, and always true," as the artist Antonin Artaud once said when asked about one of his drawings. The pain is real, it is not imagined, but it is a defection, the "flaw in love" as Andrew Solomon called depression. It is also a chicken and egg type scenario: the more depressed and inward you draw, the harder you are you love, the more you self-alienate, the harder it becomes to make and maintain friendships, etc. It takes a strong and sensitive person to love someone with mental illness because it is not easy.

But even if you are not mentally ill, being alone without a partner in this life is hard. I think that's important to acknowledge. There is an existential loneliness many people experience, not just on account of faith (we are not made for this world), but also in its absence (the God shaped hole that refused to be filled by anything but Him). "It is not good for man to be alone," the Lord says in Genesis (Gen 2:18), and "two are better than one because they have a good return for their labor. For if either of them falls, the one will lift up his companion. But woe to the one who falls when there is not another to lift him up" (Ecc 4:9-10).

When I had no job, no car, no mental equilibrium, and had just been hospitalized after getting hit by a car, I was at a low point. But that's exactly when I met my future wife. It was a good proving ground. Heck, if anyone can love and accept you in that state, that's worth it's weight in gold. We had also been praying for our respective spouses before we knew one another, and God in His omniscient ways, knew exactly what we both needed. Although one can be lonely with a spouse in the midst of a marriage, this has not been the case for me. My wife was a godsend, because in my case at least, the Scripture is true: It is not good for man to be alone.

My loneliness these days is not acute in the slightest. When I feel it most it feels like a dull headache, a heavy thud, and it is in the context of faith--although we have friends and support systems, partners and confidants, we all ultimately answer to God alone. We walk to Calvary alone. I know my God is with me, but even sometimes He can feel absent, not to mention those I used to be friends and party with and even those I used to worship with, though new friends have stepped in. When you start to really follow Christ, things in your life tend to prune and be culled. It is often during these times that consolation comes the way it came to Christ by way of Simon of Cyrene, who helped Jesus shoulder his cross on the way to his death.

Those who are in Christ still experience loneliness; it is a human emotion, a human experience. It can even work to our benefit spiritually, if it makes us more reliant on God and to love Him more. Christ experienced it as well in a way, in the Garden of Gethsemane, being sorrowful unto death while his friends slept in his hour of need.

But we can also do much as Christians to help be Simons to those who are in danger of collapsing under the cross of loneliness, to be Veronicas wiping the bloodied holy face, to be Johns and Marys at the foot of the Cross. We can visit those who are shut in, befriend those who could use a friend, write letters to prisoners...the options and opportunities are endless to bear one another's burdens. There are many who suffer, and there is much we can do, even if it is little things. We may not be able to take off the heavy blanket of loneliness in their lives, or even in our own, but we can rest knowing that He never leaves us nor forsakes us, even when He feels far from us. For the person of faith has the assurance of being a beloved child of God, who need not be anxious for anything, who can rest in the bosom of the Savior, remembering the words of the prophet Isaiah:

"Can a woman forget her nursing child 
And have no compassion on the son of her womb? 
Even these may forget, but I will not forget you. 
“Behold, I have inscribed you on the palms of My hands; 
Your walls are continually before Me."

(Is 49:15-16)

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Bread Alone

I have been fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays since the scandals broke. We know we are dealing with demons in the Church, and that in scripture sometimes prayer needs to be accompanied by fasting, as the Lord says, "this kind can only be driven out except by prayer and fasting" (Mk 9:29) And so it is good for discipline but also necessary for reparation.

By God's grace, though, I don't notice the hunger as much as I may have fixated on it in the past. Something is happening, there is something in the air, and all around me people are rising up to what God is calling them to, even as many fall away and no longer follow, or remain tepid and static.

I get very sad sometimes. We stopped by a carnival type festival the other day in our town. There were rides and things for the kids, food vendors, people selling things. Normally it would just be a nice afternoon, but I was in a somber kind of mood and don't generally like crowds to begin with, so I was put off a little. As my wife mentioned one time when we were at the kitchen table one night talking about the end of days, "it's like everyone is walking around, like that show "The Walking Dead." You try to explain, you try to say 'wake up!' but they won't be roused from the immediacy of the here-and-now. There is nothing wrong with enjoying things like food and entertainment. But at Mass this morning in the epistle, the words of the Apostle took root, and it made sense:

"I tell you, brothers, the time is running out. From now on, let those having wives act as not having them, those weeping as not weeping, those rejoicing as not rejoicing, those buying as not owning, those using the world as not using it fully. For the world in its present form is passing away." (1 Cor 7:25-31)

In Adoration the other day, I had a strong experience of wanting nothing but the Lord, like air, like I would suffocate without him even for a second. I knelt on the floor and closed my eyes and for a while was just taken over by my helplessness, my need for Him, to cleave to Him during these times. Later, it came to me as I was in bed the scripture in John 4. Jesus has met a Samaritan woman at the well, asks her for a drink, and when she scoffs that he has nothing to draw the water, he replies:

“Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again; but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life.” (Jn 4:13-14)

She wants that water. She does not want to thirst again.

Not long after this episode, his disciples find him and urge him to eat something. But he replies,

“I have food to eat that you do not know about.” (Jn 4:32) 

So the disciples were saying to one another, “No one brought Him anything to eat, did he?” Jesus said to them,

“My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me and to accomplish His work." (Jn 4:32-34)

In fasting, we are training our bodies, as Paul says, "I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize." (1 Cor 9:26-27) It's not that food is not important, but when bread is all we live for, we are blinded to life behind the curtain, the spiritual reality of life beyond the world. Fasting brings us in line with that reality. Dostoyevsky knew the power of bread, but more so the power of Christ to give meaning beyond bread:

“Christ knew that by bread alone you cannot reanimate man. If there were no spiritual life, no ideal of Beauty, man would pine away, die, go mad, kill himself or give himself to pagan fantasies. And as Christ, the ideal of Beauty in Himself and his Word, he decided it was better to implant the ideal of Beauty in the soul. If it exists in the soul, each would be the brother of everyone else and then, of course, working for each other, all would also be rich. Whereas if you give them bread, they might become enemies to each other out of boredom.”

I do not want to live for bread alone. I do not want to thirst again. The good news is in being baptized in Christ and into his death, we are brought into his life, since "man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God." (Mt 4:4) The Eucharistic bread, His true blood, sustain us, just as the waters of baptism wash us clean and dispose us to receive them and subsist on them.

St Catherine of Siena lived on the Eucharist alone for the last few years of her life. St Catherine of Genoa lived through the fasting times of Lent and Advent on only the Eucharist. St Joseph Cupertino lived for 5 years without food apart from the Eucharist. Blessed Alexandrina da Costa spent 13 years without food or drink but for the Eucharist.

This is truly miraculous of course, but we should not be surprised, those who are in Christ and see with eyes of faith, that life is more than bread! When we skip a meal we would think our lives would end from the way we act. But we are not trained, we are carnal, and so we suffer by way of softness. But the coming days will be days of hunger, both materially and spiritually, and we would do well to prepare, to train our bodies as Paul exhorts, but also to rely on the One who sustains us: God alone.

I still get sad when I am in crowds sometimes. I don't mean to be a curmudgeon when it comes to fun distractions. I feel very alone, but take comfort in Christ and that he often got away from crowds to be alone; that he enjoyed a wedding feast, ate and drank with his friends, but also spent 40 days of fasting as well to be undergo testing in preparation for what He was being called to. That he extols the virtue of going into your room and closing the door to be alone in intimacy with the Father. That he would rise early and go to a lonely place to pray. And it reminds me again that there is more to life than bread, than bread alone.