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." 

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Loving The Unlovable

On social media as in your dining room or your workplace, you are guaranteed to encounter people who test your patience.  We are, as Catholics, commanded to love all people.  There is no exclusion in Scripture or Tradition for jerks.  There is no asterisk that features an addendum explaining that I am NOT required to love the person whose main goal appears to be to ruin my day, or even my life.  This is a huge chunk of the Gospel, and it is extremely difficult to adhere to at times.  Even if we can restrain ourselves from telling people off or gossiping about them, we still have the conversion of our HEARTS to tackle.  Not easy.  Cannot be done without much grace, which is directly from the Holy Spirit, not any magic talent that YOU have.  Like the meme says, “You are not the jerk whisperer.”  So how do we truly and sincerely feel love, in our souls, for our enemies? Where do we even begin?

1.     Begin at the beginning.  The mirror.  Realize that you, too, are a jerk.  Sometimes.  You are not the holy of holies.  You can be annoying to others.  Selfish. Manipulative.  Whiny.  Spoiled. Envious.  The Seven Deadlies? Yes, you have probably dabbled in all of them. And possible an eighth you invented in your basement.  When you come to grips with the fact that you have ruined someone’s day more than once in your life, you suddenly find a teeny well of mercy for others.  The more of your jerkosity you are willing to own, the greater your real Christian love and willingness to forgive becomes in regard to others.  You start looking at all sorts of people – liars, perverts, curmudgeons, grumps, contrarians, parade-pissers, the whole gamut, and you see little bits of YOU in them.  Frightening?  YES.  But necessary.  You cannot skip step number one, by the way.  That would make you a CHEATER. And then you would have to dislike yourself more and love others more.  It’s a no-lose for me as the author of this plan.
2.     For every annoying or hurtful action, there is an equal or bigger pitiable cause.  One of my favorite sayings is “Hurt people hurt people.”  The gal whose promiscuity drives you to such fits that you feel compelled to tell her exactly what she looks like and who she is probably already feels like she is.  That’s why she’s selling herself so short.  No little girl dreams of growing up to be a stripper, a porn star, or even just some gal who dresses provocatively and gets used by misguided men who are unable to commit.  We all start out wanting to be the special princess to someone.  What happened to take her train off the rails? Well, you can get to know her and find out, or you can just judge her and call her names.  But before you do either, you have to cultivate a Christian love for her in your heart by picturing her as that little girl with the big dreams.  Think about how far she has fallen, how much of her dignity she has negotiated and rationalized away, and pretty soon you will be drawn to the act of praying for her.  That’s your Christian love right there.
3.     Picture Jesus next to him.  I give this piece of advice out at least once a day, no exaggeration.  When you are fuming, when you are ready to type out a tirade against Barack Obama or your Uncle Kurt or the guy next door whose dog turned your perfect lawn yellow, picture Jesus right next to him.  Jesus is pleading THIS GUY’S case, not yours.  Jesus is saying to reread number two and try it.  Jesus is looking at you and saying this is his beloved also.  Don’t hate Jesus’ beloved.  That is not worthy of the title of Christian.  None of this means that you let your neighbor vandalize your property – love doesn’t mean becoming a lawncare martyr.  But you know full well the difference between charitable reaction to wrongdoing and what the world would have you say and do to this guy or about this guy. Choose Jesus.  Cause He’s standing right there, remember?
4.     Ask the toughest question of all.  Do I dislike or even hate this person because of some legitimate evil action she committed or is there something in her that reminds me of something in me? Or does she remind me of my abusive mother?  Or does she have something I want?  I’m asking you here to do a good old fashioned gut check on your anger and annoyance and its origins.  There might be someone at work who just drives you crazy with almost every word she says.  Her stuff is always late, but she bats her eyes and gets away with it.  Your boss is always on YOUR case, but SHE gets a free pass.  So your problem is your boss?  Your co-worker? No, your problem is envy.  You don’t feel like you are getting your due.  Just like when you were growing up and your sister got all of Mom’s attention, right?  Oy! Paging Dr. Freud!  Don’t let your own emotional baggage stop you from fulfilling Jesus’ command to love each other.  Count your own change, play your own game, and stop worrying about everyone else’s PERCEIVED good fortune.  You don’t know this woman’s life.  Maybe your boss knows something you don’t about the broken legs upon which this woman is walking the walk of life.  Or maybe not.  Either way, try this exercise: be happy for your co-worker when something good happens for her.  Say a little prayer for her.  Congratulate her. Bring her a couple of fresh organic apples if you have gotten a bunch recently.  You will feel better and before you know it, you will have no room for thoughts of resentment. 
5.     Let go, let God.  This one applies to the situations where you dislike or even feel hatred toward someone because he or she has wronged or damaged someone you love.  This is perhaps the biggest and most thorny challenge to Jesus’ very clear command that we are to love our enemies and pray for those who hurt us.  Jesus, we pray, what about this man who is hurting my loved one? Surely you want me to protect my loved one? (Yes, Jesus does) Surely you want me to warn my loved one that she is going to be abused again and again by this man? (Yes, Jesus does).  Surely it’s justifiable for me to hate this man because it’s a protective and noble hate, a shiny like a medieval knight hate, a righteous anger kind of thing.  As Grumpy Cat would say, NO.  Vengeance, if it is called for, justice, when it is meted out, is the sole domain of the Lord.  You can take reasonable measures to protect your loved ones, of course. And you are called upon by The Church to defend others.  But you are never called to hate.  NEVER.  Hate the sin that has gotten a hold of this person.  Hate the sin because sin is what wounded Jesus and tore open the flesh of Jesus.  But do not think for one hot second that you are pleasing Jesus or fulfilling some sort of holy obligation by saying horrible, hateful, threatening, belittling things about this person, no matter how heinous his actions.  Talk about the actions and their consequences, not the person.  He bears the Imago Dei.  Don’t ever forget that.  Love your loved one more than ever, even if there is a distance between you because of this other person’s actions.  God will take care of all business.  You don’t trust Him to do so? Then you have your own work to do, don’t you? I have seen too many times on Social Media in particular an open, egregious, fiery, violent hatred toward politicians, celebrities, or whole groups of people simply because of a sin they share.  All you are accomplishing is piling YOUR sin on top of their sin.  You are adding more wood to a burning bonfire.  And this is not the kind of fire that will warm you; on the contrary, it is more akin to the fires of Hell, separation from Jesus, who is LOVE. 

Undoubtedly we are all a long way from obeying Jesus’ very essential command to love our neighbor without condition.  You can help by refusing to egg on a friend’s hatred of someone else.  You can pray daily for a bigger, roomier heart, one that can accommodate all sorts of people.  You can pray for your behavior to represent Christ well.  “Hateful Christians” should be oxymoronic.  Instead of secular folk saying, “There goes another Christian hater,” they should be saying, “We might not agree, but I have to give credit where credit is due; this guy is unflappable.” If you are the only Catholic at your workplace, or in your family, what image of Catholicism are you presenting? Cafeteria Catholic? Judgey Judgerson? Political party follower first, Catholic second? Or are you presenting yourself in such a way that you are unimpeachable?  When you reach a point that even the “jerks” you come up against have to admit that your character cannot be impugned, then you have become a good Disciple.  You will hear “Well done, good and faithful servant” some day.

None of this is easy.  But we know it’s possible.  Because Jesus said so.  And Jesus always, always has the last word.

My Mongrel

“And she shrank away again, back into her darkness, and for a long while remained blotted safely away from living.” 

―D.H. Lawrence, The Rainbow

The heavy door shuts with a "thwoop" and all that's left of your vision is the ken through a small rectangle fashioned from very thick, unbreakable glass.  This is for your protection from the patients on the other side of the door.  The thing is, just a moment ago you were on the other side of the door visiting a loved one, and you were utterly vulnerable.  But once you've signed out, passed through that door, and heard that sound, and looked through that little rectangle at your loved one's face, now slightly distorted and growing ever smaller as she is escorted away, you are in another world.  A safe world.  The world of the sane. To say that a mental hospital is the world of the insane is inaccurate.  Many mentally healthy people work there.  They are the okay ones, there to help the not-okay ones.  And then there are the big ones, there to protect you if a mentally unhealthy person, in his mental unhealth, attacks you.  They protect the patients from themselves and from each other.  

It is not unlike a prison, but most people there have not committed any crime.  They have simply been unable to keep up the daily work of living.  Some simmering pot they were tending in their minds has boiled over, and reinforcements were called in to clean up the mess.  Even their most intimate friends and family, spouses, children, siblings, confidantes, have said "We cannot handle you anymore, so we must give you over to strangers now. And they will help you, and then give you back to us."

To visit someone you love in a mental hospital shifts, possibly forever, the dynamic of the relationship.  Like seeing someone naked, there is a vulnerability now on the table that was not heretofore a part of your shared life.  It is very different from visiting someone in a regular hospital, which can be lovely, like after someone has given birth, or can be horrid, like when someone is having an operation to remove a cancerous tumor.  But with cancer or a heart attack, everyone knows who the enemy is: the physical illness, which must be rooted out and fought and is an outsider.  The mental illness sits next to you during your visit and tells you, "I'm not really going anywhere.  After she leaves here, you can try to manage me, medicate me, talk me away, but the fact is, we are going to know each other for a long time."  

Mental illness is the unwelcome and unspoken visitor in so many lives, so many more than you would guess.  Those of us with religious faith may feel like mental illness is demonic in nature and origin, and can be conquered by faith, by a miracle, by a divine healing.  But mental illness doesn't sit still for even one second while you research that possibility.  Mental illness is the most easily hidden thing and yet the most difficult from which to escape.  The patient can go for years grooming and keeping mental illness in a crate, like a little dog.  Then one day the dog gets out and goes wild, pisses all over the house, and bites your feet, and barks and barks.  What do you do?  Surely you can't desert your house, be driven out by this nasty little dog?  That in itself sounds insane.  So a decision must be made.  Facts must be faced.  The dog is disruptive -- the dog is violent, it keeps making noise and it won't shut up or be satisfied, ever.  It can't be good anymore. It seems to be showing it that it WON'T be good anymore.  It's time to get some help. Someone needs to remove the dog from your house. 

But the dog and you are together now, and as it turns out you have to go with the dog.  There's the rub.  Mental illness is that vicious little thing, but you can't evict him because he's attached to you.  He's in your head, and your head is on your body, and you are all together, and so you ALL have to go and you are all labeled mentally ill.  And once you are out of the house, the truth is that everyone remaining behind will be happier and better off that you are gone.  And you will not go nowhere. You will go somewhere.  To the hospital, the special hospital, where they only treat people with mental illness, and protect them, and protect other people from them.  

In a mental hospital, the violent and the nonviolent sit together to eat.  They sleep with only a wall between them, and we hope that nothing goes wrong as the night wears on, and the nurse sits behind her desk, hoping for the continued silence of all the little dogs on her watch. 

I see now as a woman of a certain age that we really never ever can know what someone is going through unless we have been through it.  We can sympathize, even empathize.  We can cry and give time and money.  We can even be right about what needs to be done to help.  But there is no knowledge of mental illness or anything else, really, without experience.

I know what it's like to talk to a loved one who was sane and then one day was not sane anymore.  Well, that isn't really true, you say.  There is always a problem brewing, there are signs.  But I am telling you that, officially and literally, one moment you are sane and the next, after three signatures are dry on a form, you are insane.  And you must go stay somewhere else, away from us, the sane ones, or, maybe more accurately stated, the ones who are still sane for now. 

When we were kids, we had a cat who gave birth to a litter of kittens.  She went crazy after that, and quite literally drove us all out of the house one afternoon.  You couldn't catch her or even get near her.  Her eyes changed.  She was not herself anymore.  She wanted to hurt us. She was now an animal, not a pet.  She wasn't a friend; she was the enemy.  

Talking to a loved one who has been remanded for her own good to a mental institution is best described as surreal.  You are suddenly very aware of your own mental health as you try to have conversations with your loved ones that two mentally healthy people would have.  These conversations don't work.  Just when you get out a point about how Lorna Doones are  good tasting cookies but so full of fat, she starts crying.  "I want to die." Well, that wasn't the answer I was looking for.  I really was hoping you'd say something about the cookies.  So, a new topic. I tell my loved one that she needs to shower.  Blank stare.  "What's the point?" Now there's a tough one to answer.  What ever the hell IS the point of showering when you're stuck in this hell?  Does it really matter at all to anyone anymore?  Will it ever matter again?  But I have to answer as if we are both sane. Yes, you need to be clean, and show them that you can shower and eat and smile and walk around and do crafts.  Then they will let you out, so you can come home and tend to your little dog again, and get him back in the crate.

People in mental hospitals may not want to pray, even if they used to laud prayer as a life changing activity in which to engage.  People in mental hospitals may use profanity even if before they really didn't do so.  Or if they used to use profanity jokingly before, they may now use profanity at YOU.  So when you are visiting them, you are visiting strangers.  It's like someone took over your loved one's body, and is residing there, and speaking out of your loved one's mouth, but has your loved one tied up in a warehouse somewhere.  You can try to be hopeful and optimistic.  That seems like a good way to be.  Everyone wants to hear about good outcomes that may or may not happen, right? 

"I hate it here.  Get me out of here.  I don't belong here.  Do you see how big that guy is?  He's going to come after me in the middle of the night." This is the statement of an insane person, so you can't do what she asks, but if the worm were turned, you would say the same thing.  So what to answer.  You'll be fine.  The old standby. Everything will be fine.  Really.  It will.  God is in His Heaven and all is right with the world. But still there you sit, and your loved one is sitting with her little vicious dog and you aren't scared at all.  You just feel like you want it all to be over, different, not this.  You have some pretty insane thoughts of your own.  But no one hears them, so they don't count. 

"Well, you better go." That is the toughest.  That pains.  The time to part.  I go back to the land of the sane, and I leave you here, to be crazy, among the crazy. Feet of lead move me toward the desk to sign out, then toward the door.  In her nightgown she embraces me, and it feels so familiar, because the body is the same.  But then she looks at me, and her eyes are those of a stranger.  Worse than a stranger.  The eyes don't cry.  She's not even sad.  Just resigned for the moment.  "I'll see you soon.  Be careful driving home."  

Don't look back.  Don't look back.  Don't look back.  You tell yourself this as your heart pounds in your ears. To look through the rectangle is to see the world of the insane, so you beg Jesus, please make this something else, please let this not be true.  But it is.  And you do, you do look back and see her face.  The loneliest, weakest, and most defeated face, certainly, that has ever existed.  Don't wave.  Just leave it.  Leave it be.  But you can't.  You put your hand to the glass even though you aren't to touch the glass or the door or the world she's now a citizen of and you're not.  Her hand waves feebly and then her back is to you as she is walked off by the orderly.  

And I freeze. Time freezes, that is. How much pain can a person feels before something inside just breaks permanently?  How many waves of sorrow can knock me under the water, how much noise and begging, and how many tears and ghastly images, can fill my ears and eyes before it becomes acceptable and normal that I will never get my head above water again?  That she will always be there, and I will always be here, on opposite sides of the door, even though the only difference between us is that my dog is still in its cage? 

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

The Hands of Time

As I sat down to type an entirely different post about my 45th birthday, I looked down and took notice of my aging hands.  They tell their own story; that's for sure.  There is the scar from the time I wouldn't listen to my mother and leave the stray cat, Tony, alone, and he scratched my right hand as I tried to sneak up on him to pet him.  There's the chicken pox scar from the time I wouldn't listen to my mother when she said not to pick at my itchy pox or they would open up and leave permanent marks.  

There's my right thumb, which has developed my Dad's arthritis, and if I hit it the wrong way, I see stars.  There's the length of my fingers, "piano fingers," as my father called them, which my daughter inherited from me, or really, from her grandfather.  I study my fingernails, uneven, dry, unpolished.  I think the last manicure I had was the day before my wedding.  I examine the little sunspots (age spots?) that my kids will tell you are beauty marks.  

My hands have performed much service over the last decade since I had my kids and lost my mom.  Cleaning, feeding, changing diapers, lifting, pulling, carrying, praying.  Praying.  How many times have I folded these hands in prayer, sometimes so tight that they were white knuckled?  How many times have I pressed the fingers to my eyes, trying to hold in ill-timed tears that threatened to fall?  

On my left hand is my wedding set, the square diamond set in the beautiful platinum band, the same one the love of my life placed on my finger so many years ago, and the wedding ring, an elegant platinum circle, representing our infinite commitment. 

The power of touch is well known.  The value of it to someone who considers him or herself an "untouchable" is tremendous.  I remember living in New York and walking through Manhattan, stopping to talk to the homeless who asked for money or cigarettes or sandwiches or whatever they could get. I can't tell you how many times I saw the eyes of one of these people fill up simply because I held their hands.  It troubles me that today some folks would pet an unknown stray dog or cat but would be afraid or disgusted to touch a homeless person. This is patently backward.

My hands have catalogued all of this, and my heart, too.  I've learned that yes, I feel more complete when I am serving others, even if not my giddiest.  There was a lot more "fun" in playing skeeball as a kid with these hands than there is in wiping up the floor on my knees for the twelfth time today.  But fun is not why I'm alive.  What an empty life that would be, if I were only here to BE served, to take with these hands, to have them pampered and unscarred, to avoid getting them in the mix with all the other hands and stories out there.

I look at my daughter's hands, how perfect they are, and I wonder what is ahead for them.  What marks will they collect?  What tale will they tell?  How long will I be given to hold her hand in mine?  Will she always use her hands for good, for service of her younger brother and for all her fellow man? I watch her hands, graceful in ballet, capable in playing the large unwieldy trombone, purposeful and exacting as she draws or paints.  I watch her tenderly place a chaplet around her hand and fingers before she falls asleep at night.  God, please help me teach her that through prayer she will be able to draw the strength from you to fulfill her vocation.

The older I get, the more I fold these hands to pray for souls -- mine and others'.  We are really here for such a short time -- our aging hands and bodies, eyes and hair . . . they are all signs of that.  These bodies are not designed for permanence.  The permanent things can't be seen in a mirror.  The permanent things are the intentions and adventures, the stories and emotions behind the dents and scratches on the surface.  This is what time does to the body.  What it does to the soul is, if we use time the way it was designed to be used, make it ready and beautiful, so it is fit to be seen by its author, to be touched once again by the divine hands of the One who formed it.  

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Little Lents, Little Easters

There are few things as toxic as envy.  Schadenfreude, envy's cousin, is close.  To envy means to mistrust Jesus.  It is to say, in effect, that God has erred in what He has given you,  where He has placed you and what He has made you.  When I am the object of someone's envy, I have to laugh to myself.  Oh, I think, if you only knew.  I think back to dark things, which I shouldn't do, but when someone envies me and lets me know it with a not so subtle jab, I can't yet mentally move quickly enough to avoid that old darkness.  I think back to what I saw, those horrible things I saw, my mother suffering in a way no human being should have to, and I look at my life now, a spread sheet of pills and appointments for me and my son, a list of prayers as long as my arm for the friends and family also suffering so profoundly.  And I think with a definite and singular conviction that  envy is one of the foe's favorite devices.  The good news is that The Church has many ways to counteract it, many weapons against it that Christ Himself left The Church. 

As we came out of the discipline of Lent into the rousing of Easter, and then into the high of the Canonizations and Divine Mercy Sunday, well, it all led me to see how the pattern of Lent and Easter is a weekly (liturgically speaking, of course) and daily pattern.  Each week we go to work, probably at a job we don't like very much at all, and we endure all manner of insult, probably along with the sharp pangs of futility and regret.  Or we don't work.  We look for work that we never find.  We stretch the dollars and the credit cards and hope that somewhere on a certain day in the future the scales will balance.  Or we can't work.  Our bodies and minds are too sick and broken.  And we wish we COULD go and grab a coffee in the morning and then pop into our co-worker's office and gripe about the boss.  How light and real and productive that seems to one who is homebound or unemployed!   And then the weekend: the working man's Easter! Free to go out to eat and drink and laugh, to toss the ball with his children, to meet with friends and compare stories about incompetent secretaries and the vagaries of the market.  

This is dreaded mundane reality to some, and a fantasy to others.  Because we all have Lent every day, and Easter every day.  

These little Lents without Jesus are about as fruitless and moribund as the Church's Lent without Jesus.  Nothing makes sense or can be beautiful without Jesus and we know it.  Even if we don't know it, we know it.  Have you seen or participated in an Easter Sunday without Jesus? Easter Sunday without Jesus is just another party, another afternoon of social tension to be endured, another day to stuff ourselves with too much food and sit around the dining room table complaining about the lazy bums on the government teat. I see people at my parish at Easter Mass, or any Mass for that matter, and they look bored.  How on earth can you be bored?  I will ask someday; I will.  Jesus is up there.  Do you know that?  Jesus is up there and you are bored by Jesus.  How is that so?  And then a friend says to me, "I envy your faith." No! Don't envy it! Go to Mass.  See Jesus!  You can have what I have, what is meant for you, what is your birthright.  You can have Easter, but you choose Lent! 

To envy is to deny that we all have little Lents and little Easters, and there does not exist in creation a device by which we can measure them against each other.  You know what yours are.  But you don't know your neighbor's. Even if you ask, he may not share with you what inner battle he fights, against what demons he struggles through every moment of the day, through every inch of his height and every neural pathway in his brain.  You look at your neighbor and envy--you see an Easter you do not have.  But you don't see the Lent. 

"I have my own problems!" you say.  Yes, you do.  That is my point, friend.  If you do, if you know how you suffer interiorly, or how you wait, wait, wait for the pill or the drink to take effect, or how you wait, wait, wait for the phone call to come from the one who went away, or how you wait, wait, wait for your father to say he's proud of you just once, or if you wait, wait, wait, for the pregnancy to stay this time . . . then you have your Lents.  And you should know, better than anyone, that your neighbor has her Lents as well.  Her losses, waits, sacrifices, pains, sufferings, lies, secrets, torments, regrets, darknesses.  

And you both have your Easters.  Even if they are little Easters: a hug, a kind word, a bonus at work, a piece of Scripture, a child handing you a drawing of yourself, a night of sound sleep, a smile of approval from your mother, an eMail from a friend you are sure has forgotten your name.

Jesus is waiting.  Waiting through His own Lent, waiting for you to come to Him with your pains and tears, your frustrations and worries, your anger and envy.  Your sins--ugly and unspeakable sins.  You wish you could get rid of them?  Well, that works out because  Jesus is waiting for them.  Go to the confessional and drop them off there.  Jesus is waiting as well for you to share your Easters with Him.  When a small victory is celebrated, do we pray in thanks?  Do we look above, make the sign of the cross, even say aloud boldly, "Thank you, my Jesus!" Or do we take the credit, quickly consume the victory as well-deserved spoils for all of our trials, and then spit it back out? And then it's back to Lent, where we can enjoy our complaining.  And our envy.  Do not let envy be a salve, friends.  The devil LOVES this.  There is only one salve for all wounds and that is Jesus Himself.  And there are so many ways to receive Him, to celebrate Easter with Him even if we see ourselves rightly in almost constant pain.  Because we belong to a Church that is rich with Jesus' gifts: the Eucharist supreme over all.   

Every Sunday is an Easter Sunday at every Catholic church everywhere.  And yet how many ignore it, choosing something else entirely, usually more of what is making them unhappy to begin with--I tell you, only man can be this foolish in his concupiscence.  

Another way to feel Easter, to truly have Easter (that is, after all, to know the risen Christ), is to give.  To love is to serve, and unless you have tried, you can never know the joy (not cessation of all suffering, not even happiness as the world defines it, but JOY interiorly, a feeling of being joined soul to soul with another person and with Jesus) of serving without repayment.  "Serving others won't make my back stop hurting or pay my bills or make my wife come back," you say.  Yes, you are right.  You answer me well, as one of the world would.  As the devil would.  But what is Jesus' answer?  Peter, if you love me, feed my sheep.  To love Jesus you must get to know Jesus and to know Him is to follow His command: that is to love the least among us.  

But that doesn't always means those who appear the least.  It can be those who appear the MOST--the most annoying, the most successful, the most obnoxious, the most beautiful, the most perverted, the most irreligious. Who, tell me, friend, WHO, needs us to bring them Jesus more than these? 

Today, now, think of the person whose life you envy.  And pray for that person.  Pray for the sufferings that person surely has.  Pray that you can join your little Lents to those of that person's somehow, and then join both of yours to Jesus'.  This is the essence of what we are here to do.  Not compete, not win, not have a good time, not be happy, not live the longest or the best.  We are here to become saints by working at the projects Jesus assigned us not despite the crosses we carry, but using the crosses we carry--using them to identify with the invisible crosses of every person we encounter. 

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

If I Could Buy The World A Book: Top Five List and Review Of Devin Rose's Latest

I'm so excited this week about Devin Rose's newest book The Protestant's Dilemma, excited in a way that I honestly didn't think I could muster again after my passion for his first book If Protestantism is True.  Both, in my opinion, are must reads, but the format and fullness of Dilemma are really perfected and so I'd have to say, if pressed, that it would make my top five books to have the entire world's population read if I could.  

Narrowing down to five is difficult for a normal person.  For someone like this blogger, who has books falling out of every corner of her closet and night table, her car and her kitchen pantry (don't judge me), it's a real brain tester.  To clarify, this is not a list of my five FAVORITE books, which would mix secular and religious and could NEVER EVER be narrowed down to five, but rather a list of the five books that if I could have every poo pooing progressive, every lonely soul, every lukewarm sleepwalker, every sourpussed pseudo-saint, every sullen teenager and every lonely senior citizen read, I would.  Because these five books provide a foundation firm enough to build a spiritual life upon, a life that is a journey with Jesus and TO Jesus.  

First and foremost (sorry, you knew it was going to happen) would be the Douay Rheims Bible.  I know there are easier Bibles to understand, but the beauty of the language here forces me to put it at number one.  To me, the DR is THE definitive Catholic Bible.  If you or someone you know needs a more accessible Bible, then by all means, believe me when I say that getting any Catholic (complete!) Bible into their hands is more important than WHICH ONE.  But if I had my druthers, (and I do because it's my list! Ha!), it's Douay Rheims.  The Scriptures are to be engraved on our hearts, friends.  Please never forget that -- we never stop needing that. We never outgrow the need for our Bibles!  

Second is (and yes, I know I'm looking pretty predictable here) the Catechism of The Catholic Church.  Yes, the 756 page one.  If the person you're sending books to or if YOU cannot commit to a book this long, read it in small snippets, or if you must, substitute Youcat or a more accessible Catechism.  But really, friends, for the full landscape of the teachings of The Church, with Scriptural and Encyclical cross references, there is nothing like the CCC. I have said many times in this space and on radio and TV interviews that the Catechism is what pushed me over the edge.  Its beauty and TRUTH are undeniable, unfightable, and timeless.  It's a masterpiece made by God's own hand as He guided those who compiled it for the edification of His Mystical Body.

A good part of the reason I favor the Douay Rheims in spite of some complaints I've fielded that it's hard to understand is that my third book takes care of that objection.  It's You Can Understand The Bible by Peter Kreeft.  No list would be a list without Kreeft on it.  He's simply the premier apologist and speaker out there, and if I could sit at a table with him and Dr. J. Budzisewski, Father Robert Barron and Mark Shea, well, I'd probably just remain silent the whole time and absorb the wisdom, wit, and holiness of these men. Kreeft's Bible commentary is a book by book exegesis that is written by a lover.  He loves his Bible.  He KNOWS his Bible, and he wants you to be empowered by knowing it too.  The title is key.  It's an answer to a complaint or frustration, "But I can't understand the Bible."  Oh, yes, you can.  Trust me that Kreeft lays it out in a way that is one hundred percent faithful to the Magisterium, sensible, and radiating the message of love that is the Bible from every single line. 

If you know anyone who is an atheist, agnostic, lost, or  just really, really badly catechized even to the point of not knowing basic Christian tenets, or if you know (or are!) someone who simply needs a spiritual kick in the pants, then I have to insist on the forever classic, Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis.  I don't care who or where you are . . . this book will change some part of your life when you read it.  If I know someone who is an angry atheist or an intellect worshipper, or has any kind of chip on her shoulder, this is the first book I think of recommending.  Even before the Bible, because that person will not READ the Bible, at least not with an open mind.  But give them the Bible WITH the Lewis book, because when they get about a quarter of the way through, they will want to pick up that Bible and start peeking at the love note God left them. 

Last and replacing his older book is Devin Rose's The Protestant's Dilemma.  What made me go so ga-ga over this book is the simplicity of his premise.  Rose has the gentleness of a monk, but he also has the real man's audacity to say: Protestantism is an impossible equation.  It doesn't make sense.  It doesn't compute.  If you want to argue with him or me, you have to read his book to do so.  You can't come with canned arguments, because about twenty pages into the book, he has already crushed all of those, all with a gracious smile and a clear and comprehensible style, and you will be left looking for your back up arguments.  Which he will crush in the rest of the book.  Now be clear on this: Devin and I LOVE our separated brethren.  However, if I am Catholic, which I am, to the back teeth, and I've found this amazing thing, I want you to have it too, otherwise I couldn't possibly say with any level of honesty that I love you.  And I do love you.  Did you know that? So to bring the recipient (in the case of my list, every person in the entire world!) into the FULLNESS of the faith, then yes, this book is the equivalent of Atticus Finch's closing argument in To Kill A Mockingbird.  

Well, that's my list, and my fantasy.  If I could bundle these five books together and get them to every person in the entire world, that would be, as my son would say, "Awesome, awesome, awesome!"  How you can help me is to give one or five of these to someone you know in whom you see a need.  Or to yourself if you sense a hole in yourself that isn't being filled.  Maybe you have read these, or skimmed them, or a few of them, but you've been remiss in keeping up with revisiting.  Choose NOW to do that, please.  Spiritiual reading is so key to our eternal lives!  Feeding our hearts and intellects properly is something I see missing in the lives of so many friends and loved ones.  Everything else comes first -- the looks, the food, the drink, the workout, the job, the movies, the shows, the songs, the games, the sports, the drama, the waiting, the wishing, the wallowing.  Nowhere in that schedule is a block of time for reading the words that will make this life Heaven all the way to Heaven?  Nowhere is there fifteen minutes in the day?  

I had a thought as I was reading Devin's book.  I don't know him in real life, but I know he's a busy Dad with a busy wife and active kids.  Still and all, he found the time and the focus to write what I'm going to call here a watershed book in Christian apologetics in its simplicity, directness, and charitable tone.  Before we even crack open Protestant's Dilemma, we can learn THAT lesson from Devin Rose -- to take the time for things spiritual.  Because not just in the end, friends, but in the beginning and middle too, things of the soul are really the only things that count. And the only things that stay.