Friday, March 27, 2015

Beauty Will Draw Them In

I have heard it frequently said that we must evangelize through beauty, and I wholeheartedly agree. My definition of beauty is a broad one.  Actually, beauty has been of great interest to me since I was a child.  I have always been able to see beauty in everyone, some feature, some sign, some unnamed energy even.  Have you ever looked at the face of an elderly person and seen someone more beautiful than a painted runway model?  Have you ever encountered a difficult person and somehow despite their seemingly purposeful mission to hurt you, you have seen a salvific beauty there? Beauty is truth, and truth beauty.  We should meditate on these words often.  Creating interest in the Catholic life is something we all want to do, and I'm grateful that God has provided us so many and various beautiful helps.  If these earthly things are but a minuscule foretaste of Heaven, then we are in for unspeakable ecstasy if we are blessed someday to see the Beatific Vision. 

This is what most Catholics and even many seculars mean when they refer to the beauty of The Catholic Church.  Soaring Cathedral ceilings, the unspeakable beauty of The Mass, the pageantry that our Lord fully present in the Eucharist deserves.  Few people can resist the smells, sounds, and vibrations in the air that are experienced during the Mass.  If you don't find this beautiful, you may not like Heaven very much, since the Bible and Tradition tells us that Heaven will be nonstop worship of God. The Mass, in a very real way, is Heaven on earth. And to think, you can have it every single day, no matter where you are in this world. 

I can think of few things as beautiful as serving others.  This is what we were conceived for -- to help, hold, feed, wash, instruct, and love the other. 

Our Blessed Mother is beauty personified.  No one knows exactly what she looked like on earth or now, as Queen of Heaven.  In my heart and my dreams she appears as a healer, a mother, a friend, sometimes very young and sometimes, her face etched with pain. 

The sorrow of Mary has its own tragic beauty.  Anyone who has mourned a loved one, or suffered deeply in any way, should cling to Mary.  She is not a distant icon.  She is as close to you as you allow her to be, beloved Mama of the boy Jesus, the woman who carried Jesus inside of her for nine months, felt his kicking inside of her, and finally watched him slowly die on a cross.  She can take your pain, too, and share the burden of it with you.  Hers is not a superficial beauty, but a supernatural one. 

Life is beautiful.  FIghting for life is our mission as the Body of Christ, because one of the tenets of our faith is that every life has dignity and beauty.  The least among us is not always a beautiful child awaiting adoption.  Sometimes the least among us is what the secular world calls a blob, or a parasite, or a "product of conception." To us, this life is beautiful, because God made it and endowed it with His presence from the second of fertilization. 

Laughter is beautiful.  God wants us to be joyful, silly and easily fascinated like little children.  Many of us are just about beaten down with pressures and pains.  If we can show the world joy in spite of that, then truly we are witnesses of Christ's redemptive love. 

Peace is beautiful.  Keeping silent instead of having the last word.  Protecting someone else when it will reduce your own popularity to do so.  Nurture peace in your own heart instead of discord, competitiveness, and jealousy. 

So many times, what the world calls ugly is really beautiful.  Beauty, as we have heard ad infinitum, is in the eye of the beholder.  This is true in the Catholic life.  As the beholder, you have the opportunity, the responsibility, and the God-given gift to see beauty where others are limited to only seeing deformity, disability, weakness, and imperfection.  The secular world has fooled itself in to believing that beauty is something that man can make! How silly and prideful we are! How arrogant!  How fervently you should pray that your eye can see the beauty of the all knowing, all powerful God's hand in every creature rejected by this dark, cynical, materialistic world. 

Evangelize through beauty?  Yes! But don't put beauty in the one box that you are comfortable with at this point in your spiritual journey.  Let Christ show you, through His words and through humble receiving of the Eucharist, how very near to you true beauty is, and how far above you you have convinced yourself it resides. 

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Prodigal You Love -- Review of the book by Theresa Aletheia Noble, FSP

Before I moved to Ohio and began my conversion process, I knew more fallen away Catholics than active, adherent ones.  Catholicism in New York City and the surrounding suburbs appeared to be strictly a childhood religion that people abandoned as soon as they left the restaurant after their Confirmation party.  A good number of Catholics I knew still wanted very much to marry in the Catholic Church and have their own children receive the Sacraments therein, but weekly Mass was OUT of the question, too big of a demand on their time and their wallets. They resented the offering plate heartily, and disagreed with many of the Church's teachings, especially those that Protestant ecclesial communities have long since caved on like abortion, contraception, and extramarital sexual relations.  

Noble's book, The Prodigal You Love, deftly weaves the author's own spiritual journey to the fullness of the faith with an instruction manual on how to invite your own friends and family  members back to Catholicism without being too heavy handed, nor so passive that you seem not to care a whit for their souls.  

One theme Noble covers that I see almost every day is the Catholic challenge to the fallacy that one's religious beliefs must needs fly out the window once a certain level of education is reached.  The false choice here is: you can be an intellectual or you can be religious.  Pick one.  This is so obviously inane to anyone who knows the history of the Church, her contributions and the contributions of her members to science, to art, even down to the initial model of the university.  But many laypeople and secularists buy into this, and the poorly catechized Catholic may begin to feel self-conscious when her religious faith is seen as the only stumbling block in a room full of serious and sophisticated, politically correct folks attempting to justify the latest aberration of the natural law. The fact of the matter is that if you know the WHY behind the Church teaching, you need never feel awkward amongst ANY group of people, regardless of how progressive and anti-Catholic they show themselves to be. 

What do both "sides" need to find, according to Noble?  Humility.  She writes:
"Humility is a virtue that is not afraid to play in the dirt.  The very word derives from the Latin word for dirt or soil, humus. . . humility speaks regularly to God, as one would with a friends, but also sees clearly that God is above human understanding. . . Everyone has dirty toes; the humble person is just aware of it." So Noble suggests that we approach our loved ones with humility if we ever hope to get a response in kind.  If the friend or relative feels like you are simply saying "My way is right and yours is wrong," he or she is likely to have a less than gracious response.  Author Theresa Noble states, "We need to become humble because our false selves do not know how to evangelize; they are too busy focusing on themselves!" 

One of Noble's most intriguing formulas is, "Establish trust, attract, then challenge." Now how many of us have that completely backwards in our attempts to evangelize? I know I see it on an almost daily basis! Armchair apologists are starting with the "challenge" and it is NEVER received well by the person they are seeking to evangelize! How could it be? How will you draw someone into The Church if you seem as arrogant and intolerant as the world does? Then you are no different from the world, so what is attractive about you and your religion? Remember: Jesus is attractive.  He is love. He is beauty.  If you are being rejected, you are not showing enough of Jesus; you are showing yourself.

Noble tells us from experience that if a fallen away Catholic is very much into New Ageism, secularism, Eastern practices, or a charismatic Christian community, they may not have ears to hear you because they believe they are being "fulfilled" where they are.  Until the novelty wears off, you must be patient.  Noble says, "We have a responsibility to share with our loved ones the beauty of salvation within The Church, wherever they may be in their spiritual journey.  We do this with words if possible, but sometimes we are called to communicate it in other ways, namely by the witness of our lives . . . our faith speaks when WE live it to the fullest, when we abandon ourselves to God's plan." 

I loved Noble's book because she touched on the theme of unconditional love, which is a constant thread in my writing and in my life.  Having lost my mother and suffering from complicated grief syndrome, I wasn't quite sure why I wasn't getting any better.  What I was missing was the unconditional love my mother offered me, and I didn't think anyone else did. Noble points out that the people we are trying to evangelize must see our sincerely unconditional love. "If our love for others is contingent rather than unconditional, it will most likely lead to a breakdown in our relationship with that person. The root of the difficulty often lies in a lack of respect for the free will of the person we love . . . . shown through manipulation, by ceasing contact as a kind of punishment, or showing constant displeasure with the person, believing our disapproval will change him or her.  When we fall into manipulative tactics, we can be sure that this typically ineffective behavior grows out of a desire to control another person, which does not come from love. . . although it can certainly be said that God doggedly pursues our souls, he does so in complete respect for our free will."

The most poignant and important section of the book for me is the one on prayer (and in fact, Noble provides an addendum with some beautiful, key prayers  at the end of the book).  She establishes that prayer DOES make a difference, and is an essential part of evangelization, perhaps the cornerstone of it!  Here Noble recalls C.S. Lewis' idea that God created us so that we would be able to make things happen through both physical and spiritual action, or prayer.  "When we pray," Noble writes, "we are opening a door for grace.  We can count on this reality, just like we can count on opening an unlocked door if we push it open."

In the past, I have reviewed and recommended several books for the seeker.  But if you are looking for a book to aid you in evangelizing someone who is NOT seeking right now, but to whom you would love to give the gift of the fullness of the faith as manifested exclusively in the Catholic Church, then this book is a necessary tool for you.  Noble's style is friendly and readable, but extremely well-researched.  Parts of the book serve as an ideal examination of conscience, one in which we must participate before we go about the business of trying to get ourselves involved in someone else's spiritual life!

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Lemons and Moons, or "How to Love"

When my grief counselor asked me to explain why I felt the loss of my mother so acutely, I couldn't come up with my own language for it.  It was all so natural and obvious to me.  She was my mother! But not everyone has a mother like my mother, I learned, so first we had to define and discuss the relationship, and then we could delve into the ramifications of its earthly end.  My therapist asked me to describe the relationship dynamic in one sentence.  Still, the words would not, could not, be my own.   I gave her an old saying I remembered; maybe it was Chinese--I didn't recall.  But it fit: "My mother gave me the moon; I had asked for a lemon." 

That really was it in a nutshell -- the overgiving, the extra mile, the details of my life and my feelings and my health that never slipped her mind.  Any need I had became a need SHE wanted to see fulfilled, and then some. My mother knew how to talk to me -- never with yelling or impatience -- that makes me simply shut down like a computer in sleep mode -- but always from her heart, and WITH her heart, not with her own expectations of her own needs as an ulterior motive.  

It occurs to one that this is a Christlike love, always based in truth, always exactly what we need exactly when we need it, and always more than we could ever imagine.  So many of us are trudging through life just hoping to leave here with a lemon, and Jesus wants to give us the moon.  

My mother's possessions were increasingly meaningless to her after she reached her late fifties.  If I admired something of hers, a piece of jewelry or a blouse, she'd ask, "You want it?" I would protest, but she would often force it on me.  There was no property line between "hers" and "mine" on her map.  I don't think I could even begin to understand that until I met my husband, and I learned that I could give that kind of love, too, not just revel in receiving it.   Parenthood should bring us there, should be the tutorial on selfless, BIG love.  For most parents I think it is.  For some, sadly, it's not, and selflessness remains a foreign concept and an untried practice. 

The truth is, we Catholics are ALL called to love each other in this way.  And learning THAT is where the sin of presumption crumbles and falls to the ground.  Any thought you have that you are a straight shot to Heaven because of earthly displays of reverence, numbers of Rosaries prayed, adherence to moral laws, observance of holy days, just flies out the window when you ask yourself to answer with brutal and complete candor:  Whom do I love? REALLY love?  My husband and children? A few friends? Siblings? Even the tax collectors and Pharisees do that much! And HOW am I loving them? Conditionally? That is not love--that is loving the way they make me feel, loving what they can do for me and how they can enhance my life. 

Do you offer unconditional love to all your brothers and sisters in Christ?  To every person who bears the Imago Dei? Do you recognize the dignity and the lovableness of every single person around you, every beautiful sacred soul you encounter during your day? How on earth can we achieve this? Maybe we can't on earth, you answer.  This side of Heaven, I'll never love my ex-wife, you say.  I'll never love the men on death row.  I'll never love a member of ISIS. I'll never love an active homosexual, parading around in blatant disobedience to God.  I'll never love an anti-Catholic bigot. Maybe in Heaven I can do that, but not here, not without God perfecting my soul first! But we are called to be perfect, as our Father is perfect.  Can't achieve that with strangers? Okay . . . 

Do you even offer unconditional love to your spouse and children? Your parents? Your siblings and closest friends? How would they answer that question?  Do they feel that your love is unconditional and over the top? Do they feel that your love is spilling over the brim of their cup, showing them the heart of Jesus that YOU embody as a Catholic? 

On my first night of RCIA, I was so ready and eager that I was practically jumping out of my skin.  I had my notebook and pen, my Bible, my Catechism.  We assembled at the long conference table and prayed.  Then, after we all introduced ourselves and gave a little background, Sister began the first "lesson." On a piece of paper, we were to answer the question: "Who is God?" I looked around the table, waiting for the rest of my group to have a reaction.  Who is God?  What kind of question is that? I'm here for the Catholic stuff! I know the basics already! I've read the entire Bible! Twice! Come on, let's get to the saints and the incense and the blood and guts of the theology! I'm ready!

But I wasn't ready.  Sister Ann Marie and Father Tom showed me that in short order.  To undergo "conversion," was not just a matter of signing my name and changing my title. It was about learning what love is.  To correct the errors of Protestantism, we didn't look at a chart showing the differences, what was lopped off after the Reformation, and how many denominations exist today, no--we had to go right to the root.  "Who do you say I am?" Who is God?  You say you want to serve God?  Who is this God you want to serve? Shouldn't you know? Do you know God as well as you know your spouse? The gal you're dating? Your best friend?  Do you understand that "God is love" is not simply a maxim written on posters in Christian schools all over the country?  This is the God, the only God, Being itself.  In fact, I think the statement has more impact in reverse: "Love is God." All good things are God.  All goods are from God and of God.  Any good you see in anyone, even if that person has committed many evil acts, is of God.  There is something of God in that person, and that person automatically gets love from God's followers.  That's the rule.  That's Catholicism.  

So if my neighbor asks me for a lemon, he should get the moon.  It all sounds beautiful, you say, until your neighbor is a hostile fellow who is quite possibly mad and perverted, and you wouldn't hand him a lemon with a ten foot pole over an eight foot fence, no less give him "the moon," whatever that means. Life, lived on the average Tuesday, with its many challenges and cheats, disappointments and drama, seems somehow like an unfair testing ground for this "love" stuff.  It seems more like a battlefield than a lovefest.  Well, that's appropriate, because we are all in a battle, every day of our lives, but it's not a battle against each other, it's a battle FOR each other.  To save souls, not to win against them. To do better by our neighbor, not to do better THAN our neighbor. 

The mistake we make is the mistake I made that first night of RCIA. We want to do what we see as the "big" stuff, the heavy lifting of Catholicism, defending dogma with our super bionic knowledge of Ludwig Ott, chairing five different committees at our parish, or, God forbid, but yes, we have all seen it, looking down on all the right people.  The practice of religion is much more elementary, as God Himself has told us: caring for widows and orphans.  And not just by slipping a check into an envelope.  That's the lemon.  The moon is when you go to your neighbor's mailbox and put an unsigned "thinking of you" card in it, and  a few flowers from your garden. 

Flowers for your enemy? Yes and no. The flowers are for God, and from God.  Give more than you can bear to give -- and you will be refilled over and over again.  

Then ask God for the moon, and see what happens.  Wow.  Get back to me with what He does next, because, my friend, it will be nothing short of miraculous. 

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Nothing Compares To You

Of the many things I appreciate about the Catholic education my children have received here in Ohio, one that is pretty high on the list is the schools' endeavors to educate parents who may have been poorly catechized or who may not even be Catholic themselves.  Starting when our kids are in Kindergarten, we parents are assigned pages in the kids' religion workbooks to read and sign.  In the upper grades, a two sided ditto comes home explaining the meaning and significance of different parts of The Mass and of other aspects of Catholicism.  This past week's from my daughter's teacher was an explication of The Eucharist. I don't know how these items are received by other parents, but I am greatly encouraged by them.  The gesture shows me that the school's administration is cognizant that some parents who sincerely want a solid Catholic education for their children may not necessarily have gotten one themselves--and that they are offering reminders for those who may be taking the miracles and wonders of our unique and beautiful faith for granted. 

As I read the material on The Eucharist, I thought about my daughter's First Holy Communion, the realizations she had, that she was actually going to have Jesus inside of her body, that she was responsible for making sure that her soul was in a state worthy to receive before she did so, and that this, the Eucharist, was not only the high point of The Mass, but truly the foundation for our faith, as it is Jesus Himself.   As a convert, I shared her enthusiasm.  After all, I had only been Catholic a few years myself.  It is my hope that our children never take in stride that they are privileged to be offered the life-changing gift of The Real Presence that we have in our Church.  

The full knowledge of what we are receiving, of WHOM we are receiving, comes to us at different times.  Surely always at the elevation, the consecration, or in adoration, but at other times as well.  Last Sunday, our pastor delivered a homily that was so passionately pro-life that there were more than a few tears shed in the congregation, including by the priest himself.  His voice broke as he implored us not to be bullied by the world into believing that our understanding of the sanctity of every life was somehow "shoving our morality down their throats." Later at home, I pondered the Mass in its entirety.  When I was a Protestant, it was all about the sermon.  I came ready to learn, almost ready to take notes! But now as a Catholic, even as I sit dabbing my eyes after a moving homily, or rush back to my car to write something down after Mass that Father said, that is NOT the main attraction.  I'm there for Jesus.  My heart still pounds as I approach the altar to receive Him on my tongue!  And then my prayers -- they fill my head -- for what will I use this medicine?  How will Jesus act in me this day, this week? There is simply no substitute for Jesus Himself, hidden in that little host, but bigger and more important than anything that could happen to me ever or has happened to me ever in my life. 

A lot of Catholics I know, myself included, enjoy Protestant devotions and writers now and then.  It occurred to me that I have a pattern, though.  They never hold my attention for very long.  Something is missing.  I don't speak here of theological error, for there is plenty written that is solid and in agreement with the tenets of Catholicism.  What is missing is that dimension beyond -- beyond the Bible, beyond the physical, beyond a "good word" given to a preacher, no matter how wonderful of a man he is.  I'm always left wanting because they don't include, nay, can't include, any mention of the power and enormity of The Real Presence.  Even as I read an article or devotional that is just smashing in its style and right on target in its theme, by an author whose writing makes mine look like a high school entrance essay, I find myself wanting to edit it to include The Eucharist somehow.   I'm not so interested in asking 'What would Jesus Do?'  I want to talk about and hear about what Jesus IS doing right now, and that is waiting.  Waiting in the Tabernacle for you and for me.  And offering.  Offering Himself to us, to participate in his singular and world-altering sacrifice again and again.  Humbling.  Humbling Himself, the King of the Universe, Being Itself, That and Whom Upon Which Everything else sits and hangs and depends, and He is THERE waiting for you, available DAILY not just to sit with and pray before and talk to and cry to, but there for you to consume.  He will become a part of you, body and soul, heart and voice, in your bloodstream. 

If you are a Catholic who has forgotten or somehow lost your sense of the absolute and mind-blowing phenomenon of The Real Presence, remember it's never too late.  Jesus is not limited by time or by your vagaries.  He is there, and will continue to be there as long as there is a Catholic Church, and that, my friends, will be forever, because the gates of Hell will not prevail against our Church.  Do you want to know Jesus better?  Have a better relationship with Jesus?  One that is more personal?  Do you want to know what He would do? How He would act in your life if He could?  Joining with Him, flesh to flesh, blood to blood, soul to soul, is the way He has given us to do just that.  Don't wait another day. 

Monday, October 13, 2014

Breaking Body

Who is The Church?  Who is the Body of Christ?  Who belongs?  A temptation exists to spend so much time answering these questions correctly and identifying who is with us and who is against us that we miss out on membership ourselves.  Some of us are so busy counting heads, checking purses, and securing a good seat that we are missing the work, the meal, and the party--the main elements of the gathering to which we are invited.  Why is there so much scrutiny of neighbor?  Why do we distance ourselves from each other so much?  Why do we categorize and label?  Are we trying to secure ourselves a place by eliminating others? That is not only unChristlike, but also counterproductive, because much of the joy of belonging to The Church is to be found in other people.  In loving them and being loved BY them.  That's their door prize and ours.  

A good number of folks don't set out to isolate themselves or alienate other Christians.  It just sort of happens while they're busy doing other things.  Maybe they get stuck on one aspect of their faith life and concentrate on it SO much that before they can really recognize what has happened, it's too late.  They have built an accidental ivory tower.  No one can get them down because they have been up there focusing so much on how the people trying to get them down from their tower are The Enemy Inc. Here are just a sampling of the different ways that Catholics are currently holding each other at arm's length:

1.  By form of worship
2.  By number of years in The Church
3.  By level of education
4.  By socioeconomic level
5.  By sin proclivity
6.  By age
7.  By sex
8.  By political leaning
9.  By geographical location
10. By pet issue/ministry

There are many more, and I'm sure you, my friends, can help me add to this unfortunate list.  I bet you also see one on this top ten that stings a bit.  Maybe you have excluded someone, written someone off based on one or more of these.  Maybe you yourself have been shut out or not heard or made to feel inferior or even "less Catholic" because of one or more of the above.  My friends, do NOT allow yourself to be cast aside or made to feel any less a legitimate guest at the banquet because someone has chucked you based on one of these criteria.  A Christian who is praying the Sinner's Prayer constantly will NOT do this to you, as he or she is too aware of his or her own failings and need for mercy.  

More importantly, do not fall into the deep and wide trap of putting miles between you and another Catholic because of the above factors.  Do not burn bridges.  That is not our way.  You will end up poorer for the decision if you determine that a fellow Christian is not up to snuff because of the type of Mass he attends,  whether she is a convert or a cradle Catholic, or because he is a HE and you are a SHE.  Don't say to yourself, "He can never understand the struggles of a mother." This is simply not true.  Every man is the son of a mother, and can offer you unique insight into your vocation. 

I have seen a number of well-read and "sophisticated" Catholics simply dismiss the comments of their plain speaking peers.  I have seen avowed conservatives refuse to even engage a more liberal counterpart KINDLY.  I have watched Catholics whose main ministry is fighting poverty completely discount anything said by a Catholic whose focus is fighting abortion.  When did we forget that all the parts of the body have different jobs?  That each operates independently but in harmony? That one needn't take away from the other?

Know also that for each category above, both sides are equally culpable in creating division and putting up walls that prevent true fellowship and productive dialogue.  For every Catholic Christian who is saying and writing demeaning and dehumanizing generalizations about the poor, calling them lazy and implying that they are ruining the country, there is another Catholic Christian right behind him in line giving the opposite diatribe, making tasteless and insensitive jokes about the wealthy, assuming that anyone who has reached a certain level of material success is selfish and greedy and has not "died to self."

At the root of these examples is one common element: pride.  Yep, the crown jewel of the seven deadlies.  How so? Well, it's not hard to figure out, friends.  We all begin so well.  We begin each day, each year, each conversation, so aware of Jesus watching over our shoulders.  We know what we want: Heaven.  To please Jesus.  To help others.  To serve and obey.  To pray and to work.  To raise saints, and to BE saints ourselves.  To reflect our Savior in the RIGHT way.  Ah, you see the goal shifting? Here's where the Foe gets his toe in the door.  And we just open it WIDE and let him in for coffee and strudel.  Somehow we get that desire to be GOOD CATHOLICS mixed up with being bouncers at the door of a Catholic night club.  And when we are busted being exclusionary, snobby, elitist, condescending, alienating, we start to holler out some key phrases. "Fraternal correction!" is a favorite one.  It rings so hollow, my friends, because anyone with an ear to what was going on could ascertain that there was nothing fraternal about what they heard.  And then it's irretrievable, isn't it?  The outside world, the unbeliever, the person who is on the fence, the seeker, the person considering coming Home to Rome has now watched firsthand as a "good" Catholic has been a total and complete beast.  And been too prideful to admit it, as he goes down in flames, calling out, "But I was only trying to help her be a better person," or "But I was only sharing the Truth!"

Here's a final self-diagnostic tool.  Do you think you are the kind of person who would attract someone to Christ?  If your response is, "My job is not to be attractive to the sinful world; it's to be holy," then you are ALREADY in defensive mode.  You are ALREADY justifying a hard, cold, off-putting part of yourself that you know may be alienating the very folks we are supposed to be evangelizing.  

We are fishers of men. The idea is to get them into the boat WITH us, not gut them with a knife, throw them overboard, and keep on sailing on to glory. 

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Moot Old Days

I was talking with a  friend the other day, both of us feeling somewhat melancholy, oppressed from the outside by the horrors of the world and from the inside by loss and chronic illness.  We naturally sought out shelter and comfort in our pasts -- the conversation turned to younger years, days when we were absolutely carefree, pain-free, and all of our loved ones were lined up like ducks, healthy and accounted for.  We worked, we played, we ate whatever we wanted without consequence to our health.  We jumped out of bed and started the day without pain or panic.  We worried about little, and that which we DID worry about now seems like  so much nonsense.  Was it youth that gave our lives that blush? Or merely circumstance?  In the end, we concluded that we were still living pretty charmed lives, though I suspect that privately, interiorly, we both suffer from real despair at times.  

The thing is: to be who I was back then, I had to be who I am right now.  I know that's the opposite of how folks generally frame that notion, but it's still equally true.  My life can only be this way, dictated by graces and choices, and I would not trade any of apparent curses of now for another spin of the wheel, lest it lose me any of the blessings of now.  This is where trusting Jesus comes in awfully handy.  My past is acted out, forgiven, and I am living in this moment with Jesus and with the people He has placed around me.  I have to know, we ALL have to know, that the changes that seem like losses are net gains.  They must be, or Jesus has lied, and that is an impossibility.  

Take a snapshot of your life right now, in this moment.  Look pretty bleak? Well, don't forget to see the whole landscape.  Behind you are Jesus, Mary, and all the Saints.  Beside you is your Guardian Angel.  Your loneliness is a false perception.  Do you miss a loved one?  Pray for the soul of that person and work on perfecting your own soul, so that you may be reunited.  Do you have health issues that prevent you from living the life you want to live?  Pray to see the benefit you may bestow on others through these sufferings.  Sometimes when we are besieged by pain, illness, stress, worry, anxiety, or despair, we become bitter and angry, fearful and isolated.  It's so tempting to hide.  Hiding is so close to disappearing.   We pray for a do-over.  And we miss a chance at holiness.  Because that pain can be offered up to Jesus for the sins of many, offered up to free souls from Purgatory, and joined with the sufferings of Jesus and His Mother.  

There is no prayer like the prayer of a sufferer.  It is so deep and real!  One who is carefree may have a giving and good heart, but she cannot truly feel to the bone the pain of another.  Only identification through empathy and experience can yield that kind of fervent and passionate prayer.  

Raise your eyes and see your fellow human beings.  Do they all appear to be healthier, wealthier, happier, younger, freer than you? You are mistaken.  There is pain, intense and abiding pain, in the lives and minds and souls of so very many people.  You can see it if you are looking with the eyes of Jesus.  You can see it as they approach the Eucharist.  You can see it as they wait at red lights.  You can see it on line at the grocery store.  Their minds are full to the brim with images and scenarios, misgivings and terrors, questions and confusions.  What do they need? What on earth could help them?  A good start is for someone else to simply raise her eyes and SEE.  Then to say, I see you.  I am you.  I feel that, too.  You don't have to pretend.  

I am always amazed at the easy tears of the elderly, of young moms, of strangers who are so incredibly and profoundly desperate for some brand of kindness that even the slightest gesture from me is perceived as miraculous and a concrete grace.  What a power Jesus has trusted us with that we can do this for His children!  How can we shirk the responsibility to provide that succor for others?  In that action is also great and tangible comfort for us.  Every single time. To savor the taste of the past for too long, for more than a moment or two, is a waste of now, of this day's duties.  

The past holds lovely pictures.  Then maybe, like changing the giant wheel of slides in one of those old projectors, life put in a new set of visuals.  And they have not been pleasant or light since.  I maintain you must look harder.  Look around the picture -- look at who is there now, what love you can give, if this is indeed your time to give and not receive.  

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Eyes Off The Road

I came upon my old Bible the other day, the one I read through from cover to cover twice, a TEV Protestant Bible, now incomplete to me, but still generating a holiness from within even when I  touch its cover.  I looked at the many scotch tape fixes, the numerous margin notes, the multiple dog ears, and I remembered a corny saying -- "She whose Bible is falling apart probably won't."  Well my Bible did fall apart many years ago, and as it turned out, several years after that I did too, so I don't know how much stock to put in that old chestnut, but it is true at its root and in its intention, to be sure.  If we spend time with Jesus, we will not completely lose it.  He will always provide enough grace so that we can do the work He has in mind for us. 

Around that same day, I was feeling absurd.  I laughed out loud at myself in the afternoon, thinking how my time was allocated -- what percentage of my day was spent cleaning up crumbs with the hand vac, how much of my day was dedicated to serving food and drinks, washing, folding, putting away laundry, or looking through unfolded piles of laundry for an outfit for one of my kids.  I thought of how I'm not a very good cook.  How much money I spend on my kids.  How my skin is breaking out.  It was one of those "pile on Nicole" days.  

Then came the kids' bedtime.  This is the time when I'm supposed to put them in their rooms and start using my alone time wisely and productively to maintain and perfect my home, give myself a facial, ped-egg my heels, and of course do my spiritual reading and prayers.  Instead, on this night, I felt like crawling under the covers and crying.  I missed my mother badly, and I didn't feel well in several ways.  I got my son down and then was working on my ten year old, who was not at all tired.  She asked me if we could do a role play.  This is something I have done with both my kids in order to prepare them for any situations that might arise where they would have to answer on the fly questions about important things like my son's allergies, our faith, what is appropriate and what is inappropriate, etc.  Well, my daughter was in the mood to talk and she wanted to do a role play.  Since she is starting a new school in  late August, I assumed it would be about that.  But instead, she asked me to act out with her a scene where she was in college and she met a friend who was not a Christian. She wanted to know what to say to that person to get her to Mass and then to RCIA to join the Catholic Church.  

At this point I enter Shame-Ville.  All day I had been picking on myself for stupid little things, and here I have a kid who many consider in the "tween" years, who is asking to use her time and mine to rehearse how to evangelize! What? What kind of running over cup has the Lord given me anyway? 

I went through the role play with her, making alterations here and there, letting her play both sides, working on pronunciations and tone.  I told her that evangelizing is a matter of three things: opportunity, love, and example.  You have to see and seize the opportunity, and that can't be forced or contrived.  You have to speak with a REAL, not fake love for the other person, *and* you have to be an unimpeachable example of an adherent Catholic or you have no credibility.  She made me laugh when she threw in a bribe of coffee and donuts to her hypothetical friend.

I think too many times, we look at ourselves as just slogging through our days, hearing bad news, praying, barely treading spiritual water, and letting our physical world fall apart at the seams in the process.  But the truth is that if we keep Jesus at the forefront, even in our exhaustion, He will remain there and He will take the lead.  The truth is I can't control anything.  My life is about crumbs and pee accidents and bad haircuts and stained furniture.  My life is about dry elbows and overpriced prescription medications for old woman ailments, desperate prayers for a world going to hell in a hand basket, and laundry.  Always laundry.  And dust.  And to dust you shall return.  I smile to myself wryly, a face that my mother would make when a gallows-humor would take her over uncharacteristically.  I still miss her, and always will, but again, with Jesus' face before me, it's going to be alright.  It simply can't turn out any other way.  He promised that and I believe it.  If it weren't so, He wouldn't say it. He was saying it to me all those years ago, as I searched through that Bible for my answers, and He repeats it now, at every Mass.  He's telling me, "Nicole, you're mine."  

I remember when I told my daughter for the first time, and my son for the first time, (two separate occasions), that as much as I loved them and as much as they loved me, Jesus loved them more and loved me more.  Both of them were saucer-eyed.  But they have to know, so they can live a life that is properly ordered.  Jesus first.  Jesus in front of you, always.  Like your true North.  So don't keep your eyes on the road, or the scenery.  Keep your eyes only on Jesus.  Follow Him, and you will never be lost, even if you feel like you've dropped every single thing you were supposed to be carrying for the journey, He looks back and says, "Don't worry; I've got it."