Monday, December 30, 2013

To See or Not to See

“I was never more hated than when I tried to be honest. Or when, even as just now I've tried to articulate exactly what I felt to be the truth.” 

       Christmas flows into 2014, and the busy-ness of the worldly life pulls us away from our true center.  These times when we are to be most spiritually on fire and aware, our nerves tingling with the intense love of Christ and the miracle of our very existence, we can be at our laziest, our deafest and blindest.  What a trick of the Foe, eh?  He presents us with shiny distractions that have every appearance of existing as part and parcel of our Holy Day, but he turns them inside out and turns our eyes away from the lover of our souls.  Oh, to be shrewd to his tricks in the new year!  Let this be our prayer.  

       I find New Year's resolutions to be at worst tedious and insincere, and at best added pressure on people who are already feeling enormous pressure from a dozen forces a day.  I seek humility, that most elusive of qualities, in 2014, and I seek Truth in all things.  I also pray in 2014 to see, to really see what is before me and what the world and the Foe are trying to hide from me.  And to connect all these: to have the humility to empty myself of the need to be liked and approved, to share the Truth that I see, even as doing so becomes increasingly more perilous.  

       There is peril and there is peril.  Americans don't face much in the way of grave peril when sharing the Gospel.  But we do face social and possibly professional peril, familial peril, and no small measure of distress as we watch ourselves rejected and dismissed as holy rollers, judgmental religious nuts, idealists, ideologues, Jesus Freaks, dinosaurs, uneducated rubes, Bible clingers, and hypocrites.  How does a person face such outright and widely promoted labeling?  How do we resist caving into the temptation to "go along to get along"?  The Catholic body of teaching, if adhered to strictly, is bound, without any shade of doubt, to clash violently  with the paradigms of our modern media, our families, and our co-workers.  

       I've written before about the near impossibility of belonging to a political party if one is truly Catholic.  That's because I've been buffeted on both sides, even when trying my level best to "speak the truth in love."  Speak on the death penalty and watch the narrowing eyes, or watch the comments pile up on Facebook.  Speak on abortion and watch that first group smile with approval while another group rises up to condemn you as a misogynist, an antiquarian, and wish a venereal disease on you.  

       "But I see!" you cry.  How can you not speak of what you see?  If you take your blinders off, if you see Christ in each person, if you love each person as you are called to love him or her, then you have a holy obligation to share the Truth!  What a conundrum. What a lonely life it can be.  And how we can be accused of pride when in fact what we are doing is attempting invisibility, to eradicate ourselves and let Jesus fill us up with His law and His authentic love.  That authentic love HATES sin.  Yes, a paradox.  Surely you've heard of them.  Modern thought doesn't like them.  We are commanded to hate what is evil.  We are commanded to warn our brother of the oncoming truck before it runs him down.  And as we warn him, we are pelted with stones from our ostensibly tolerant society.

       So: a self-examination.  Are we speaking the Truth for the right reasons?  Are we representing Christ or are we representing a political ideology?  Are we defending the Holy Mother or are we defending our pride in our own traditions?  Are we sharing truth to save souls or sharing truth to earn our way in to Heaven?  Are we warning our brothers and sisters about their sin in order to set them firmly on the road to earthly peace and eternal bliss, or are we obsessed with being right and being PROVEN right, which is the OPPOSITE and ENEMY of humility?  I guarantee you that if your interior motivations are "off" by one degree, you will be unsuccessful in sharing the Truth with anyone.  No one has been won to the Truth by being called names or told he was too uneducated to speak about Jesus.  No one has converted her heart because you called her a whore or trumpeted your own record of chastity.  So before you read on, know this: if you in your heart do not truly love your neighbor as you love yourself, you have to go back on the game board to the beginning square.  Start over; do not pass go, do not collect any souls.  You need to refuel with the unconditional love of Christ before you can share it with anyone else.  Prideful evangelization is an oxymoron.  Repeat: prideful evangelization is an oxymoron. 

       What a year this has been.  I don't think I've ever read or heard such a combination of vitriol and moral laxity in all my years on earth.  There is virtually no escape from the demonic twins of pride and gluttony.  Compounding that, there is a ceiling of sexual depravity over all of us, and it prevents us from looking above to our Heavenly Father, who taught us in our hearts how our bodies and souls are to be rightly ordered.  We have reached a day when, if you say aloud that you believe it is harmful and unnatural to insert a sexual organ into the back end of the digestive system, you are immediately and irretrievably stamped with a scarlet letter.  You are a brainwashed hater.  You are not one of us, they say.  Because you see.

       We have a new Pope to shepherd us, and his invisibility is inspiring.  People of all stripes can look past him and see Jesus.  It's miraculous.  It's what we need, and the Holy Spirit knew it when He guided that Conclave!  And yet there is a backlash against him.  Catholics who have decided they know better than the Holy Spirit have our orthodox, loving, humble Pope Francis on probation.  If you love Francis, you betray the previous popes, or you are an unread simpleton who simply doesn't know your history! You are not one of us, they say.  Because you see. 

       You have a friend whose life is in a downward spiral.  Money, alcohol, drugs, casual sex, and sarcasm are the waters he swims in daily.  You try to throw a lifeline, from Scripture, or from the Saints, or just from your own heart, simply spoken, "I'm worried about you, friend."  In a matter of seconds,  you are cast out from his inner circle.  You are judgmental, a Pollyanna, a limited thinker, backwards, provincial, a nutcase with a Bible and no guts to live life in the moment. You are not one of us, he says.  Because you see.

       So there is your choice for 2014.  To see or not to see.  Not seeing is easier.  I won't lie to you about that.  Everyone will like you if you agree with what everyone is saying all the time.  But if you start pointing out truths, even in love, even in invisibility, you will be mocked and even hated.  Then there is the work involved.  Because you must constantly be renewing and reperforming that examination of conscience I spoke about earlier.  You must be daily checking that your invisibility is your top priority.  Every morning the prayer is to be filled with Jesus and emptied of you.  Not easy.  But if you aren't up to it one day or one month, then don't try to evangelize.  You will fail spectacularly.  

       I choose to see in 2014.  I choose to see myself as a sinner and ask for mercy daily.  I choose to ask Christ daily to make Nicole invisible and to put Jesus in her place.  I choose to speak the Truth in charity when it is called for. I choose to examine my conscience daily.  I choose to open myself to the rebuke and fraternal correction of other Christians so that I can be assured that pride is not creeping into my plans and my words.  I choose to see every person and love every person as I see my own children: this means loving them unconditionally and praying for them daily, and caring enough about their souls to share the Gospel with them -- Jesus' very real and current existence and action in this world, God's perfect Law for our lives, and the Holy Spirit's gifts within them.  Will you join me in this resolution?  It's not just for 2014; it's for eternity. 


Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Fred Who Tricked Me

Well, his name isn't really Fred, but when I'm telling a real story about real people and maybe the people don't come out sounding too good, I like to make up a pseudonym.  I just think it's the decent thing to do.  I'm writing about Fred because he's an example of really bad, I mean epically bad evangelization.  Also, if I may say, and you may disagree, the sort of successful way I tried to handle it, and how there weren't any great machinations on my part, just giving him what I had to give. 

After I appeared on the show The Journey Home, I received a few phone calls, eMails, and even letters in the mail.  Mostly I got Facebook requests and private messages.  Some of the feedback was positive and some was negative -- I expected that.  Fred pulled a fast one, though, and I fell for it.  He private messaged me on Facebook asking me, "I was wondering, Nicole, how did you finally get past the barrier of the teaching on the Eucharist being the Real and True Body and Blood of Jesus?"  He framed it in a way that conveyed to me that he, Fred, was a seeker,  investigating Catholicism.  And that this was his final hurdle.  I practically salivated.  I could reel him in!  All I had to do was talk about the beauty, the intimacy, the perfection, the everythingness of the Eucharist.  I had PLENTY to say and I said it all to him in a return message.  I put my heart into my response, including some very personal revelations and supernatural experiences I had while praying before the Blessed Sacrament.  

That's when Fred got me.  His return message was a hateful diatribe, full of mockery of men and women religious, their "pointy hats," and their robes.  He drew extended metaphors between the Catholic Church and the Jehovah's Witnesses and how we were all damned to Hell.  He didn't express concern for my soul; rather, he questioned again and again how I could be so Scripturally stupid as to fall for the ruse of the Real Presence.  

Now I was in a quandary.  He had taken me off guard, for sure.  I felt a little foolish, played, and hurt.  But I had to decide if answering him was casting pearls at swine or my responsibility as a Catholic Christian.  I decided to keep up the correspondence.  This went on for WEEKS.  Everything I wrote was footnoted with sources both Scriptural and from the Catechism.  Everything he wrote was footnoted with Scripture and previous letters he had written to other Catholics he considered "prominent" like bloggers and television personalities from EWTN.  I almost got scared for a few days; had I let a madman into my life?  Still, I persisted in trying to take a twofold approach: calm him down and gain his trust.  If he could stop using ALL CAPS TO MAKE HIS POINTS and cease the ad hominem, we could get somewhere.  I tried to portray myself pretty realistically, a mom, a school teacher, and, most importantly, someone who was already Protestant for forty years so was not likely to go back there, particularly at the urgings of a very angry man who seemed to devote most of his time NOT to the service of others, NOT to study and prayers, but to seeking out converts, specifically ones he had taken the time to watch on EWTN,  to Catholicism and torturing them. 

Well, the thing took a turn for the worse.  My words had an odd effect on him.  The kinder and more patient I was, the more I indulged his questions without rancor and merely with information and dispassionate honesty, the more outraged he became.  It was driving him crazy that he wasn't driving me crazy.  But now I faced another problem: I wasn't helping him.  To make him madder was not my goal.  I started to see how unproductive our exchanges were for him, but for me they were  a great brushing up on my faith!  I can't say any of his questions really challenged me; he didn't throw anything at me we all haven't heard a million times before from our anti-Catholic Aunt Betty.  But I did spend time in The Word and in The Catechism, and that is always time well spent. Finally, I chose to end the relationship, if you can call it that.  I simply told him that I thought his time would be better spent, as would mine, in service to others, than in going back and forth in an exercise that I assured him would NEVER result in my regressing to Protestantism in any form whatsoever.  I even gave examples of things we could BOTH do in service to our fellow man that were not exclusive to either his non-denominational/Baptist leaning theology nor my Catholicism.  And that was the last I ever heard from him.  

What did I learn from Fred (not his real name)?  What can you learn? I've often thought of him since, and wondered what on earth happened to him to make him loathe the idea of the Catholic Church and to cling so doggedly to impressions of it that were utterly false, based in nothing but his own conjecture and a twisting of cherry-picked Scripture.  He laughed at my notion of reading the early Church Fathers.  He laughed at infallibility, yet his own personal, private interpretation of Scripture was, to him, patently infallible.  The whole thing left me feeling cold for a while.  I had done nothing to help him.  Or had I?  I would like to think that I planted a seed, a very tiny one, and if it was not anything strictly "theological," maybe it was de facto theological, because I as a Catholic never stooped to any words below the dignity of my faith nor did I ever say anything to attempt to chew away at his dignity as a man or even a Christian. I like to think that he can at least say now that one Catholic he met was kind and patient.  How can he go on believing the religion is evil if he finds even one adherent who is not?  After all, if we cannot be a good advertisement for Catholicism, the least we can do is avoid being a bad one. Had I lost my temper with him, had I cussed or practiced one-upmanship, then I would have only been fulfilling the caricature he already had of me.  If I refused to waste my time finding him answers, he would have been able to walk away and call me a dupe who fell under the spell of the smells and bells.  At the very least, he has to say that I studied and read in order to provide thoughtful, researched answers to his questions and accusations.  I don't  know what else I learned from Fred.  I hope Fred isn't rabidly anti-Catholic anymore, but he probably is.  There was a lot of ego there, and that's a powerful drug.  Maybe there was ego in it for me in the beginning, too! ; I was eager to  produce a convert from my appearance on a television show.  Certainly, if that was part of my motivation, it was a spectacular failure.  But I held my own. And I wasn't delivered to the temptation to nastiness.  I have to believe, and I do believe, that the Holy Spirit is solely and completely responsible for that.  

So, will you pray for Fred?  Don't worry; God knows his real name. 

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Ten Tips To Help You Stay a Sane and Effective Catholic

Just diving right in:

1. Do not get your news and information about your religion, your Church, your Pope, or anything even remotely related to any of the aforementioned, from secular mainstream media, whether televised, in print, or online.  They are not with us, and they are not neutral.  They are against us.  Moreover, they do not bother to fact-check.  They do not possess even a rudimentary knowledge of Catholicism, and if you are shaky on your own faith, they can actually make you think something is true when it's really silly, misstated, out of context, or downright fictional.  Remember, remember, the condom debacle of Pope Emeritus Benedict if you need an illustration of this tip. 

2. Do not live your life in a "Protestant versus Catholic" dynamic.  If you are, you are actively protesting Protestants, which makes you a protestant of sorts yourself.  You want to help a Protestant?  Recognize him or her as a brother or sister in Christ.  Answer any and all questions charitably and clearly. But do not engage in pages long or days long grudge matches about denominations versus Catholicism.  NO ONE benefits.  No one converts through prideful, protracted screeds.

3. Be this guy: the one in the parable who says, "God have mercy on me, a sinner."  Be that guy every day.  Be the woman who just attempted to touch the fringe of Jesus' garment.  Realize how sinful and small you can be, and don't get too high on yourself because you have a lot of book knowledge about church buildings, or music, or the doctors of The Church. It's extremely important to study those things, and God loves it when we immerse ourselves in them, yes, yes, yes.  BUT don't get so far up your own skirt that you think you're the queen of the Catholics and everyone else is so fortunate to benefit from your learnedness.  Holy rusticity.  Remember that phrase.  

4. Pray for other people.  Intercessory prayer works.  It works for them and it works for you, to keep your mind off of your own defeats and victories.  Pray especially for those who annoy you.  They may annoy you because they remind you of your own deficiencies.  Or they may annoy you because they are TRYING to annoy you, and if they are doing that, then maybe they are like those boys in sixth grade who push you on the ground at recess because they secretly like you and don't know what to do about it.  They need attention.  Give it to them in spades. Kill 'em with kindness.  And give them that gift that keeps on giving: intercessory prayer. 

5. Try not to compare yourself to other Catholics.  You are you.  There is only one you.  You have a singular vocation that no one else in the entire universe, from the beginning of time, can fulfill.  Work on doing THAT well, not worrying about being a better  __________ than _______________.  It will never happen. 

6. Replace your wishbone with a backbone.  Stop wishing that your parish was more this or that.  Stop wishing that people would stop saying mean things about the Pope.  Instead, take action.  Get involved at your local parish level.  Feed the local hungry.  Talk about the Pope to people and say true, wonderful things before they even get a chance to say what they heard on MSNBC. Get a little bit of courage, just a little, and your evangelizing will improve.  Sometimes I'll give a longer answer than someone wanted when they ask a question about Catholicism.  But you know what?  It's a true, accessible, verifiable answer.  I plant a seed, and then offer to tell them more if and when they want to know.  Sometimes they look at me crooked.  But hey, I'm 44 years old and I taught high school for eight years. So a yucky face doesn't scare me. 

7. Spend time with Jesus.  And by that I mean, the Blessed Sacrament.  Sit with Him.  If you do this and you don't feel something, if you don't get results, I will eat my hat. 

8. Know when to kick the dust off  your feet.  If you are evangelizing someone and that person is either calling you names, or seems to be feeling WORSE about Catholicism than when you started, you aren't the person to do the job.  Not everyone has to like you.  Walk away, pray, and then maybe someday, as Bill Murray says in What About Bob?, you can call back and try to reconnect. 

9. Give Everything.  Huh?  Yes.  Give money to the poor until your husband makes that wincing face that means he's not so sure you're not drunk.  Give hugs to people who don't look so clean.  Give compliments to people who already act like they think they're fabulous, because the truth is they are the most insecure.  Give an ear to someone whose story is boring, repetitive, and you can't really solve the problem therein anyway.  Give a smile to EVERYONE.  I smile at everybody, and sometimes they will quite literally return my smile with a dirty look. So what?  Maybe they are in physical pain.  Maybe they are getting divorced.  Maybe they have been hurt by so many people that they don't even trust the simple gesture of a smile from a fellow human being.  The response doesn't negate the rightness and goodness of my act.  Remember that: the response doesn't negate the rightness and goodness of my act. 

10.  Appreciate your Catholic identity.  Don't take it for granted.  You are fortunate, blessed, chosen, graced, and just plain supposed to be Catholic.  Don't just sit there feeling like being Catholic is like having curly hair or being Italian.  It's an amazing thing to belong to this universal, beautiful, eternal Church that is pre-denominational, that does more for charitable causes than any other organization in the world, and that welcomes ALL people from everywhere in whatever state they are in, to meet Jesus here, get to know Him, and consider staying a while, or, hopefully, forever.  

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

How to be Right All The Time

Back in my other life, when I was a full time high school English teacher, I had a lot of good stories.  Almost daily something funny or tragic would happen, because I was working with two highly dramatic and unpredictable groups: teenagers and teachers.  Throw in parents paying high property taxes and administrators protecting their car allowances, and you had a rip roaring time.  I started my career in a district with no contract.  Almost immediately I was walking the picket line and wearing black on Fridays.  My enthusiasm for my new career wrestled in my heart with my desire to stick it to the man and win a decent pay rate for the veteran teachers who had been in this fight for as long as I had been alive.  When Union drama wasn't the order of the day, parent drama was.  Invariably around report card time, there was a mother or father up in my face yelling at me about how I kept Precious out of MIT by failing her.  The happiest moments of teaching, honestly, were with my kids.  Just me and my kids -- talking about literature, laughing, sometimes even crying.  

It was very difficult not to verbally slay the students when they would talk back.  I have a facility for language and a pretty wide vocabulary, and I learned to restrain that quite a bit. Those kids really  believed they had the art of debate down pat.  In truth, they were very privileged, unworldly, not very well-read, and had poorly formed consciences.  Their idea of argument was generally emotion-based.  Only when I taught 13 AP did I encounter any semblance of real argument, and that was a pleasure.  Still, I learned so much from my kids when they felt passionate enough to raise their hands and express a grievance.  I remember a day one of my boys raised his hand wearily, and asked, "Why do you and our parents tell us not to do drugs, but then we come to school and we study these poems written by guys who were on opium?"  Well, let me tell you, friends of the blog, it was hard not to laugh, or slap the kid on the back.  At least he was thinking.  I told him, "Kev, if I were only allowed to teach you the writings of perfect people, it would be a very short day and a very quiet building." The class laughed, and a pretty decent discussion ensued.  One thing I tried to express to my students was that I was no better than they were, and probably no smarter.  But with thirty of us in the room, one person had to be the leader or they would be chaos, and since I was the only one with the degree in English, well, it followed that the person should NOT be one of them. They always  accepted that.  

I got many winces and twisted faces when I would tell people at cocktail parties or at church or what have you what I did for a living.  They didn't understand why a young woman would want to teach teenagers.  Wouldn't it be easier for me to deal with little ones?  No, I reasoned, because the bigger kids had better bladder control.  The truth is I really like teenagers.   It's SUCH a hard time of life, and a lot of people, MOST people, simply DON'T like teenagers.  But when you get to know them, they have a lot in there.  They're just caught between being cute and being like you, a grown up.  They don't have a steady gig, an act, a real personality just yet.  So they try on different faces and voices.  Sometimes the girls would want to be like me.  I discouraged that.  I'd tell them, "Look in the mirror and see who is behind your eyes.  See who's really in there.  She's you, not me.  It's my job to help HER find HER voice, not parrot mine."  

I told them light things, airy, silly things, that they would often write on the end of the year evaluation as the most memorable.  For example, I'd tell them that if they felt sad, or violent, or like hurting themselves, to go look in the mirror (again) and make silly faces.  Like really funny silly faces, like when they were kids.  Then come back and tell me the next day that you  didn't laugh.  It worked every time.  They would come to me, even the crudest and toughest ones, "Motsch, it worked . . . I laughed my ass off," or, "I didn't drink last night . . . I wanted to, but I did that faces thing, and I was laughing and I called my friend, and then it was time for bed." 

A lot of people who find out what my career was think that teenagers would be a population bent on rebelling and arguing all day long.  I didn't find that to be the case.  I find adults way more tedious.  Adults have a strange and powerful addiction to the sureness about how right they are. They don't care if they lose everything as long as they can have the precious and coveted last word.  Me, I don't care much about the last word.  Go ahead, have the last word.  I'd rather have the true word. The kind word.  I'd rather say something that edified someone than say something that cut someone deeply enough that he or she simply slinks away from the conversation.  That's not winning the debate -- that's pride.  That's the devil.  Particularly in theological debate, our goal should never be "the last word" or "winning."  There are no winners and losers in the Kingdom of Heaven.  Only sinners who cooperated with grace somehow.  

How on earth is a Catholic Mom in her forties going to win over a staunch pro-choice atheist in his twenties?  Well, how did that young teacher of almost twenty years ago win over the kid who, on the first day of school, announced: "Just to let you know, if you fail me, I'm gonna have to kill ya." How did I break his spirit, get the last word, win him over to my ideology, score points on him, get him in a full Nelson?  I didn't.  I told him on day one, "Well, you probably don't want to kill me because your jail sentence lasts a lot longer than the year this class will take."  Day by day, forty-two minute period by forty-two minute period, I showed him who I was.  Before I asked him to reveal HIMSELF, and make himself vulnerable, I made myself vulnerable.  I told my kids about my life.  When I got pregnant, I announced to my first period class that I may have to run out of the room with nausea.  They watched my belly grow, and I let them all touch it, showed them the sonogram pictures, let them suggest names.  I remember a tough boy, a boy who could take apart a car and put it back together, but who was hopeless with a Shakespearian sonnet, hugging me goodbye before my maternity leave.  "I don't want to hug you too tight and hurt the baby," he said in my ear.  I choked up immediately.  "Don't worry; I'll miss you too." I said.  When we parted, there were tears in his eyes.  

The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, "Those we would change we must first love." If we cannot hold to this maxim while evangelizing, we are indeed doomed to fail.  We can walk away feeling right, like our liturgical preferences are the best, and we are superior for never having been divorced, and tight jeans are a ticket to Hell, and we will, in our own minds, have won.  But we will have lost the soul of the person we are trying to evangelize.  Because we will have shown no vulnerability.  If I were all intellect and no heart during my teaching career, it would have been an epic failure, instead of the amazing eight year span of smile-inducing memories it is.  Did they learn Shakespeare?  I don't know.  Some did, and some didn't.  You tell me.  They heard it.  They were listening to me; I know that.  They knew that I knew my material and that I wanted them to enjoy it and be better for it if they possibly could.  I wanted to GIVE them something, not take something away from them and put it up on my shelf like a trophy.

Teaching teenagers is analogous to the "New Evangelization" in many ways.  There are endless challenges, nobody really seems to want to do it, and no one has figured out the perfect formula for HOW to establish a high success rate.  And both are a work of heart and soul long before a work of mind and intellect.  In both pursuits, knowledge of content area needs to be impeccable, but we do not wear that expertise like a gaudy set of pearls or a luxury vehicle.  We slowly reveal it, as the recipient is ready for it, bit by bit, and if we are sincere, it will show.  

Oh, and the last thing: teenagers, as I have been quoted as saying many times, have very finely honed bullsh*t detectors.  I think the same is true for non-believers, agnostics, fallen aways, lukewarms, militant atheists, or anyone we are trying to evangelize.  If you are in it for "the win," or for "the last word," they will see right through you.  And recoil.  Do I want to be right all the time?  Yeah, I do . . . right with God.  Right in my actions, right in my words, and able to look RIGHT in the mirror.  

Those end of the year evaluations I was referring to earlier?  Here are my three most memorable ones.  On the evaluation form, I had a fill in sentence that read, "This year, I learned  ______________.   Well, the worst one I ever got said, "This year, I learned what it's like to have a bitch for an English teacher." The funniest one?  "This year, I learned the international hand signal for "I'm choking." The best one I ever got? "This year, I learned that it feels better to pass without cheating." 


Monday, September 23, 2013

Did You Ever Have To Make Up Your Mind?

There is no feeling like the one you get when you're sitting at Mass and the homily is so spot on that you realize you're nodding at certain points, welling up at others, and wishing you could take notes during the whole thing.  Our Associate Vicar, Father Spisak, spoke yesterday during his homily about how to order our lives and make our decisions.  His premise was simple: as a Christian, you have one overarching goal, and that is to get to Heaven.  So every single decision you make throughout your day should be guided by that question.  

Some may see this as excessive, but truly it is a reliever of burden, for it clears away confusion and offers clarity.  If we REALLY believe what we claim to believe about Heaven and about the person of Jesus and about our Church, then even the simplest and seemingly most trivial choices we face need to be filtered through this question: how does this help me get to Heaven?

I worded it a bit differently from Father Spisak's question and I offer this metric: "How will this help me and/or someone else get to Heaven?" because I think we have to be a bit more demanding of ourselves and a lot more truthful.  And making the question more specific certainly helps us do that.  Father Spisak used the example of a daily schedule.  Look at each activity and appointment you have, as well as how you spend your "free time."  We can take it a step further.  Look at how you are handling your money, your words, and your relationships.  

Relating to others involves decisions that vex us. And it's key to scrutinize this aspect of our lives, because yes, we are our brother's keeper. Not just our spouse's, not just our children's, but everyone with which we come in contact.  We need to be, even in our briefest and most casual encounters with people, driving them towards their eternal Beatitude, not away from it.  This is not as simple as running around with tracts, or even living as an example, both of which I have advocated in prior blogs.  Perhaps there is a toxic relationship you are involved in because you think you can "save" that very difficult someone, that somehow you can, by sheer desire and fervent prayer, by constant haranguing even, bring someone around to your way of thinking.  If it hasn't worked by, oh, I'd say, NOW, it's time to stop.  Sometimes, and this has happened to me on at least three separate occasions, the best thing to do is to cut ties with someone in whom, despite your best efforts, you seem to bring out the worst, or someone who just doesn't want to give your point of view a shot at the microphone. Ever.  You have to examine that relationship through the lens of our question: how is this relationship helping me or this person get to Heaven?  If the relationship turns into an occasion for sin, like you end up acting with pride or if the person you are "working on converting" ends up getting angry with you and actually seeing you as a walking reason NOT to become Catholic,  then neither of you is getting closer to Heaven.  It's time to move on, shake the dust off of your feet, and say a prayer that someone else better suited to help that person is brought on staff by the Holy Spirit.  

Your time is better spent else-ways   As much as we worship money and the material things it buys, I believe our time has even more value.  Time gets sucked up so quickly and easily, particularly for those of us who live in first world societies, have access to many amusements and conveniences, and work long hours.  Our disposable time, like our disposable income, must be spent in a way that, again, reflects a positive response to our guiding question.  For every conversation I'm having over coffee with a girlfriend, for every half hour of play time with my kids, for every twenty minutes in the car with the radio on, I have to be asking myself, am I acting this scene out in a way that will somehow further the cause of getting me and these other children of God into Heaven? 

Does this sound obsessive or excessive to you?  It shouldn't.  Because what is likely driving your decisions now is something random or primal or not even of your own volition.  You may be letting life drive you, and then viewing yourself as a victim.  You may be making all your choices based on Hedonism, or materialism, or a crooked version of charity that promotes a "live and let live" attitude.  We all have to live in the world, and that means financial and health concerns are extremely important, but even there, the final arbiter must be the journey back to our true home with God our Father.  So no, this is not "going overboard" or being a holy roller, or being a Pollyanna.  This, frankly, is common sense.  If you want something, then you direct everything you do and say and choose TOWARD that thing.  Or, you will be moving AWAY from that thing.  There is no such thing as a neutral move, try as you may to spin it that way. 

So the next time you are facing a major life decision, or the next time you are at a tiny crossroads that you'd usually just skip over without a thought, THINK.  Reflect on our guiding question: if I take this job, if I say these words, if I buy this, if I watch this, if I go to this party, if I volunteer here, if I hit SEND, if I take this phone call, if I take this pill, if I lend this fifty dollars, if I hit snooze, if I mind my own business, if I hug her, if I defriend him, if I tell the truth, if I sell my car, if I choose this school, if I share this meme, if I open that door, if I block that person's phone number, if I let him ahead of me in line, if I invite her to lunch, if I open that magazine, if I shut my mouth . . . how is this helping me or someone else get to Heaven? Not just IS IT, but HOW is it? Demand an explanation from yourself.  We tend to let ourselves off the hook far too easily. That's why we need the Confessional, and just a bedside "sorry" to God.  Because invariably, we tend to twist things to our advantage, to make ourselves look better, righter, or just to help things be EASIER for us, because, yes, life is hard.  

Are you facing a choice right now?  If you are, I will pray with you that you sincerely consider our guiding question.  Picture me holding your hand as we pray together, and give honest answer.  If we keep our goal in mind, with humility and fervent desire, we have a better than good chance of pleasing our Savior and also making our lives go way more smoothly, and even if not, we'll know we acted for the right reason, not the wrong one.  Regret is a harsh and heavy load, and I don't want you to carry it.  Neither does Jesus.  So the things that would be obstacles between you and finally being WITH Him?  Dump 'em. 

Saturday, September 7, 2013

A Piece on Peace

Wars and rumors of wars.  We're there. No one knows the day or the hour, but it's beginning to look a lot like the advent of something apocalyptic.  Our food is poisoned.  Corporations are people, but babies covered up by an inch of their mother's skin are not.  Kids are orphaned because their parents have died of dysentary or malaria.  The quick fixes of new wells or mosquito nets are held back by corrupt leadership.  Even in the most "civilized" of nations, natural law is now an eye-roll.  You can get your kicks from anyone, anything, anywhere, and if anyone expresses concern about the fraying of moral fiber, they face both a lawsuit and the scarlet letter "h" for hater.  Syria, Darfur, Israel, Iraq . . . pain is everywhere.  Politics has become the new religion.  Everyone has a party loyalty.  Greeners hate Republicans and Democrats.  Democrats hate Republicans.  Republicans hate Democrats.  It doesn't matter what anyone says; it matters what your label is.  Our schools are the backdrop for bullying, shooting, and second rate education.  Common Core is something I would have thought was an April Fool's joke if it were handed out in a meeting ten years ago when I was teaching. Gender doesn't exist. You are what you say you are.  God is a quaint idea, reserved for baptisms, weddings, and foxhole pleadings.  Where are we and how did we get here?  I, for one, feel lost, and I fear for my children, because even living in a semi-rural Midwest upper middle class community, I see signs of the infections of relativism and idol worship.  

No, we don't have a statue of Baal in our town square, but when I pull back the lens and look at what the grown ups expose in our poolside or parking lot badinage, I see golden calfs aplenty.  Most parents want their kids, more than anything, to be happy.  No matter what.  Not holy, but happy.  Not decent, but happy.  The next highest ambition seems to be academic or athletic.  Parents want their kids to be winners.  The idol of best.  Sliding in at third place is coolness and popularity.  Parents want their kids to have a lot of playdates and connections.  They are letting fourth graders have and boast about YouTube accounts, iPhones, and the right shoes.  

If I've depressed you, I'm sorry.  I'm done now.  You're probably wondering if I'm going to give you a remedy for the world's ills.  And you're thinking that since this is primarily a Catholic blog, I'm going to say to pray and then I will have written my page and done my part and then the reflecting and the convicting are over.  

The truth is that I have been chosen by the grace of God to belong to a Church that provides me with several ways to save the world and to save my soul.  I've written at length before about these things -- the Sacraments (all of them, including Reconciliation!), prayer, weekly Mass attendance, spiritual reading daily, maintaining custody of the eyes and ears, dying to self, talking to the Saints, and going to Scripture daily. 

But today I attempt to push both you and me a little harder.  I've been reading for days about what should be done about Syria, and this is as serious a situation as I've seen in my lifetime.  But while we discuss world peace, peace in the region, peaceniks, those against peace, those who advocate for peace, and who should be voting for what and why, I think we miss the giant elephant in the room.  Actually, we miss the rooms.  The home.  The family.  

If you have spent two hours of your day working for a phone bank, trying to solicit donations for a charity that supplies malaria nets, if you then drive your hybrid to work at a non-profit and while there, talk about how out of this world WRONG it is to lob bombs at Syria, and then you go home and call your wife a bitch, guess what?  You're not working for peace. If you attend services weekly at your church, tithe, and serve Thanksgiving dinner to the poor, and then go home and smack your son in the back of the head so the fork goes flying out of his mouth, guess what?  You are not a peaceful presence in our world.  

The first war you need to negotiate an end to is the one in your soul.  Second is the one in your house.  The first has to come first, and the second will follow.  You can't do this alone, but you can't do it only relying on God's grace either.  You have to participate.  

Is there a warzone in  your home? Do you have two children who are living in constant competition with each other?  Are you taking your spouse for granted?  What is the general timbre of your voice when you speak to your family?  Listen to your voice at different points during a random Saturday with your family.  Are you raising your voice more than you'd like?  Are you employing sarcasm so heavily that your kids have picked up on it and are using it back at you?  Are you rolling your eyes at your husband when he tries to excitedly tell you about a new project he has an idea for at work?  Are you poking fun at your wife's body because it doesn't look like the one she had when you married her?  

Do you "tease" your children in order to "toughen them up" and teach them what the real world is all about?  Well, congratulations, because you are contributing to the real world, alright.  For war.  Everyday war.  War on the playground, war in the grocery store line, war at the gym, war in the bleechers at the game.  

When you go out to eat, how do your kids see you treating the wait staff?  Do you gossip with your spouse and friends in front of your kids?  Do your eyes wander to a young, shapely gal who walks by your table as your wife sits there with her head down? 

Husbands and wives, moms and dads, grandparents: test yourselves this week and report on yourselves the way the news reports on Syria.  Who made what threats today?  Who spoke a venomous word?  Who fell asleep at Mass?  Who name-called?  Who said thank you?  Who said "shut up"?  Who said even worse than that?

For days and days I've been reading and hearing assessments of President Obama, his narcissism, his lack of honesty, his coldness.  I wonder how many people who have scrutinized him and found these character flaws have seen these very traits in themselves?  Dads, you are the President of your home.  Are you giving more of your time to your kids or to your own hobbies and interests?  Moms, are you supporting the President of your home, or are you working against him by mocking him in front of your children?  Or by demanding he work harder and harder in order to give you and the kids material possessions?  In short, are you, as the leaders of your "nation," working for peace? 

We can't change the world, the country, in one day.  Or even one year.  This is a big ship that has to make a big turn, and that takes time and strength and divine aid.  What we can change INSTANTLY, what we have the power to do this very moment, is say a prayer for grace and assistance, and then get back to the negotiating table in your own home and draft a peace treaty.  Decide that the tone of your voice, your words, your time allocations, your money, will all reflect peace.  If your family is in really bad shape, have a press conference (family meeting!) and be honest about the state of the union under your roof.  Make promises that you can and WILL keep.  Be unlike the politicians you mock and actually follow through in the best interest of your constituency -- your spouse and children.  One house at a time, we can start turning the ship away from the enormous iceberg for which it is headed.  One day at a time, you can make your house a sanctuary and an example for others.  One word at a time, you can give peace a chance. 

Monday, August 26, 2013

"M" is for the many things . . .

I am a mother who lost her mother.  Blessed as I am with a caring mother in law and more than a few wise and loving older lady friends, I am still stepping daily around the hole that my mother's early demise at 64 years old left in my life.  I should be leaving my kids with her while I go off to run errands.  She should be helping with their baths when I have a migraine.  They should be creating fabulously tacky Christmas cards for her.  I feel my mother's absence at strange times -- not just the top five holidays and anniversaries and such, but at breathsnatching moments like seeing a woman with an obvious chemo-necessitated bandana that looks like the one my mom wore, or a young mom with the same kind of shining green eyes that my mom had.  

On the other hand, I also have her with me in ways that I didn't a few years ago.  I feel her with me at comical times, like when I trip up the stairs because I'm carrying too many things with me.  This is something she would do, and did many times.  She was notorious for wrecking things around the house in her attempts to mend, fix, or clean them.  Bleach accidents, broken and discolored clothing, furniture, and badly stitched stuffed animals lay in her trail.  I am that stay at home mom, too.  I'm not very good at being a domestic, truth be told. I can't cook very well.  I have a lot of trouble keeping up with the cleaning and laundry.  I don't care about decorating.  I don't care about drawer pulls, curtains, rugs, throw pillows, plants, and scrapbooking.  I care about picture frames, because they hold pictures of religious icons, my kids, my husband, and my mother.  

When I need advice about how to parent, I end up wildly trying to recollect the last person I asked for such advice, so I don't bother that person twice in a row.  Usually I will ask someone I don't know very well at all.  It's easier for me than getting intimate.  If someone starts to act maternal to me, I get antsy.  I have a mother.  You can't see her, but I still have one.  

But when situations arise like my daughter getting teased on the playground, or how to deal with my son's speech issues, or how much time for myself is the bare minimum allowable to make people stop telling me to go get my nails done (which is disgusting to me) or go have a wild girls' night out (which if I do not do they SWEAR will ironically make me a WORSE mother) I tend to go to the Internet.  It's not at all motherly.  You can't hug the Internet.  You can (((hug))) a Facebook friend, and I have many times.  I have looked to online friends for very personal advice, and they are people whom I have never met and likely never will.  Because it's open season on everyone once you lose your mother.  My mother, as I learned in Catholic grief counseling, filled three roles: mother, best friend, and primary identifier.  In other words, I derived much of my identity from my mother's opinion of me, past interactions with me, advice to me, relationship with me, and daily (sometimes up to ten per day) talks with me.  The way she saw me and made me feel was, I thought, me.  Turns out that after she was gone, I had some trouble remembering all the details, and sorting through which ones were actually true or not. 

My therapist told me I would have to learn how to individuate from my mother in tandem with recovering from her death and coping with the PTSD from watching her decimated by her illnesses.  The therapist told me to expect some surprises.  So far there have been a few.  I learned that I am not as confident as I was when my mother was alive.  I was really feeding off of her for my self-assuredness.  I have also become a lot less interested in my looks.  I have not really changed socially.  I would still give an extemporaneous speech in front of a thousand people without getting nervous, and I would still rather not let anyone get too close to my heart.  I see my mother's life now from a different perspective.  What a lonely girl she was, an only child, in a strange family situation, married at nineteen, divorced fifteen years later, remarried, never really spiritually at home anywhere, but possessing of a fierce devotion to Jesus.  My mom feels like a friend to me now.  In an analogy that maybe no one else can relate to, I don't know . . . I feel about her the way I do about some of my special saints, like St. Benedict and St. Rita of Cascia, St. Dymphna and St. Therese or St. Timothy.  There is a connection, a thin invisible cord binding us to each other.  But because of a shared heart, a shared yearning to be closer to Heaven, we are more REAL to each other than two sitting beside each other on the couch at home.  

But the saints are not here, and my mother is not here.  I am soldiering on, trying to be half the mother she was with twice the money and twice the education.  She set the bar high.  My daughter adores me, and I don't deserve it.  When she tells me, "You're the best Mommy in the world," I correct her, "No, that was Nanny."  

And then there's Mary, and thank you God for Her.  She has helped me to realize that Heaven is SO DEFINITELY not about reuniting with our long lost loved ones.  It's not about life extension.  It's about the Fiat.  It's about saying yes to the groom.  It's about the honeymoon with Jesus that's going to last forever and ever Amen.  Before the Sacraments and my therapy and the gutting pain of reliving my traumas in order to find my triggers, I probably would have said the greatest desire on my heart was to see my mother again.  Now that is no longer so.  I have my mother with me.  And she's well attended to; I am confident in that because I know God is perfect and so wherever and however she is, is also perfect.  He can only deal with us perfectly, and completely, and with total love and knowledge.  The union I'm looking for in Heaven is with my Savior.  I have had the same vision of it since childhood.  It's falling at His feet.  I just know I'm going to do that.  I'm not going to be able to stand.  I'll collapse at those feet and frankly, even if I spent eternity THERE it would be preferable to a hundred added earth years full of wealth and entertainment and fame.  

I face soon the seventh anniversary of my mother's passing into eternal life.  I face it with a higher chin every year.  This year I realize that I have individuated from my mother, and found ME.  I am a daughter of The King.  I am a Catholic.  God, thank you so much.  And when one of the children put in my charge BY God presents me with a situation for which I need advice, I can go straight to their Heavenly Father, the Head of ALL of our families. 

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Farewell and Amen

I met Joey in Kindergarten.  I don't know why we hit it off and it's entirely possible that we really didn't, but that our mothers were friends and so we became friends by association.  In any event, I don't remember a year of my life from Kindergarten to my mid twenties when Joey wasn't somewhere on the landscape.  We were both children of divorce, our mothers had both been married to much older men, and our mothers were both blonde bombshells.  So these two ladies had to stick together, because some of the good Christian moms in our little Lutheran school didn't take kindly to either of them.  Joey and I, despite our differences in gender and socioeconomic status (they had a lot of money and we had none), just bonded.  It just stuck.  We would go through phases of being closer and then further apart, depending on age, circumstance, and need, but he was there for several milestones.  And those images are with me for always.  He was at my Confirmation party, my graduation party, he was my date for my Sweet 16, and he took me to get my first and second tattoos.  I attended his wedding, and I was there to greet his newborn baby, a son.  

Joey lived faster than I did, and he thought differently about life than I did.  Everything he confronted came down to a question: "Why not?"  Want to try something?  Why not?  I was on the other side.  He once joked, "I live in the fast lane, and some people live in the slow lane, but Nicole, you're parked at the curb."  He got in trouble.  He always had too much money, and too much stuff, and too much fun.  He wanted the best and newest of everything, and he liked the idea of himself as different from everybody else.  He thought he could get away with things other people couldn't because he would hide his smarts and people would underestimate him.  He liked fast cars, he liked girls, he liked to party.  There were times I didn't like his words, and times I worried about his lifestyle.  But in my mind, and in my heart, he was always a little boy in a private school uniform, with a plaid tie, and a crooked smile that he would never show in pictures.  He didn't like very many people, and a lot of people didn't like him.  But he loved me and I loved him, and there was nothing romantic about it.  He was protective of me and I saw the soul inside of him that needed protecting.  To me, he's perpetually in seventh grade, the first boy to grow a mustache, the first boy to have a girlfriend, the first boy to get into a fistfight.  He got into a lot of fistfights.  He never lost. But I saw him this way: he loved his mother like she was an angel, and when I talked, he was interested in what I was saying.  And he never ever lied to me.  Ever. And he could make me laugh, and then keep a straight face while I laughed, which made me laugh even harder.  

Joey ended up moving to Arizona, and that's when we started to lose touch.  It seemed natural to get some distance.  He was married and soon had two children.  He had a wife and a life, and I was dating very seriously.  Our relationship soon degenerated to the minimum: Christmas cards and pictures, a few short notes, one phone call talking about his great new business idea: a pizzeria named Joey's that would be decorated ceiling to floor on every wall with pictures of famous Joeys.  I told him I didn't think there were that many.  He said, "Oh, yeah, I'm doing it.  I got it.  It's gonna be great."  

A few years passed and I didn't hear a thing from him.  The address he gave me was no longer his, and the phone number didn't work anymore.  I found out he had gotten divorced, and there was an implication that he lost custody of his sons.  I was concerned, and I tried several times to hunt him down.  Over the years as I grew a bit more adept with technology, I would try to search him by name, state, even the pizzeria idea.  I was desperate.  I couldn't remember his birthday, which made things tougher.  Then just recently, after so many years of searching, I came quite accidentally upon a search engine that linked itself to another site: a search for death records.  I dismissed it.  Then I searched obituaries.  There wasn't one.  Then I went back to the death certificate site.  And there it was, my punch in the gut, my dark shroud, the one thing I never even considered all these years.  He's gone.  Long gone.  He died at 33 years old, over a decade ago.  I learned this in the quiet of the night, alone in my room, and I wept into my hands as if he had just died the day before, and as if we had been close friends all this time.  Because in a way, both of these things are true.  As a friend pointed out to me, "For you, it DID just happen." And he was still my friend.  Where I felt it the most, where it hit, were three places in rapid succession. First, how did I not know?  How did no one tell me?  Wouldn't I have felt it in my soul had he been ripped out of the world?  Second, how did he die?  Did he suffer?  Did he die alone?  What of his soul?  His sons?  Third, my selfish heart and its guilt.  Why didn't I keep in touch?  Why didn't I try harder to maintain the friendship?  Why didn't I, all those years, with everything we were to each other, ever say to him, "Hey, Joe, I love you."  

I told my husband about it and he didn't quite know how to help.  There is nothing, I suppose, that anyone can say or do. Especially with me.  I go into myself, and wait.  The next day, my husband came home from work and I was folding laundry on the bed.  He looked at my face and could see the wound was still fresh.  "Your friend," was all he said, and then he held me.  He knew.  I am mourning my friend, the little boy, the teenager, the handsome groom, the proud father, the mourning son when his own mom died of cancer as mine later would.  The guy whose New York accent and sleeve tattoos and physique could put people off, but who, inside, was as tender as anyone I've ever known.  

I've tried to write about other topics on my blog since then, but it was to no avail.  All I see is his face, and all I pray is "God, please have him."  And it triggers, oh, does it trigger.  Because just like with my mother, there's never enough said or done.  The time is never enough. The words are never the exact ones you would have said had you known how acutely the loss of this person would pierce your heart.   I think about where our lives were, running parallel but so different.  I got married in July of 2001, and in February of 2002 he was passing into his eternal rest.  I should have known.  Why didn't I try harder to track him down to invite him to my wedding?  My advice to anyone still reading at this point is: don't let your friendships fade.  Say what you feel.  Tell those you love that you love them and that they are valuable.  Tell them that no matter how much time goes by or how circumstances change, that if they need you, you will be there. I remember when we went to get my second tattoo, Joey looked at me in the passenger seat of his speedster, and said, "Hey, did you ever wonder how come I never tried to date you?"  I didn't miss a beat. "You never last with anyone," I said, grabbing his hand, "but I'm still here and I'll always be here."  

I lied.  I wasn't always there.  But I will be now.  I will continue to pray for him, for the sons he has left behind, for his ex-wife, and any friends and loved ones who are mourning him still today.  I'd ask you to join me in praying for his soul, for the health and welfare of his sons, and that his ex-wife, to whom I've reached out, will contact me and tell me something about what his life looked like during our time apart and what the conditions of his death were.  I just want to know that he didn't die alone.  The thought of that is unbearable. And unacceptable.  When my Sweet 16 was approaching, I thought a lot about how I wanted it to look.  My dress, who would light each candle on my cake, the music I'd have played for each dance . . . and it came clear that I didn't want to ask a boy from my high school to be my date, not the one I had a huge crush on, not the ones who had huge crushes on me.  I wanted my friend there.  I knew he would treat me like a princess for the night, and I knew I would face no nervousness, pressure, or drama.  When I called him to ask him if he would be my date, he answered, "What do you think?" Then he started laughing.  There was no doubt that he would be there for me.  And when he showed up, heads turned.  He didn't look like the boys from my school.  He was taller, better dressed, and he carried himself like a man, not an insecure boy.  I was so proud to have him on my arm.  The phrase "He was like a brother to me" sounds so hackneyed, but he really was.  No, he really IS.  I know you're still there, Joe.  Farewell for now, my old friend.  I'm sorry I never said it before, but you are one of a kind, and I can't picture my childhood without you, nor my adolescence, nor my very life.  And I love you, Joey.  I hope and pray that we will see each other again some sweet day. 

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

I Can Help You Better From Down Here

My daughter says the funniest things.  One day I was on my knees and elbows, cleaning the floor. I do this a few times a day in the area where the kids eat.  She said sadly, "Mom, I hate to see you doing work on your knees.  You shouldn't have to do that."  I explained to her that it was my pleasure and my privilege to parent  her and her brother, and to clean up after her Dad as well.  As far as the physical position, well, it's just easier to clean the floor from . . . the floor.  I didn't want her to see housework as menial, didn't want her to somehow interpret the physical positions she sees me in, head half in the dryer, wearing gloves while cleaning toilets, carrying three bags of groceries on each arm while holding a kid in each hand, as demeaning or undesirable.  How I hope I have communicated the great dignity of marriage and motherhood to her!  And if I have not, Lord, teach me how to do so!  

I cannot think of a life better spent than one spent in service to others.  There is, paradoxically, a selfish reason for this.  When I'm thinking and acting outwardly, doing for someone else, I am not focusing on the care and feeding of ME.  I am only so interesting, and then let's face it, it's time to stop tending to my physical appearance, worrying about my health, and futzing around in my memory or imagination for things to worry about or re-enact.  In my observation, a life spent dedicated only to self is a life that becomes exhausting in its infinite nature. I have a closet full of clothes that attest to this.  After the tenth pair of jeans, what's left to discover?  After the fifteenth pair of shoes, a feeling of burden emerges.  All this stuff is mine to maintain and keep track of and clean and select from.  There's a heaviness to possession.  The addiction to buying and acquiring is SO American, and so pervasive . . . we're all guilty of it, and I unfortunately still fall into the sin of overindulging my kids with small toys and pieces of nonsense.  Then I have to figure out where to keep it all, and keep it there neatly, and I've created a need to serve the stuff instead of serving the people in my home.  Or (ouch!) serving God.

I was praying the other night and something hit me out of nowhere.  That in His misery, at His lowest point, Jesus did two amazing things: one, He actually fulfilled His highest purpose, one that only the Son of God, only a King could fulfill, and two, He managed to forgive the good thief and welcome him into Paradise.  That thought really got lodged in my heart and mind.  I meditated on that for a while.  Jesus is up there, feeling physical and mental anguish beyond anything I can imagine, and He is being humiliated beyond what any human being (no less God!) should ever endure, and He pulls it together long enough to turn to this criminal, this sinner, and grant him absolution.  And promise Him instant eternal life!  I laugh at myself that Jesus still amazes me anew after all these years.  I'm so silly sometimes.  Like there is anything Jesus CAN'T do?  Of course he served, and taught us to serve.  Of course he exemplified humility.  Of course He took on flesh, and became small.  It is His example that drives me on to my goal: to become invisible in those moments when I'm evangelizing or witnessing, invisible so that all people see, all my children see, is Jesus.  Because there really is not much more to me that is interesting.  I'm skin and bones, and a voice, and a lot of stuff that I've collected over the years. Everything good in those physical elements, and coming through those earthly characteristics and powers is Jesus.  Plain and simple.  

When I think about the "highs" of my life, they are not the times I've been on the receiving end of glory.  I accelerated relatively quickly in my teaching career, and in the teachers' union as well.  I graduated Summa Cum Laude, a perfect 4.0, from college.  I had a beautiful wedding gown and matching headpiece that my mother spent extra for so I could look perfect.  Recently, my husband took me to a concert, our first date night in I can't tell you how many years, and I was transported back to my youth as I danced in my seat and sang every single lyric.  But you know who had more fun?   My husband, watching ME have fun.  Because HE knows the secret as well.  And as great as that night was, it was not as great as some simpler, quieter nights I recall, when I was pregnant with my son, barely able to bathe my daughter with my big belly in my way.  Or when I stood backstage watching my daughter step out and dance with the Moscow Ballet, watched her perform the steps she had rehearsed so many times, with my heart in my throat.  What if she made a mistake, fell, got scared?!  But she didn't.  I forgot myself entirely in these moments.  I was not really there; I only existed in the service and support of my children, and that is the most freeing and liberating feeling I can recollect.  To not sit and stew about myself is a gift, and an ongoing goal of mine.  

Please do not confuse, my friends, an interior spiritual life with the self-absorption I am talking about.  You better believe I take my time for my religious reading, my prayer, my fellowship, and my worship.  That, too, must be about the other, about Jesus, about the Holy Spirit, about thanking God the Father.  About getting to know Mary after all of those years I ignored her. About learning wisdom from the saints.  About becoming fortified by what my Church has to feed me so that I can continue to get on the floor and clean up crumbs, and get on the phone and comfort a friend, and get on Facebook and disabuse someone of a misconception about Catholicism, and get down next to the bed, look squarely into the faces of my children, and pray with them.  I fulfill my highest purpose from these low places, and I thank God for it. 

Monday, July 15, 2013

Excuse Me, Ma'am, But Your Ducks Aren't All In A Row

Human beings have certain responsibilities to each other, at least they do if they want to rightly and accurately call themselves civil, or religious, or kind.  In my last blog post, I talked about how Catholic Christians in particular need to "get Amish" so to speak.  By that I do not mean we should isolate ourselves from others; rather, that we need to man up and make certain that our words and actions match what we claim to believe, what we vow to live by in the creeds we speak and the Sacraments in which we participate.   The topic expanded for me this week . . . I saw two phenomena occurring around me, orbiting my little planet, and they made me shake my head, and they brought me to tears at Mass.  I was hit by Christian coldness and Christian competition. Now to be honest, my crying at Mass is really not an occasion for alarm.  I choke up every time the Gospel is lifted!  But this was different -- I was crying out of my heart and my hurt feelings. Feelings hurt by Catholics and other Christians.  And if you're claiming the title of practicing Catholic you have to practice kindness, or you simply do not have your ducks in a row no matter how many morning prayers you say or committees you join.

Catholics and other Christians should not engage in Schadenfreude, competitiveness, nor should they enjoy the heck out of public one-upsmanship under the guise of fraternal correction.  Catholics and other Christians should not engage in ad hominem attack, wish death or pain on others, nor should they refer to entire groups of people of any stripe or inclination as being less human and less worthy of respect than they themselves are.  We are a people called to peace and love.  The second command Jesus gave us was to love each other so much that it equaled the way we loved and attended to OURSELVES.  This did not come with a clause that exempted people of other religions, colors, sin stylings, or people whose only sin is that they have MORE or BETTER stuff than we do.  We cannot and should not feel free and comfortable name calling people simply because they are in the public eye.  We cannot and should not feel free and comfortable name calling people simply because they are of a religion that we do not understand, living a lifestyle the Church considers sinful, or even daily committing mortal sin.  Fraternal correction, prayer for conversion, evangelization = good.  Wishing people off the face of the earth = bad.

Competitiveness is a trait I have never possessed, so to be fair, I don't know what it's like to be given to the sin of feeling hateful or acting cruelly toward another person because of jealousy or a sense that someone has taken a piece of a pie I wanted.  I have many sins to count, but that's not my category.  I have been the victim of it, however, and I can tell you it cuts to the bone.  Sometimes I want to hand out a little flyer to every new female acquaintance that says: "This document acknowledges that now and forever you are prettier, smarter, nicer, funnier, more devout, and generally of a higher caliber of humanity than I am.  Your kids are more athletic, better in school, cleaner, better fed, and more attractive.  Your house is the perfect size, not so big as to be sinful but not so small as to be  cramped and make you anything less than an amazing interior decorator.  Your hair is never floopy in humidity.  Your husband loves you more than my husband loves me.  Your skin looks younger than mine, and you smell fresher.  You are more well-read, better at all sports (and your body shows it!) but you are not obsessed with your physical appearance to the point of being vain.  Your parents were superior to mine, unless of course you wear as a badge of honor that you survived a rough childhood, in which case, you had a harder childhood than I did.  Your pets do not shed or emit an odor or make any annoying sounds, unless of course they do, and you want to talk about how that pet owning life is a sacrifice you are making, in which case, wow, I'm not even a pet owner, so I again fall short.  In summary, you rock and I stink.  You win.  I lose.  Please do not pretend to be my friend and then pull your friendship away because you somehow perceive that I have started gaining on you in any category because I hereby legally declare without qualification or reservation that the aforementioned state will NEVER OCCUR."  I will, of course, have this notarized.

Friends, I use humor and hyperbole here, but the point I am attempting to drive home is such an important one.  I can't stress enough how the secular world is watching us.  How lukewarms, on-the-verges, fallen aways, and nones are watching us.  They are waiting for us to screw up, to behave in such a way that they can call us out for being hypocrites.  It's bad enough that they will accuse us of what we don't do, but don't give them ammunition.  Our children are watching us.  Moms, don't teach your daughters to be competitive, to snipe, to envy, to gossip, to wisecrack, to hate those in sin instead of having mercy on them and praying for their conversion.  God is watching us.  Guess who else is watching?  The foe.  He loves discord, competition, pride, arguing, Schadenfreude, stereotyping, hatred and contempt of the poor, shunning of other races and religions, disgust at homosexuals, and sneering at post-abortive women.  He laps it up like Nutella.  Why? Because it's a BOGO for the devil!  He buys one, and gets one free.  They sin, we react sinfully to their sin, and he collects twice on his bet.  

The foe loves when Christian men and women are competitive with each other, too.  We who are supposed to be wanting as much for others as for ourselves?  How much win is there for ole' fault face if we actually want our acquaintances and even "friends" to have LESS than we do!?  What a victory for him.  Stop handing the devil victories.  These are habits of mind we can break.  Think with your heart and your Catholic-formed conscience before you speak or type.  Before you give a dirty look.  Before you spread a tale.  Think, and I blatantly rob here from Peter Kreeft, do I want to be doing this or saying this when Jesus comes back?  If Jesus returned right now, this instant, would he find my heart full of envy?  Full of judgment?  Would he find me NOT fraternally correcting with love, but one upping for the feeling of rightness and security it gave me?  

Tonight in our examinations of conscience, let's all search ourselves for these things.  The tongue is a weapon, as is the stare, the keyboard, the pen, the phone . . . please operate these things as you would if you were the very hands and feet of Jesus on earth, because as St. Teresa of Avila reminded us, you are. 

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Catholic Up

The challenges facing all people of faith today have been written about by thinkers and theologians far more capable than I.  I have heard our current American and indeed Western first world society called Sodom and Gomorrah, and not by hysterical voices.  I have my standard arsenal of prayers and I have my standard advice: be an example and keep praying for conversions, because if the Lord can knock Saul on his rear and convert him he can knock these Christophobic bullies off of their horses as well.  What I'd like to focus on here, though, are the personal challenges we face, the ones in our own homes and our own heads.  These are the places over which we should be exercising the most control, but sometimes they suffer and crumble while we go on complaining bitterly about the state of everyone else's souls.  Time to remove some planks.

Forgiveness is a beautiful concept.  It's the centerpiece of our religion -- the very reason Jesus suffered torment and humiliation.  We are told in very clear and easy to understand terms in both Scripture and Tradition that if we do not forgive, we will not be forgiven.  When we pray the Lord's prayer, we are reminded weekly (or daily!) that we need to forgive others.  Yet only a few moments can pass after prayer or Mass and we are thinking about a favorite grudge, or explaining away a pet resentment.  I know you think forgiveness is beautiful, BUT your story is different.  What has been done to YOU is so unspeakable, so wrong, that surely it qualifies for a hall pass from The Church and from Jesus Himself. The person who did it to you isn't even sorry!  I'm here to tell you, my friend, that it is irrelevant what tale you spin, how long or how sordid.  You are called to forgive all, as you want all to be forgiven of YOU.  Now of course you see YOUR sins as bad but not BAD.  The sin committed against you was ongoing, is ongoing, stinks to high Heaven.  Your own sins are venial, teeny, and smell like gardenias.  Stop kidding thyself.  Forgive if you have aught against any.  Jesus said it.  You think Jesus didn't mean it?  He meant everything; He is God, and God is Truth itself.  

How do you forgive the apparently unforgivable of the perpetrator who is unrepentant or even an ongoing violator?  You put on your big Catholic pants and just do it, and by that I mean, you use what helps you have been given: the Sacraments, the Saints, prayer, Scripture, the Catechism, sacramentals.  Go to the Confessional and talk about YOUR sin of unforgiveness.  If you have a soft priest who tells you it's okay to hold a grudge, quietly walk out, do your penance, but know that it is NOT okay to hold a grudge.  Your priest is making a pastoral decision and trying to be kind, but you know in your heart that forgiveness is not optional.  You know the ugly nasties you are wishing on your enemy.  Strive to have no enemies!  It can be done!  This does  not mean you stick around and let people continue to hurt you.  Sometimes it is giving another human being an occasion to sin by staying in a toxic relationship.  Get away!  But forgive, pray for the person, and sincerely wish conversion, peace, and yes, even Heaven for this person, as if you were begging for yourself or your own child.

Along with forgiveness, the second area I see Catholics and other Christians taking short cuts is obedience.  That's understandable.  Everything our senses take in tells us that obedience is for suckers, idiots, medievals, provincials, dopes, and rubes.  Yet we know better.  Obedience is glorious.  It is the key to peace.  To do that which Christ commands us, without complaint, without anger, without rebellion, without pride, without qualification, is the sweetest gift we can offer Him.  Here again you will flood the page with "Yes, buts."  Yes, I am called to obey, but The Church really needs to get with the times on contraception, so I don't really have to obey to the letter there, do I?  YES.  Yes, I am called to obey, but the death penalty is still permitted by The Church, so I think it's a great idea and a great deterrent, and I will fight, fight, fight for the right to have people executed despite our Catechism's statement on it and our last three Popes urging us to rethink it.  Yes, I am called to obey, but Mass at my parish is BORING and the homilist should be doing better and the music is tripe.  Yes, I am called to obey but I think Pope Francis is too plain.  Yes, I am called to obey, but the old rules about masturbation, pornography, and gossip are really very 1950's and let's face it, NOBODY can really follow them.  Yes, I am called to obey, but I will not let my husband lead our family if he's going to try to boss me around in the year 2013.  Yes, I am called to obey, but Confession is more of an optional thing, not something that most Catholics really DO anymore.  Yes, I am called to obey, but I can't welcome the immigrant because he might take away more of my money and stuff.  

We could do this all day, couldn't we?  Why don't you think of yours right now?  Or write them down?  Or reread your Catechism to see where you're falling short, where you're putting your own "yes, buts."  

You know, my friends, Catholicism is not supposed to look like anything else.  We should be standing out like the Amish at this point.  That's how crazy and sin-soaked the "world" is.  We should be saying no to things, getting raised eyebrows because of our choices, looking for alternative forms of entertainment, speaking differently from the average American, even dressing differently from the average American.  If you look at this life as a burden, then I'm not sure what you thought your signed up for: we are to be little Christs.  That doesn't mean we snark all week, watch provocative television, follow a political party line that's rife with grave sin, show our cleavage, tell racist jokes, cheat on our taxes, cheer rah rah for same sex marriage so everyone at the office likes us, and then go to Mass on Sunday and hope it all gets rinsed away like Jesus is running a big ole' car wash.  

I'm not asking anyone to wear a hair shirt.  Or give up electricity.  And these words do not imply that the writer of said words is in an ivory tower, looking down at you all squeaky clean.  We all have planks. Start pulling them out.  In summary: Catholic up.  People at your office, your schools, your clubs, the stores you regularly patronize, your Facebook page, your Twitter, your carpool, your hair salon, your racquetball team, your PTA, should know beyond a shadow of a doubt that you are a practicing, adherent Catholic.  If you are a non-Catholic reader of this blog, these words still apply to you: the people with whom you have regular contact should know beyond question that you are an orthodox and adherent Christian.  What they should not see you as is someone who it's super comfy to be around because you will endorse every sin and laugh at every off color joke.  Nor should they see you as self-righteous and condescending.  The middle ground is the formula laid out by our faith: forgive, obey, and thus be fishers of men.  Maybe your life will be the thing that knocks some Saul off of his ride and creates the opportunity for him to be transformed into a Paul.  You will never know if you are too busy grousing about the state of the world, marinating in resentments and pettiness, or acting out yourself to the point of passively aggressively persecuting your own Church.