Wednesday, February 7, 2018

The Hard Work Of Mercy

Let's face it: for the Christian disciple, the Works of Mercy--those Spiritual and Corporal--can be just that: work. For those who have devoted their lives to it--religious, missionaries, apologists, and those who work and advocate on behalf of the poor and marginalized, it is their daily way of getting their hands dirty, both literally and figuratively speaking. We are called to do the work, as Jesus' hands and feet. Disciples are called to the harvest field to work.

The Corporal Works of Mercy (Feed the hungry; Give drink to the thirsty; Clothe the naked; Shelter the homeless; Visit the sick; Visit the imprisoned; Bury the dead) are a direct imperative of Jesus. It is pretty straight forward in scripture how it impacts our salvation:

“But when the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before Him; and He will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; 33 and He will put the sheep on His right, and the goats on the left.  
34 “Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; 36 naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? 38 And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? 39 When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ 40 The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.’ 
41 “Then He will also say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry, and you gave Me nothing to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me nothing to drink; 43 I was a stranger, and you did not invite Me in; naked, and you did not clothe Me; sick, and in prison, and you did not visit Me.’ 44 Then they themselves also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not [a]take care of You?’ 45 Then He will answer them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’ 46 These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Mt 25:31-46)

Less obvious, and sometimes more neglected, are the Spiritual Works of Mercy (Admonish the sinner; Instruct the ignorant; Counsel the doubtful; Comfort the sorrowful; Bear wrongs patiently; Forgive all injuries; Pray for the living and the dead). They can be uncomfortable to exercise. Especially the first two, since no body likes to be regarded as a 'sinner' to be admonished, or 'ignorant' and in need of instruction.

But these two are especially needed today. Evangelization in the proper sense of the word is bringing the Good News to those who have not heard it. The 'New Evangelization' is really a re-catechization of those baptized who have not had the seed of faith brought to fruition in their lives.

Progressives adopt this work of 'instructing the ignorant' with vigor. They lobby and march, infiltrate and indoctrinate to get their messages to the unenlightened, and work to punish those who do not comply with their ideology. Those who are poorly catechized and who have given themselves over to the world find themselves to be easy targets for such secular 'instruction.' But who will do the work of the Church, that of instructing those ignorant in the faith, and bearing the brunt of pushback when doing the tough love work of admonishing the sinner? Many times, the need for instruction and admonition far outweighs the capacity of those going out into the mission field. Yet, we are still called, and shouldering the weight of that call of Christ may very well be our cross to bear. A joy and a privilege, yes. But demanding work as well.

When reading accounts of exorcists who do the Church's work of casting out demons in the name of Jesus, what strikes me is just how tiring it can be. The time and energy, the physical demands, and the overwhelming numbers of afflicted in relation to those able to help them--it's real work, and demanding work as well. But for those who are on the receiving end of such deliverance, the minister who has undertaken this work has literally saved their life, ransomed them from death, by the power of Christ.

If we don't speak the truth to those who need to hear it, who will? If we don't instruct those who know only the basics of faith and about the gift of salvation, who will? If we don't take the beating and the pushback from those whom we love when we call them out because of our love for them, who will?

I recently was in the position of feeling the need to instruct my father in the Faith concerning the nature of sin and the Church's teaching on Confession because of some erroneous beliefs. It's one thing when you are instructing strangers, but sometimes with our own family it can be very awkward. It was very uncomfortable for me, and I was very reluctant to do so. I literally had to pray hard about it and force myself to obey the urging of my conscience and write him. Because my house was generally in order, I was able to come at it from a place of love and concern, and not judgement or condemnation. But it still took an investment of time and effort and an uncertainty in how he would respond. Thankfully, he was open and grateful for the long email, and it was the kick he needed to get his own spiritual house in order that might not have happened otherwise.

You are the hands and feet of Christ, and hands and feet are made to work and march. Performing the Works of Mercy is our duty as Christians, even when it's a grind and we'd rather not by staying silent or by staying home. We work by grace, propelled by the Holy Spirit, and sustained by prayer. But it's called 'work' for a reason--it takes effort and sacrifice, and opens us up to pushback and disappointment as well. But like Paul, we should consider it a woe to us if we do not preach the gospel, since we are compelled by God to do it (1 Cor 9:16). We need to love our brothers and sisters, our families, and even those we have never met, enough to put ourselves out there an do the work Christ calls us to--the works of mercy.

Monday, February 5, 2018

A Jailbreak For The Prison Of The Self

The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde
We hate in other people what we hate in ourselves. And I will confess: selfishness and self-centeredness is a pet-peeve of mine because I am one of the most self-centered people I know.

I use myself as a test-subject constantly, especially when it comes to writing. There are a couple reasons for this--one, I have plenty of material to work with. Two, I don't have to ask permission to use it. Three, I'm hyper-self aware, which is the other side of the double-edged sword that is self-centeredness, so I'm relatively confident in what I am writing about. Maybe it is the artist-temperament. Whatever it is, it comes with downsides and unique requirements for mortification.

Saint Louis Marie de Montfort spoke of mortification as "the deliberate restraint that one places on natural impulses in order to make them increasingly subject to sanctification through obedience to reason illumined by faith." With Lent arriving in less than two weeks (doesn't it always seem to come at just the right time?), we are afforded a great opportunity to practice what St. Louis de Montfort saw as an absolute necessity for acquiring true wisdom. "Beware of thinking that bodily mortification is not necessary to acquire Wisdom, for Wisdom is never found in those who live a life of ease and who gratify their senses" (RW 172)

We often deceive ourselves that we are being selfless when we set the conditions for how we will serve. "I'll wash the dishes," I say (because I don't mind washing dishes), when I really should be saying, "I'll change the diapers." I'll follow you...but let me say good bye to my family first, bury my father first.

And yet, what does Paul call himself but a slave of Christ. Slaves don't choose how they serve their master, because they are not their own, but owned, bought at a price. There is no self to speak of anymore, there is no subjectivism, only the call to obedience and duty. A disciple who chooses how he follows Christ of his own accord and on what terms is not a disciple, but a fan-boy. You have been bought at a price, and that price is your very life itself.

I had a professor in grad school who introduced himself as a "filthy Thomist." I'm not sure Aquinas was fully appreciated in the Theology dept at this particular school, so I can only assume the self-deprecating comment held a lonely air of ostracization. He was a great professor, but I had been taken with the writings of Kierkegaard and Christian existentialism prior to starting my program and as a post-modern subjectivist fan boy I couldn't appreciate Thomism for what it was. The Summa seemed tight, stiff, musty, overly-rational, and just beyond what I could comprehend.

But my experience of faith--that was a summa in itself. Like Descartes, I thought and I was. Or, as faith would have it, I believed and it was! I was the protagonist in this divine play, the principal actor. Without my assent, faith simply would not exist. I could not worship God for His own sake, but only in relation to myself and my experience. This has been difficult to extricate myself from, this extreme subjectivism. My self-centeredness is wiley--every time I try to pin it down to run an iron spike through it, it squirms out of my grasp, buyoed by this or that appetite that has for its whole life been satiated, or by emitting a piercing cry at the threat of it's demise. For if you lose your self, what do you have left? It's a terrifying prospect, and is not easily crucified.

Kierkegaard's radical Protestant subjectivism came with the price tag of anxiety and dread. The radical freedom and responsibility of our choices in 'leaping to faith' was the underlayment in his philosophy and it weighed on him in his life as well. Experience was everything. I clung to that in my conversion when I didn't know where to 'put' it, what vessel to use to guard it.

Although I do not attend the Latin Mass, it's attraction is starting to make sense to me. In essence, worship is not about you; it is about God. The external orientation matters; the prayers matter; the rubrics matter; beauty, in the objective sense, matters. In the rubble of post-modernism and anti-foundationalism, the liturgy stands as phoenix rising--though of course, that is not really an accurate description, for it has always been and through careful safeguarding and handing on has been preserved. I see the value now (and hope to see a renewal) in Thomistic philosophy as an antidote to a self-centered and subjective culture that has forgotten how to reason, how to worship, how to see beauty, and how to recognize objective truth.

The thing about the self is it gets wearisome. It gets wearisome to constantly serve it as a master, feed it as an appetite, pontificate about it as a subject, and groom it as a pet. Experience is powerful, but it is not a sovereign king. It rots on the vine if its not picked and pressed in service to a greater reality than the self and its finite tunnel vision of existence.

But there is an antidote, an Rx from the Church herself: prayer, almsgiving, and fasting. Sound familiar? These three pillars of Lent help us get out of ourselves, lift our eyes to Heaven and implore Heaven for others, practice mortification, and exercise charity. It always seems to come at just the right time when my self-absorption and obsession with experience has reached boiling point. It is an objective cure for a post-modern subjective disease.

Monday, January 29, 2018

The Stacks Of Error

I took a walk over to the university library on my lunch break this afternoon to do some writing. All the computers in the lab were taken, so I decided to wander among the stacks. I ended up in the religion section on the 3rd floor (big surprise), and as I was perusing the shelves it hit me how much we need the Holy Spirit.

We need the Holy Spirit to guide our Holy Church and keep Her from teaching error. Thankfully we have that assurance, and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it (Mt 16:17-19).

We need the Holy Spirit to change hearts, because all the intellectual arguments and reasons and miracles do not have the power to do that. But the Holy Spirit does have that power.

We need the Holy Spirit to impart the gifts we need to live virtuous lives pleasing to God: Wisdom, Understanding, Knowledge, Counsel, Fortitude, Piety, and Fear of the Lord.

We need the Holy Spirit to heal us from our wounds, both physical, emotional, and spiritual. When a member of Christ's body prays for and over us and healing occurs, it is only by the power of the Holy Spirit--God Himself--that such a miracle takes place.

We need the Holy Spirit to guide us into all the truth (Jn 16:13). Because without the Holy Spirit, we are lost.

I attended a liberal graduate program, eschewing a more orthodox program faithful to Church teaching at the local seminary. I did check out the seminary, though, and I remember meeting with the Dean of the Theology program there and mentioned where I was considering and that it seemed to suit my sensibilities, to which she replied, "but we teach the Truth here." I found her calm statement arrogant and off putting--"what is Truth anyway?" and went with the other program. Given where I was at in my faith life and the formation I had had until that point, it did fit. But just why it fit should have been reason for concern. But I had no one to guide me otherwise.

I had a Jesuit spiritual advisor for a number of years. I didn't know any better. It took me as many years to 'unlearn' how I was advised, because it withheld hard truth and placated me with soft affirmations in my sin.

I read books by Teihlhard de Chardin and John Dear and Richard Rohr and Ronald Rolheiser because it was either eclectic or pushed boundaries or because it was just what was available and I didn't know any better. I figured this was what Catholic was. It wasn't until years later that I learned the books were better off in the trash.

I was so happy when I started working at a Catholic university years ago, but realized later in talking with the students "what is it that makes ___ University Catholic?" the answer was more times than not, "We do service." Even atheists do service. I asked why the National Catholic Reporter was in the library and not the Register, and was ignored. I started to realize something was amiss.

Take, for instance, the life of a new Catholic. It is an impressionable and somewhat vulnerable time. You read everything you can get your hands on. That is why I take such offense at the dissidents and the dangers they pose. If I were fresh in the faith and thinking to myself "wow, what a selection!" of anything with "God" or "Catholic" in the title and just started innocently picking books off the shelf--Hans Küng or Charles Curran--and started your formation there, it would be disastrous. You wouldn't know any better, sure, but without anyone to tell you, "better be careful," or "here, read this instead," it's a spiritually perilous position one is in.

It can't be presumed that just because a school is "Catholic" that it authentically is, or a person who is a priest or religious that they will teach the Truth as the Church understands it. But God can lead us back to truth when we have strayed, lead us back to grace when we have turned away from it, and lead those outside of it to the Church despite all the obstacles and heterodox landmines in the way. By His grace, he did for me, and I give Him thanks and praise for sending some joyful orthodox guides to gradually correct my course and open me to seeing the danger in those who did not hold to correct teaching. Were it not for the Holy Spirit and the mysterious and gentle way He works, I don't know where I would be.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Taking Lust Out Of The Frame

This is going to be a quick n dirty post.

After the birth of our third child last week, my wife and I are probably going to be on a suspension of marital relations for a bit. We've basically had the last nine months to not have to think about cycles or abstinence, and it's been great, but that time is now officially over and we're in a different season now, as Solomon writes, "There is a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing" (Ecc 3:5).

So, a few quick things I try to keep in mind during these seasons, learned over time and with quite a bit of faltering along the way:

1) Take captive every thought (2 Cor 10:5). You have no right to look at another woman and/or entertain any thoughts or fantasies about her. Let me repeat that: you have no right. This is what we mean we say 'taking it (lust) out of the frame'--it simply should have no place to make a home in your heart or mind, there is no room at the inn. We know the words of the Lord with regards to lust and adultery (Mt 5:28). We can admire a woman's beauty objectively but when it descends to a place of sordid ransomed ownership (undressing with the eyes, holding images in the mind for later, etc), that is the delineation into sin, and it needs to be stopped in its tracks.

How? Some pragmatic steps are 1) bouncing the eyes to avert temptation; 2) not going back for 'second looks'; 3) a quick prayer--like notching an arrow in a bow--such as a recitation of a Psalm. My go-to is Psalm 69:2: "Oh God, come to my assistance; O Lord, make haste to help me!"

2) Fasting (Mt 17:21). I never understood the connection between gluttony and lust, thinking that limiting food as a spiritual discipline would invite stronger sexual passions. The opposite is actually true, as St. John Cassian notes, "The man who looks after his belly and at the same time hopes to control the passion of fornication is like someone trying to put out a fire with oil." Fasting helps us to control our appetites, put them in right context, and gives the opportunity to practice self-mastery. In times of separation and abstinence, fasting is a good discipline to keep the mind focused.

You can fast anywhere at any time. Sometimes if I can't do a full on fast, I will simply skip a meal, and not eat in between, say, breakfast and lunch. Or reduce to half of what you would normally eat for those meals as well. Or simply subsist on bread and water or juice for a day once or twice a week. For men, temptations to lust via the urges of the body need to be tempered, and fasting from food (rather than social media, or some other thing) hits straight to those bodily urgings and works to subject them to the will and reason. Living on bread for a day or reducing your meals isn't going to kill you, but it may be uncomfortable. That's the point.

3) Habit. It takes time to get into a bad habit, and it takes time to get out. If you are inclined towards pornography or masturbation during times of abstinence or dischord, remember #1 and #2, but also that the more you feed such things the stronger they grow. You have to starve it. When I was single I would look at pornography online...not all the time, but sometimes. I always figured if I give in this time I would get a good fix and then forget about it. That's not how it works. The more you give in, the more you spin your tires in a mud rut, the deeper it gets. Cut it out, cold turkey, get clean days under your belt, and, moving on to #4...

4) Buck up and take it like a man. I don't think women's biology allows them to fully appreciate just how much men's sex drive is tied to their physiology. There is an almost physical pressure exerted to do what we do as men when it comes to sex; God designed that drive, and it is good in its right context. Without some kind of healthy sublimation, the build up of sperm can feel like it is going to your head. It's going to be uncomfortable mentally, and maybe even physically. That's're not going to die. It also doesn't give you an excuse to go outside your covenant looking for sexual self-satisfaction. But having an attitude of willing discomfort rather than entitled self-serving will help you offer it as a mortification and to grow in chastity. Chastity takes practice, it doesn't come easily thanks to concupiscence. We know what is right, and what we owe God and our wives, and that is continence and purity of mind and heart. So just do it...or rather, don't do it....and take the discomfort as your due. Exercise. Cold shower. Prayer. Fasting. Whatever it takes.

5) Charity. When you are tempted to gratify your sexual desires when you know it is not right, it can help to get out of your self by acts of charity--praying for others, doing housework for old ladies who can't do them otherwise, feeding the hungry or visiting those in prison. Whatever gets you out of yourself is the antithesis of what fantasy and pornography offers, since they are all about getting you trapped in the prison of self-satisfaction. There's no shortage of things you can do to serve the body of Christ in need and get out of yourself.

6) Pray for your spouse. This is good practice at any time. Your job is to help your wife get to Heaven. Withholding love or being a jerk when you aren't getting any doesn't help with that. So, try to be extra nice and attentive, and show love in non-sexual ways. All of the above, and the subsequent discomfort, can be offered up as a mortification for her intentions. Be sure to spend extra time communicating verbally, since you won't be communing with your bodies in that unspoken language, at least maybe not for a time.

For the single man, much of this same advice applies, but maintaining self control may be in perpetuity, should you be a religious or unmarried. Marriage isn't a cure-all for lust; if anything, you have to fight even harder against it, to keep it out of the marriage bed and defiling it. Demons, once given a place in your home or heart, don't leave easily or willingly. Don't open the door for them, don't leave it unlocked, and don't give them opportunity to destroy what is good and of God in your life. Because they will; it's what they exist for.

So, take captive every thought. Fast. Break bad habit and develop good habit. Buck up. Practice charity. And pray for your spouse, offering up the discomfort for their sanctification. Lust is the downfall of many otherwise good men; it should have no place in your marriage, or in your life as a Christian, so be on guard. Remember your purpose, why God made you: to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him for ever in heaven. Lust is a rotten fruit wrapped in a shiny package. Take it out of the frame all together.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Christian Men, Take The Beating

A few months ago I started a book titled The Heavenly Man about Brother Yun, who became "a great fighter and a faithful worker" for Christ under a Communist government that suppressed Christianity. I was deeply moved and inspired by his witness to the Christian faith, and the hardships he endured, to bring Christ to others and in living for Him daily. His zeal, fortitude, and willingness to suffer for the faith and for those he ministered to reminded me of a modern day Paul. Do you recall what he wrote to the Church at Corinth regarding his 'street cred' earned by what he endured?

"Are they servants of Christ?—I speak as if insane—I more so; in far more labors, in far more imprisonments, beaten times without number, often in danger of death. Five times I received from the Jews thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, a night and a day I have spent in the deep. I have been on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my countrymen, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers on the sea, dangers among false brethren; I have been in labor and hardship, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. Apart from such external things, there is the daily pressure on me of concern for all the churches. Who is weak without my being weak? Who is led into sin without my intense concern?" (2 Cor 11:23-29)

On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I was in the hospital with my wife waiting for our son to be born. I came across an essay sharing a perspective on what MLK's legacy meant to the author as a black man living today. I can't vouch for the website or the author, but what he wrote made an impression on me that day for whatever reason and offered a sharp perspective and opportunity for faithful Christians who take to heart the teachings of Jesus:

"They made black people experience the worst of the worst, collectively, that white people could dish out, and discover that it wasn't that bad. They taught black people how to take a beating—from the southern cops, from police dogs, from fire department hoses. They actually coached young people how to crouch, cover their heads with their arms and take the beating. They taught people how to go to jail, which terrified most decent people.  
And you know what? The worst of the worst, wasn't that bad. Once people had been beaten, had dogs sicced on them, had fire hoses sprayed on them, and been thrown in jail, you know what happened?

These magnificent young black people began singing freedom songs in jail.  
That, my friends, is what ended the terrorism of the south. Confronting your worst fears, living through it, and breaking out in a deep throated freedom song. The jailers knew they had lost when they beat the crap out of these young Negroes and the jailed, beaten young people began to sing joyously, first in one town then in another. This is what the writer, James Baldwin, captured like no other writer of the era.  
Please let this sink in. It wasn't marches or speeches. It was taking a severe beating, surviving and realizing that our fears were mostly illusory and that we were free."

When I was learning the Catholic faith, I studied the catechism, memorized prayers, and received sacramental initiation into the Body of Christ. When I was feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, and visiting those in prison after graduating college, I learned how to serve. When I was in grad school, I studied theologians and Church history, and acquired a lot of book and head knowledge. When I was an observer in a monastic community, I learned how to pray, how to work, how to fast, and how to read scripture.

But one lesson I have yet to be taught is how to take a beating. And this is a lesson that I think will be more and more necessary and invaluable in the coming years.

A beating can be, but isn't always, physical. You can endure a financial beating, a legal beating, a social beating at the hands of those trying to break you. Holding firm in the face of such oppression is not easy and requires endurance and fortitude, which we must pray for. But we as Christians who desire to follow Christ to Calvary could benefit from some practical teaching on how to endure in these situations. I have no experience, and I need to learn.

The Carmelite nuns of Compiègne by their calm witness at the time of their beheading helped put an end to the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution. St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher held the line on marriage against state opposition and were martyred during the English Reformation. St. Maximillian and St. Edith Stein died in concentration camps at the hands of the Nazis. The list of those who held the line and endured to the end goes on and on.

For most of us, though, the struggle comes from within, rather than outside of ourselves, and we struggle under the force of our own concupiscence. We succumb to our lusts rather than endure the discomfort of holding our bodies in check. We give in to our appetites rather than deny ourselves a few meals on Fridays. We complain and roll over in bed when we know we are being called to the sometimes arduous task of prayer. We divorce rather than endure the hard work of marriage and reconciliation. We refuse to endure in even these mild sufferings. How, then, can we expect to sustain our bodies under the pummel of fists and clubs?

Men of Christ, if you want to earn the crown of Life, you're going to have to learn mortification. Because if you are following Christ in this life--the same Christ who sweat blood in the Garden, was scourged at the pillar, was humiliated with a crown of thorns, who was forced to carry his own cross, and who died nailed to it--suffering will come. Love must be tough, and only those who endure to the end will be saved (Mt 24:13).

Once you've acquired the book knowledge, learned your prayers, and got your theology down, you might be wise to learn how to take a beating, first via mortification of the senses, and then by taking a stand: for the poor, for the vulnerable, for the persecuted, for the enslaved, for the unborn, for religious liberty, for Christ himself.

Once you learn your lessons, take the beating. Take it for your wives and your family. Take it for your faith. Take it for your brothers and sisters suffering with and for Christ across the globe. Put up your arms if you have to, protect your vital organs, but don't back down, and do whatever it takes to endure to the end. The crown of righteousness in store for you, bestowed by the righteous Judge Himself, awaits (2 Tim 4:8).

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.