Saturday, January 13, 2018

The God Of Second Chances

Every baby is special. Every baby has a story. But the baby my wife Debbie is currently carrying will always be extra special to me, and carries in memoriam for our family a story I hope to never forget, and hope to tell again and again into old age.

The way a spark starts a fire is how the story of our fifth pregnancy and third soon-to-be born child came to be. That spark was a Miraculous Medal we happened upon, clandestinely sitting (planted?) in a pew at St. Jude's Catholic Church in Lewes, Delaware. We were on vacation at the beach, and this was the local church for Sunday Mass.

Upon leaving our pew after Mass, Deb noticed the silver medal. "What is this?" she asked. I don't know where the words came from, but I remember telling her, "I don't know, but it's for you. It was left for you. You take it." I was not all that familiar with sacramentals at the time. On one side was an image of the Virgin Mary, and on the other was a 'T' and an 'M' overlapped. She took it home, and we looked it up, and read the story of St. Catherine Laboure and how the Miraculous Medal, as it was later known, came to be. I had actually visited the Chapel of the Miraculous Medal at 140 rue du Bac and prayed at the incorrupt body of St. Catherine Laboure while in Paris years before, but didn't make the connection til later. Nothing is lost on God.

A week later, Deb's mom died. Deb remembered the story of St. Catherine and how she too had lost her mother in 1815, and how as a child after that tragic event she turned to the Blessed Virgin and said, "Now you will be my mother." Mary as mother became especially meaningful to my wife after the loss of her mom, and she began to wear the medal.

The day of the funeral, Debbie told me, she caught sight of a little girl running at the top of the stairs through the hallway. "Don't run, Monica!" she yelled, presuming it was our youngest daughter who should have been napping. When she got to the top of the stairs, though, Monica was playing in her room, having never left it.

We were not open to life at this point. Debbie was 41, we had two healthy kids, as they say, and I just was not open to more. I was motivated by fear. Deb had always wanted more kids, but didn't push me. We contracepted and also practiced NFP with the hopes of staving off further conception. We had the means and the ability to welcome more children. We--I--just didn't have the will, and exercised whatever control I could to keep our small family intact.

On October 11th, 2016, Deb took a day off from work and went to St. Ann's chapel for Adoration and she heard a voice in her head say, "you will name her Catherine." "Hm, that's weird," she thought. She told me what happened, and also that she was late. We took a pregnancy test that afternoon, and it was negative. "Phew!" I thought. Five days later, though, she took another test which came back positive.

It was a roller coaster of emotions. We weren't looking to get pregnant. By the time we started to come around to the idea, though, we hit another fork in the road. We miscarried at 12 weeks, and felt acute loss and heartache, not relief. It was the week after Thanksgiving, on November 28th. The feast of St. Catherine Laboure.

I wasn't aware of it, but God was melting the hardness of my heart; the Miraculous Medal and our Blessed Mother was the lye doing the dissolving. We confessed our sins in the Sacrament of Penance, and abandoned ourselves to God's mercy. We went on to experience another loss early on (our fourth pregnancy), and grieved then as well, knowing full well that at 42, the door of Debbie's fertility very well may have been closing for good. We regretted being closed to life for the time we were, and were resigned to the consequences of our decisions.

But in May, we took a test again, confirming that we were once again pregnant. We held our breaths and prayed, for weeks and months, and to our delight, the baby kept growing and progressing. At thirty-seven weeks today, we hope to meet him or her in person shortly, God willing.

An innocent medal sitting in a pew. A vision of a little girl. A loss of a mother, and two little souls created and gone to be with their Creator. And then, life.

It's against some odds that we find ourselves pregnant. But to me the biggest miracle is how God transformed our heart--my heart--from a fearful heart of stone to a soft one receptive and disposed to His greatest gift--life itself, and set us in a state of grace. Nevermind it would have been easier to just trust the Lord and His Church in Her wisdom from the start, but sometimes I have to learn things the hard way.

Recognizing her role in our lives, we consecrated ourselves and our entire family to the Immaculate Heart of Mary on the 100th anniversary of Our Lady of Fatima at St. Hedwig's Church in Wilmington. The Lord in His grace gave Debbie what she had been longing for, as her favorite scripture passage goes, "Delight yourself in the LORD and He will give you the desires of your heart" (Ps 37:4): a husband, children, and now also the opportunity to stay home and homeschool. He has filled our cup to overflowing, and even now we pray, "Though he slay me, yet I will trust Him!" (Job 13:15).

Something changed when we abandoned our idols and began to trust. Grace dripped, dripped, dripped, and then broke through the roof. As you pray for, march for, advocate for, and celebrate Life this weekend, remember this little story of God's grace, our unworthiness, and His goodness; our sinfulness, and His mercy.  And please keep us in your prayers, for the doctors and for Deb, as we prepare to welcome the gift He has so graciously entrusted us with, this little ordinary miracle.

"Behold, I make all things new!"
(Rev 21:5)

Monday, January 8, 2018

Apostasy And The Casualties Of War

I came across an article in the New York Times tonight about the UXO problem in Vietnam--more than forty years after the war's end.

"Since 1975, more than 40,000 Vietnamese are believed to have been killed and about 60,000 others maimed by what is known as unexploded ordnance — land mines, artillery shells, cluster bombs and the like that failed to detonate decades ago. Quang Tri Province alone, along the border that once divided Vietnam into North and South, is said to have been more heavily bombed than all of Germany was in World War II. Unexploded yet active remains of the Vietnam War now lie in wait for incautious scrap-metal scavengers or for unsuspecting children at play."

Around the same time as the Vietnam War the Second Vatican Council was convening. As in the war, the Council left acres of unexploded land mines that to this day are being detonated inadvertently by the unsuspecting who step foot on them. We have been walking through acres and acres of landmines--faulty catechesis, perverted scandals, heresy, lack of fervor, liturgical abuse, and deficiency of faith and devotion for the past half century in the wake of modernism and the pall it has cast. I don't blame the Council for the mass apostasy of our day--it has simply made it harder to walk without being somewhat on edge.

I came across the article in my google searches because I was thinking about apostasy, the spectre that seems to hide in every closet, every corner, under every lampstand I encounter these days. The smell is nauseating and unnerving; it gets in your clothes like cigarette smoke. Faith in this age is under siege, and I'm not even talking about the collective faith of Catholics or Christians in America; in the heart of each and every man, his faith is under fire. Someone or something is seeking to wrench it from his being, cause him to lose heart or strip him of faith or consolation, hope and fortitude. My buddies and people I know are lying all around me, getting picked off by snipers, getting legs blown off, getting mowed down by machine guns, losing their souls one skipped prayer, one missed Mass, one self-justifying excuse, one innocent click at a time.

Why do people abandon the Faith? Who will endure to the end? Is it just a matter of time before I join their ranks? Will I lose my children to the age? A friend of mine, a once faithful Catholic and family man, stopped going to Mass. Family members too. People experiencing loss and suffering, instead of doubling down and tying themselves to the mast, gradually stop praying altogether and simply drift away or run aground. For some it's a sin they can't let go of, or a past, or a trauma, or a hurt, or a betrayal, or seeing too much of how the sausage is made. For some it's the old question of why bad things happen to 'good people,' or why God would allow someone they love to suffer, or some earnest but unanswered prayers. I feel like the guys to my left and to my right and in front of me and behind me are just being shredded by machine gun fire, and whose to say I'm not next, my family, my children.

If you want to survive and navigate this cluster-bomb littered modern age, you're going to have to have grit and a tolerance for pain. You're going to have to read, pray, study, and hold on when all odds point towards death. You have to be stubborn too--stubborn enough to keep praying and keep holding onto faith when you have every reason not to--not easily swayed, and ok going at it alone if need be when reinforcements aren't coming. You have to be innocent and you have to be shrewd, resourceful, not ignorant of the cost, and diligent in training. Most will not be saved. If you want to make it out alive, you cannot, CANNOT, let go of your faith. Coupons for apostasy are being passed out at every street corner, in every circular, set to detonate in every landmine laid by the Enemy and those working for him, to blow you to pieces and destroy your faith.

Some days I feel like I am simply that wounded soldier being carried on the back of a comrade, one greater and more selfless and determined to live than I am. He knows where the landmines are, he knows where to step, and he knows how to survive. We are surrounded by bodies being left behind. This is the Lord Christ, and his foot soldiers, the army of saints, that carry me when the threat of an explosive that threatens to destroy my faith is held just at bay. But I have to fight for breath, have to maintain consciousness just long enough to get to the medic, have to fight to live and grit and grind through to come out the other side. I'll never forget him, the one that saved my life and continues to carry me when I falter. I just hope my buddies make it out alive to join me. 

Saturday, January 6, 2018

The Long Winter Road Out Of Depression

I was reading through some old journals today and it really showed just how difficult my twenties were for me. This is an excerpt from a letter written to a friend, dated May 3, 2003:

"You are right; I did go to Maine in January. I wanted to make a fresh start somewhere. My buddy Jason from high school lives in a cottage on the ocean with his girlfriend. He is a farmer. He invited me up for a few weeks. I quit my job at the restaurant, left my apartment in Doylestown, and took him up on the offer. After a few weeks with him I eventually rented a room in a nearby sea-side town. It was FREEZING and I was looking for work. While I was there I began to get severely depressed. I would walk around town, eat in a soup kitchen, and then go back to my room and sit. I had long hair and a beard. I had a lot of time to think, too much time. The effect of Bruce leaving, me leaving the Worker, breaking up with Clare, and not finding what I was looking for in the monastery was beginning to catch up with me. I was experiencing some very dark thoughts and entertained the thought of suicide. I didn’t feel safe around myself. 

One day in late January my mom called and told me my dad was in the hospital again (he was also hospitalized in London a few months prior). He had had another reaction to the antidepressants he was on…he doctor was a quack and put him on way more meds than was healthy…they short-circuted my dad’s brain to the point where he couldn’t process thoughts correctly. I was almost grateful when my mom called because it gave me an excuse to come home. When I got home my dad had been transferred to an in-patient mental health facility in Horsham. He was doing ok, still a big foggy, but well. He joked that is was like “One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest.” He was on the drug addict ward and made friends with all the dudes. 

I thought coming home I would feel better, but I didn’t. I didn’t care that my dad was in the clinic and only visited out of obligation. I didn’t care about much of anything. I would cry for no reason at all. I thought maybe having a job would help and I actually landed a pretty decent job in Doylestown as a counselor at a juvenile detention center for sexual offenders. But I was having a hard time interacting with both the kids and the counselors. I was scared of everything and whenever anyone would say anything all I could do was stare at the floor and try to keep from crying. It was exhausting. After three days, I was too tired to keep up the fronts anymore and explained that I was sorry, I really wanted the job but didn’t think I could keep it. 

And that was like the straw that broke me. Driving home I felt a spinning loss of control and that I was not in control of myself. I wanted to drive the car straight into a tree and had to hold myself back from doing so. When I got home I called several suicide hotlines and felt even worse after that because they couldn’t help. 

That’s when I called Joe. Joe was like my angel. I went to the ER that night and saw a crisis worker, but declined his recommendation for in-patient care because I didn’t have insurance. Joe drove up from DC that weekend and took care of me. I was a mess. I could hardly move and I was crying all the time, but we did rent BET Comedy Def Jam and did little things like run errands that helped take my mind off of things. I was so drained physically that I moved like an old man. My speech was a slur of words because I didn’t have the energy to annunciate. Thankfully I was able to get county funding to see a therapist. I have been seeing her for about 2 ½ months now and it has been a slow road but it has really helped. I got a job as a dockworker at a propane factory –a job where I didn’t have to deal with people so much—and that has been good for giving me a structure and purpose to each day, and is helping me build my self-confidence back up. 

Depression and mental illness runs in my family. My grandmother had it. My dad has it. I have it. The challenges are real, as is the danger. Winter was always a tough time, but really, everything and every time was tough. Making plans was tough, because you never new how you were going to feel or be capable of each day. Working was tough, because your mind and body were always drifting towards atrophy. Friendships and relationships were tough, because you were always pushing and pulling and snapping lifelines. Loving was tough, because you had no love yourself; as Andrew Solomon says, "depression is the flaw in love."

I'm an avid gardner, but there's a reason for that. From the letter:

"When Joe was here and he asked me what I wanted to do, the only thing I could think of was ‘I want to grow seeds.’ So we went to Home Depot and bought some seeds and containers. I watered them every day, and now my lettuce, spinach, tomato and cucumber plants are big. I’m going to plant them outside today. I am grateful to be living with me family because I am not alone with them.""

In depression, there is a feeling of a lack of control--of your mind, of your emotions, of your will; that you are being held hostage by something dark and oppressive, something devoid of love or concern, that won't let you love or laugh or feel joy, something that can't be 2+2=4'd away, because it is irrational by nature and doesn't obey the laws of reason. It can be mild or it can be severe, but it is not imaginary.

While my twenties were difficult in their own right, depression magnified them. You don't know what to do with it, and neither does your family. Prolonged, the quagmire becomes not only concerning but frustrating--people aren't indued with limitless patience and compassion by nature of their frail humanity, even (and maybe especially) people who love you most. Will he ever work? Will he ever move out? I'm not here to judge anyone's capacity to move beyond what plagues them, but I know for me it felt like a real possibility I belonged in a supervised adult day workshop at one point; I literally had no capacity to do anything or be responsible for anything.

Except, that is, for growing seeds. To get out of depression you have to start somewhere, and in digging and clawing to get out, you often have to start small, elementary even. It happens at its own pace and in its own season; you can't force it. For me, the spontaneous decision to grow something--since everything inside of me was dead, it would have to be something external--was the catalyst, the spark that caught the tinder. A funny thing happened--the exercise of the external--putting together the little greenhouse, filling the cups, poking the seeds in the potting mix, watering it regularly--sparked something internal. I regained a bit of a sense of control in my life--not the kind that tries to usurp God's authority and omnipotence, but just enough my taking on of even the slightest responsibility was not in vain. I could be responsible for something, even if it was just some seeds, and something could prosper under my watch. Of course, God makes the sun, the rain, created the seed--but he allows us to co operate and co create with Him. What looked like a 4th grade Biology lesson from the outside was literally the straw I was gripping to keep from falling into the abyss of annihilation.

There's no universal formula or map to make one's way out of the valley of depression. It is different for everyone, because no two minds are alike. But a few things hold in common, I think.

Depression wraps you in the wet blanket of your self. To throw it off, you have to get out of yourself. It is HARD. But there's no better way to do it than to take action. Volunteer. Pray for other people. Do little favors, or visit a nursing home. That can help to short circuit the self-pity, this kind of exterior exercise of the will. You don't have to feel good doing it. You don't have to wait to do it until you do feel good about it. The old Nike adage holds: Just Do It.

Depression can feel like you have no control of your life. Take control by an act of your God given free will...and cede control. Offer up your suffering to the One who holds your life in the palm of His hand. In this way your suffering is not meaningless; it has a purpose. And in depression, everything is purposeless, so this can be an effective antidote. Again, it is an exercise of the will to consciously hand over your life as an offering to God and for others in this way. But it can be redemptive.

Depression eats one from the inside. Again, with the theme of getting outside the self, make use of sacramentals--medals, holy water, blessed salt. God's grace can work through these things, and they might be just the string that holds you to this world when your ship is being battered in the storm. No tool is useless in this fight; you need everything you can get to combat the darkness.

Depression erodes hope. So trust in Hope, against all odds. Stake your claim on Christ's lifeless body on the cross, for you know that Sunday comes three days later and the tomb rolls back and the dead are raised. My dad said it to me in a non-religious context, and I never forgot it: "I know it doesn't feel this way right now, but trust me: it will get better." He was my father, and I didn't believe him...but I trusted him. And he was right. In the darkest night, I held on to that hope.

I did plant those seedlings that I had nurtured in my darkness outside that May, in my parent's rich soil, and they did thrive, and became a symbol for me later that I would always look back to. These days I have a large 400 square foot garden with a tall fence. I haul in compost and mulch with a wheelbarrow, water from rain barrels, and plant and harvest more than my family and I can eat. But I wouldn't even be around to till it if it didn't start with those chintzy little seeds and a little windowsill greenhouse from Home Depot, and the care of a friend to drive down to visit me and encourage me in this little thing.

Don't underestimate your power in being present and 'there' for someone in their darkest night. Don't underestimate the little things, whether it's a package of seeds or a drive with a friend or a letter or a kind word or a sacramental that may be the last little root keeping one's life from eroding away.  Whatever it takes...just don't make a home here in the valley of death. Unlock the car, get on the road...and drive.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Fasting, Parenting, and the Power of 'No'

My wife and I are pretty typical parents: we do our best to model our family on the ideals of our values and our faith--family dinners every night, prayers together, regular discipline, chores, and learning respect--while simultaneously trying to reconcile the fact that we don't always do this well and the reality doesn't always match the ideal. There is a lot of room for improvement, and we just pray we haven't messed our kids up too much and gotten into too many bad habits in these early years.

One of the biggest struggles that applies to parenting, but also extending beyond it to life in general, is exercising that short and powerfully hard little word used to put desire in its place, keep us from what has the potential to be harmful to our wellbeing, and delay gratification for a greater good down the line. 

The word, of course, is 'no.' 

Now I'm going to be the first to admit we are not good at saying no, to our detriment. We don't say no many times because it is hard, and we are tired, and we don't feel like dealing with indefatigable pushback from these two little 3'6" linebackers.  As our resolve is eroded away little by little, we downgrade our 'no' to 'fine' and shell out $5 for a pair of Beanie-boos or ice cream or what have you. It's not the worst thing in the world, but little by little in not holding the line we are setting into motion patterns that are hard to reverse later. Habits are hard to break. 

In the world of personal finance, the inability to exercise spending restraint and not budgeting leads to what is popularly termed 'borrowing from your future self.' My dad taught me about this, and it has stayed with me all these years. 

I'm reminded of the 'pain of no' whenever I am fasting or abstaining. I am probably the worst faster ever. Even with  a relatively relaxed and modified version (Two half meals, one full meal; or skipping a meal), I still a made painfully aware of my dependance on food and the pleasure I derive from eating...when I say 'no' to the act of eating. 

But fasting as a spiritual exercise isn't just about the 'no;' it's also about the 'yes.' They are also intrinsically linked--when we deny ourselves (such as food for a time), we 'make room' for other things (an opportunity to focus more acutely on God and His provisions; to offer up our suffering for the benefit of others; etc). When we as parents deny our children a glut of toys, it is not for the sake of saying No for No's is so they can appreciate more fully what they already have. The pain of denial is unattractive and difficult at first (which is why we don't do it) but can serve a good purpose for future gains.

It goes beyond fasting and toys, though, to the very heart of sin itself. The Devil can work on wearing us down to the point we get so tired and just wanting to be done with the pushback and uncomfortableness. Fasting and prayer are necessary training to say 'no' when the veiled attractiveness of sin presents itself, especially with regards to chastity. My twenties were such a struggle in this regard, since it felt just like a constant and never ending series of 'No's' that were arbitrarily imposed. Little did I know that the more I was tricked into 'giving in' to the sins of the flesh by the Enemy, the harder it is to master yourself and say 'yes' to your future spouse without reserve later in life without baggage. You ultimately lose in the long game when you succumb to the Devil's trickery.

We aren't perfect parents. We do get tired and we do give in. Same goes for our practices in prayer and spiritual disciplines. But it's good to remember that the "No's" serve a purpose for a greater good--No's now have the opportunity to lead to fuller Yes's later. When we see them not as arbitrary denials but tools for greater future good, that could be just the paradigm shift we need to hold the line when the melt downs ensue, the hunger pangs reach fever pitch, or the sin seems especially attractive. 

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Zeal For Your House Will Consume Me

This morning I started reading from the book of the Prophet Jeremiah:

Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, 
 before you were born I dedicated you, a prophet to the nations I appointed you. 
"Ah, LORD GOD!" I said, "I know not how to speak; I am too young." 
But the LORD answered me, Say not, "I am too young," 
To whomever I send you, you shall go; whatever I command you, you shall speak. 
Have no fear before them, because I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD." 
(Jer 1:5-8)

Jeremiah was twenty-two years old when he was called to his task by the Lord. He felt he was too young and too ill equipped for what he was being called to.

He wasn't the only one that felt the impossibility of their human situation or condition:

Abraham and Sarah "I am too old" (Gen 17:17)
Moses: "I don't know how to speak" (Ex 4:10)
Zechariah and Elizabeth: "I am too old" (Lk 1:18)
Saul to David: "You are just a boy" (1 Sam 17:33)

These are just a few of many. In the book of Judges we see Gideon's army defeat the Midianites with only three hundred men, a ratio so disproportionate there could be no doubt that it was by the power of the Lord that they won the victory.

The three hundred were chosen based on the fact that they "lapped up the water as a dog does was its tongue." There are varying interpretations of this, but my inclination is to see these as men who were zealous and committed, kind of rough-around-the-edges, who didn't care what they looked like when they drank.

"Beware the leaven of the Pharisees," Jesus warns (Mt 16:6). If you've ever used stale yeast, you know it is weak in doing it's job. Zeal is the yeast God uses to leaven the loaf. Zeal does not restrict itself to the young or old, the rich or the poor, but is poured out for those who have a heart that "throbs with heat." It is solely inspired by an intense love of God and desire for His glory.

It doesn't exactly consider consequences or appearances, either. David's zeal for and radical trust in the Lord even as a young man prompted him to boldly stand up to and challenge Goliath (1 Sam 17); eat the showbread (1 Sam 21:6); and dance half naked before the Ark with all his might (2 Sam 6). In Jn 2:15, we see the Lord himself overtaken with righteous anger toward those who have desecrated his father's house, driving the money changers out with whip made out of cords, and the disciples recalling David's words in Psalm 69:10: "Zeal for your house will consume me."

When I consider the zeal of a young man like David and how sorely needed it is in our culture today, I look to another young man of our time, St. Jose Sanchez del Rio, who was martyred for the Faith at the age of fifteen when he joined the Cristero uprising in the late 1920's. A story of young Jose struck me as a model for the same zeal that our Lord had in the Temple:

"Jose was outraged by the sacrilegious behavior of his captors who released fighting cocks inside the church, and had them fight in the sacred sanctuary. The colorful fighting birds roamed freely, perching on sacred objects, including the tabernacle. But as soon as Jose saw them, he decided to stop the profanation of the altar. Disregarding certain reprisal from the guards, he grabbed the roosters and cracked their necks one by one.  
After he finished them off, Jose washed his hands with a rag, knelt down and prayed devoutly with a strong and loud voice. He then went calmly to bed. Of this episode, author Luis Laurean Cervantes remarks, "As Christ had cleaned the vendors out of the Temple, he [Jose] had cleaned it of fighting cocks."  
The next morning, when Picazo saw what Jose had done, he was enraged. Picazo wrenched Jose up by the arm and screamed: “Don't you realize what you did? Don't you know the cost of a rooster?!”

Jose replied: “The only thing I know is that the house of God is not a corral nor a barnyard! I am willing to endure everything. Shoot me now so that I can go before Our Lord!”"

We sometimes point to our deficiencies--be it age, ability, or physical attributes--as impediments to doing God's will or accomplishing great things. But the fact is it is very much by these shortcomings that God's power and ability to work miracles occurs. What He asks of us is faith and trust, not ability, even and especially when the odds against us are insurmountable.

In my own life, I have seen miracles and God's power made manifest in the very situations in which I was most powerless, most unable to manifest change on my own, most helpless and most dependent on His grace. That's the point. Sometimes He strips us down to nothing so we don't claim any merit of exacting change on our own. Then He makes things happen.

We trust too little. We have too little faith. When we pray, we don't pray boldly, but with tepidity and hedging our bets. When we try to step out into faith, sometimes we look too far down the road to the impending costs and consequences and reneg. When we see the Lord maligned and His handiwork profaned, we nod or look away.

Jose Sachez del Rio did none of those things. When the Cristeros were forming, he ran headfirst to join them. When the cocks ran wild in the Lord's house, he broke their necks with his bare hands. When he came before his captors, he urged them to 'Shoot me now!' He is a model for me when I think I am too young, or not young enough; too inept, or too scared.; too unwilling to suffer, and too timid to put my neck out for the Faith. For as the Lord said to Paul, "My strength is made perfect in weakness."

St. Jose Sanchez del Rio, pray for us!

Monday, January 1, 2018

When You Are Alone

This afternoon my wife took the kids to her dad's and I had the house to myself. I'm an introvert by nature--not extreme by any means, but I appreciate my alone time. One of my favorite memories from college was leaving parties early and walking back to my dorm room on a Friday night. I liked being out and with friends and meeting people, but appreciated my time alone more.

Since getting married and starting a family, though, I find I do not like to be alone as much, especially at home. I don't just love my wife, I actually like her too, and like spending time with her. And as much as the kids drive me crazy sometimes, I miss them terribly when I am away from them. 

When I was single and in my twenties, I would suffer pangs of extreme loneliness, even when I was around other people. When I would get back to my apartment after being out, a kind of subtle panicky dread would settle in, which is weird for an introvert. I simply felt vulnerable. I felt very alone, both existentially and physically. 

The other day I went out to the chicken coop to give the chickens fresh water. I saw on the side of the run a little part of the metal fencing was torn back, and there was also a baseball sized hole at the base of it; it looked like something, a predator, was trying to get to them. I stapled the fence and blocked the hole, but I realized come spring I am going to have to build a more fortified run for them, as this one was cobbled together rather quickly.

I feel very similar these past few weeks, that something is trying to 'get in,' trying to pull back a part of the fence around my soul or burrow underneath. And that leverage always seems to start with a lapse in prayer, the corner in which the devil seeks to weasel in. 

Since our consecration to the Virgin Mary in October, I had resolved to pray the rosary every day. I had been doing so for the past few months, but every now and then was a night when I was too spent, or to out of routine, to maintain the practice. I could have found the time (we always make time for what we hold as important) but the day just got away from me, and the Christmas break felt like it kind of threw routine off. 

The reality is I got lazy. And that initial 'vacation' from prayer was leveraged from a day to another, and the aversion to prayer increased. Every time I thought about going to pray, something else around the house would seem more attractive--going to the fridge, or searching for something on the internet, or putzing around in the garage. Praying became hard, and in becoming hard, it became unattractive. I was on break after all--a time to eat, drink, relax, and be merry. 

But the Virgin made promises to those who would pray the rosary--all five decades--every day. Not every other day, or five days a week. And I hadn't been doing that. Was it a surprise things have been starting to go slightly downhill in my spiritual life? I had stepped outside of her protection, lost communication, and left the house unlocked as I wandered down the street to take a aimless stroll. 

I was having trouble understanding it too--wasn't it just a couple months ago prayer came so effortlessly? I looked forward to it, and even was up at 2am to pray in the middle of the night when it was quiet. And so pride worked its way in too--how could something like this happen to me? I was exercising my will, my God given free will, but I was directing it down the path of least resistance. When the going got tough, the tough didn't get going. Hell, I wasn't that tough to begin with anyway. It was like walking on one of those moving walkways at the airport and thinking a pace of 8 miles an hour was the normal state of being.

With chinks in the armor, and being alone at these kinds of times, I am realizing there really is no way around, no shortcut--you have to do the work. We have to work out our salvation in fear and trembling (Phil 2:12). That doesn't mean we are saved by works, or we earn our salvation, but it does mean we (I) need to exercise our (my) will when the escalator stops and we are still a mile away from the terminal. We need to co-operate and do our part. 

But that doesn't happen when we turn our backs on those bodyguards who were meant to protect us (the Blessed Virgin, the saints, our guardian angel) and switch our walkie talkies off to go it alone. The devil is so sly, like the weasel trying to get into the chicken coop. He's exploit any weakness (and he knows ours) to get us not to pray and to separate us from the flock, whittling us down until the time is right to present some temptation to sin (as if not praying wasn't bad enough) that looks too good to pass up.

Don't stop praying. I'm writing this to remind myself; even when it is feels meaningless, even when it is arduous, even when it is inconvenient, and even when it gives no comfort. Like love, prayer needs to be an act of the will, not a feeling or a thought or a good intention. The rosary is tangibly powerful protection, and takes 15-20 minutes, which as Fr. Ripperger says, coincidentally, is the minimum amount of time we should be devoting to prayer each day. 

Like Aaron and Hur, who help up the arms of Moses as the Israelites were in battle, we sometimes need people to prime the pump and jump start our spiritual batteries when we have let them drain from not running the car often enough. Once it gets started, it's up to us to do the work to keep things running, to dispose ourselves to be open to receiving God's grace. 

Please pray for me, to keep slugging through and praying even when I don't feel like it, as I'm afraid of what happens if the weasel gets in when I am alone.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

All The Money In The World

Deb and I go to the movies once or twice a year, and we decided to go tonight for her birthday to see Ridley Scott's All The Money In The World. The film is based on true events involving the kidnapping of the sixteen year old grandson of shrewd billionaire oil tycoon J. Paul Getty (played by Christopher Plummer), who refused to pay the ransom for his release.

You can see that Getty's shrewdness comes from a deep wound from childhood, and he finds his comfort in possessions and things, which "don't change" and won't betray him. As the saying goes, "hurt people hurt people." He also literally has so much money that the amount becomes meaningless ("like the air you breathe"), but he ultimately dies of a stroke in his parlor one night. His masterpieces, mansion, and legacy ultimately amount to very little in the end.

The story line, family dynamics, character development, and action scenes in the film were great. Viewed through the eyes of a Christian, though, it read like an obvious modern-day parable:

"Then He said to them, “Beware, and be on your guard against every form of greed; for not even when one has an abundance does his life consist of his possessions.” And He told them a parable, saying, “The land of a rich man was very productive. And he began reasoning to himself, saying, ‘What shall I do, since I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘This is what I will do: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years to come; take your ease, eat, drink and be merry.”’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your soul is required of you; and now who will own what you have prepared?’ So is the man who stores up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.”" (Lk 12: 13-21)

There is a certain tired predictability about riches and worldly fame. In the eyes of the world, it is everything. But in God's economy, and in the lives of the saints, it is the antithesis of a pinnacle of achievement. In fact, it's weight and influence work against a person who holds fast to it, as Paul warns in 1 Timothy 6:10: "the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil," and in Philippians 3:8-10:

"More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith, that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death."

It's almost like two inverses--those rich in the world, and those rich in the eyes of God. J.P. Getty was in the top .001% of society in terms of wealth. But it meant nothing on the spiritual stock exchange. I can only liken it to buying a lie--a compelling, alluring lie. What wealth and riches promises is a lure that tends to hook in the lip of the one who takes the bait. In the film's beginning monologue, the grandson narrates:

"To be a Getty is an extraordinary thing. My grandfather wasn’t just the richest man in the world, he was the richest man in the history of the world.
We look like you, but we’re not like you. It’s like we’re from another planet where the force of gravity is so strong it bends the light. It bends people too."

The holy saints, however, are those who refuse and avoid the bait. They see it as a trap and impediment to the true mission, the true reality of human existence: to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him for ever in heaven. It is the reason we were made. It is the reason why we exist, and in forgetting it amidst the trifles of the world, we forget our raison d'etre.

We were made to be saints. We were made to be extraordinary in ordinariness, rich in poverty, faithful in a faithless world. On the trading floor, we exchange our life in this world for life in the next.

Faith is not pure speculation, though, nor is it reckless. When you know God, the God of the crucified Christ, and forsake all others to trust Him, you abandon yourself to all that is antithetical to success in the world. To be a "one-percenter" in the spiritual economy, you trade status and possessions for the very Personhood of God, to share in His very divinity. 

The mark of a disciple is abandonment, not achievement; generosity, not shrewdness; joy in poverty, not sadness in worldly possessions. What you are given free of cost (Is 55:1) ends up costing you everything (Lk 14:33). The pearl of great price overlooked by so many in the world becomes the only thing worth possessing. All the money in the world amounts to very little in the end for those who are not rich towards God.