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We are in the season of “thankfulness.” While it would be nice to think that we appreciate everything we have and that we are always grateful, most of us benefit in taking the extra step of stopping and appreciating more formally. But expressing gratitude for the good things in our lives can lead to confusion, sometimes.
There are many things in our lives that we refer to as “blessings.” My children are healthy; I see that as a blessing. I have never truly struggled to provide for them, I see that as a blessing. I am married to a good man; I see that as a blessing. This is not to say that those who have sick children, broken marriages, or struggle in their daily lives are not blessed. It is simply my way of recognizing that all good things flow from the goodness that is God.
Sadly, our culture often sees blessing—gifts freely given—as rewards. So the assumption naturally follows that if I do not have the same blessings, I am being punished. And worse yet, if I am suffering in this life, I am being punished. This is a natural, human response. But it is not true.
I was recently reading a book that touched briefly upon the prosperity gospel, which teaches, very simply, that Christians are entitled to a good life because they are Christians. So they should expect material success in life, because they are faith-filled followers of the Lord. It is a comforting line of thinking that if we are good and follow all the rules, we will live the good life, financially speaking. But, in truth, it is a fairly shallow vision of God. God is not Santa Claus, depositing presents for us because we have been good. God is a Father; He desires good things for us. But He also recognizes that we were not created for this world.
Treasures in this world are temporary; He is forming us for eternal life. God sees us as whole creations, body and soul, and His gifts are meant to nurture both. Catholics can be swayed by the good feelings the prosperity gospel invokes, but there is very little of it that reconciles with Catholic doctrine.
Very often, Catholics find themselves falling for a different, but equally misleading and erroneous understanding of God’s plan in our lives. The gospel of “if.” If I had prayed one more Rosary, if I had taken my children to daily Mass, if I had said more novenas, then….then my life, my pain, my problems would be resolved. If I was a better Catholic then I would not be sick, would still be employed, and have complacent children. It is that missing prayer, the forgotten devotion, the candle unlit—that is the source of my struggles and my pain.
This too is a shallow vision of God. He is not the great score keeper in the sky, deducting blessings for lack of prayers. We do not earn God’s love. We do not pray our way into His good graces. That undermines the concept of love as something freely given. And it undermines the concept of prayer. Prayer is not a currency. It is communication. It is built upon a relationship, not rewards. It is hard. We see ourselves living “by the rules.” Doing the right thing. And yet, we do not always see the benefits. Or at least, what we think the benefits should be.
We see someone’s success and wonder why God does not bless us similarly. What are we not doing? How have we displeased the Lord? Why? When things go well in our lives, do we live in fear? Waiting for “the other shoe to drop?” Trying to do everything right so that God does not get mad at us and take away His gifts. But that is not how God sees us. He wants us to be happy with Him in Heaven. So all that He gives, or does not give, is towards that end. How does this help us grow and progress towards the next life? He does not give so that He can take away. He loves us. He cares for us. He does not desire harm to come to us. He does not retaliate against us.
Look at the Book of Job. At first glance it seems to be a horrible read, the just man suffering through no fault of his own. And that is heart wrenching. He did everything right and yet he suffered greatly. His wealth was not guaranteed because he was a good man. He did not fail to pray enough and therefore suffered great loss. He suffered due to circumstances beyond his control. He was not responsible for the pain in his life. And that should be extremely comforting to all of us.
It seems odd to speak of someone’s suffering as comforting, and yet that is how we should look upon the book of Job. There are many messages contained within, but maybe the most important is that our suffering is so very often the result of the world we live in. It is not the failure to pray one more Rosary or tithe one more percent. It is life. We all suffer and we all struggle. It is not always punishment. Sometimes we have to suffer the consequences of our poor judgment, but often we just have to struggle.
That, to me, is the most important take away message of the Book of Job. Life is not fair. We cannot prevent pain in our lives. And through it all, God is there with us. Our burdens, our sufferings, and our heartbreaks are painful. But they are not because God is angry with us. And, more importantly, God does not leave us in these dark times. He does not move closer if we pray more, we just hear His voice more clearly. The more we unite with Him, the more we feel the reality of His presence in our lives—the never abandoning, never changing presence. He is with us all and loves us all. And that is something we all can be thankful for.
What can you do if you believe that depressive feelings keep you from living a productive life? You could look forward to a time when medicine and psychology may discover a real cure for your illness. That may be a long way off. In the meantime, you could look back several centuries to imitate the example of a 17th-century French saint who battled with feelings of depression, but nonetheless lived a remarkably successful life. Saint Jane de Chantal (1572–1641) was a marvellous person who excelled in a succession of callings—wife and mother, manager of a large estate, widow and single parent, founder of a religious community and spiritual adviser to thousands of women. To get an idea of what de Chantal was like, imagine a lovely woman who combined the organizational skills of Elizabeth Dole, the charismatic charm of Oprah Winfrey and the practical spirituality of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux. The remarkable thing about de Chantal is that she accomplished so much all the while suffering from depressive feelings most of her adult life. De Chantal was madly in love with her soldier husband, Christophe. She dates the onset of her life-long depression from the hunting accident that killed him in 1601, “A few months after I became a widow,” she later recalled, “it pleased God that my whole being should be beset by so many different, distressing temptations that, if He in His mercy had not taken pity on me, I am sure I should have perished in the fury of that storm, for I could get almost no relief from this anxiety, and I lost so much weight that I became quite unlike myself—you would hardly have recognized me.” The temptations that hit de Chantal while she was mourning would crop up repeatedly throughout her life. She never specified the content of these troubling thoughts, except that she once described them as “suggestions of blasphemy, infidelity and unbelief.” We know only that doubts about faith, probably indistinct and formless, and fear of displeasing God often tormented her. De Chantal suffered this affliction for four decades. De Chantal's agony seems to be like the lifelong suffering of Saint Teresa of Calcutta. The recent publication of the saint of Calcutta’s correspondence shocked the world by revealing that for half a century she felt abandoned by God. Mother Teresa’s spiritual directors believe that God allowed her to endure the cross of this perpetual darkness as a way of relating to and praying for the suffering poor she served. de Chantal does not tell us enough to allow a detailed comparison of her anguish to that of Saint Teresa of Calcutta, except that she, also, suffered for many years. It seems, given her symptoms of sadness, doubt, weight loss, excessive guilt and indecisiveness that de Chantal experienced a form of depression. Through the years de Chantal learned some ways to deal with her depressive feelings. Her wise choices brought her some relief and made her emotional pain endurable. Although her prescription for depression did not cure her illness, it enabled her to live a very productive life. Consider with me the key elements of her effective approach to her problem: trusting God, relying on the support of friends, disciplining her negative thoughts and serving others. Trusting God From the onset of de Chantal’s depression, a light shone in her darkness. Amid the crush of doubt and fear, she recognized the Lord’s invitation to rely on Him to get her through the pain. She came to believe that He was allowing her troubles so she made a heartfelt decision to embrace His will. “O Lord Jesus,” she prayed, “I surrender to you all my will. Let me be your lute. Touch any string You please. Always and forever let me make music in perfect harmony with your own. Yes, Lord, with no ifs, ands or buts let Your will be done in me.” De Chantal’s relationship with Christ brought her moments of joy, but the reprieve was always temporary. Her depressive feelings would often return with a vengeance. Yet, Shel never abandoned her trust in God. Toward the end of her life she said, “I’ve had these temptations for 41 years now—do you think I’m going to give up after all this time? Absolutely not. I’ll never stop hoping in God. If I can keep from offending God in spite of all this, then I am content with whatever it may please Him to allow me to suffer, even if I must suffer for the rest of my life. I want only to do it knowing that He wants me to and that in suffering I am being faithful to Him.” Relying on the Support of Friends De Chantal developed healthy relationships with friends who supported her. Chief among these was Saint Francis de Sales (1567–1622). In 1604, de Chantal first encountered de Sales during lent at Dijon, France, where he was preaching daily sermons. When she heard him on Ash Wednesday, she sensed that God had sent him to help her with her trials. For the next six weeks de Chantal checked her eagerness to pour out her heart to de Sales and engaged him only in light conversations. By Wednesday in Holy Week she felt compelled to seek de Sales’ counsel. She unburdened herself to him with great relief. Over the next several months, de Sales gently encouraged de Chantal to abandon herself to God and pay no attention to her doubts. Finally, late in the summer he became her spiritual director. “O Lord, how happy that day was for me!” she said. “I could feel my soul turn completely around and step right out of its inner imprisonment.” The two saints became fast friends. Until his death in 1622, de Sales’ care enabled de Chantal to experience a degree of spiritual freedom and inner peace. But even with the encouragement of her great friend, she still had to battle her troubling thoughts. Disciplining Negative Thoughts Early in their relationship de Sales told de Chantal that her temptations distressed her because she dreaded them. And that if she thought less of them, they could not harm her. He summed up his counsel with this memorable example: Recently I was near the beehives, and some bees flew onto my face. I wanted to raise my hand to brush them off. “No,” a peasant said to me. “Don’t be afraid and don’t touch them. They won’t sting you unless you touch them.” I trusted him and not one stung me. Trust me, do not fear these temptations, do not touch them and they will not hurt you. De Chantal embraced this wisdom and applied it as best she could. But sometimes her doubts swarmed her like bees and while she tried not to touch them, their noisy buzzing still tormented her. Paradoxically, de Chantal used this advice to help many women to stop being hard on themselves. She just seems to have been unable to extend the same kindness to herself. Serving Others Throughout her life, de Chantal devoted herself to serving others. This selfless, outward focus brought her some measure of healing for her depression. After Christophe’s untimely death she spent herself in care for her children. For seven years she unselfishly managed the household of her mean and inconsiderate father-in-law. In 1610, de Chantal collaborated with de Sales in founding a religious community for women. That year she and two other women opened the first convent of the Sisters of the Visitation of Mary in Annecy, the town that served de Sales as his base. Propelled by de Chantal’s charism and inspired by de Sales’ guidance, within a few years the new order attracted many members. The community spread quickly throughout all France. Building this new religious order consumed de Chantal’s energy for the next three decades. The road was not easy, as de Chantal had to deal constantly with poverty, inadequate housing, sickness, internal conflicts, slander and opposition. Before her death in 1641 she had established 87 Visitation convents. She criss crossed France in arduous journeys to encourage the nuns in person. Appropriately, de Chantal became known as Mother de Chantal as she tenderly mothered her sisters as her own daughters. The community surrounded de Chantal with women whom she loved. Caring for them took attention away from her problems. Not a Cure-All Anyone who wants to find some relief from depression could imitate these elements in de Chantal’s example: ◗ Trust the Lord; ◗ Maintain wholesome relationships with friends; ◗ Refuse to fear or engage troubling thoughts; and ◗ Divert attention away from your problems by reaching out to others. This prescription is not a cure-all and it is not a substitute for professional help. Anyone who has signs of depression, should seek a medical assessment. If a doctor has prescribed medications, de Chantal, who had a real concern for people, would want him to continue taking them. Following de Chantal’s example, however, will reduce the impact of depressive feelings. Depressed persons may find it difficult to trust God, but they should keep on praying, even if it sometimes seems that no one is listening. That is what Mother Teresa and de Chantal did. People may sometimes fail to shun destructive thoughts but, like de Chantal, they should work at ignoring those buzzing tempters. Sufferers of depressed feelings may find a measure of relief by spending time with people who love them and by reaching out to people in need. Wise application of these principles and medical advice, will help a person struggling with depressive feelings live more successfully, as it did for de Chantal.
I cannot help but notice that our world today is full of fear: ... of politicians and the aftermath of our presidential election; ... of whether or not children will suffer, and if so, how; ... of what may or may not happen; ... and on and on it goes. Of course, this list is nothing new. But as I have participated in and heard conversations among people, the prevailing emotion is this paralyzing fear. Here is an example of a conversation among friends that recently occurred: I shared with some friends from church about our third pregnancy, and one woman’s response was, “Well, I hope this one doesn’t have anything wrong with it!” I know her and knew she meant well, but it was a blow nonetheless. Shortly following this comment, another friend (who has an autistic child) mused aloud, “It’s probably good that my daughter hasn’t married yet as she approaches 30. We have so many autistic family members that maybe God is preserving her from having a child with a disability.” Taken aback by both statements, I realized this reality: they were statements made out of fear, not love. Unfortunately, it is this prevalent societal mindset that undergirds how most people perceive humanity: if you are a productive, contributing member of society, then you are somehow superior to those who are not. Those with disabilities are unfortunate disappointments, burdens to bear. I am sure both women did not intend to convey this message, but they verbalized fears that have already flitted through my mind on occasion throughout this pregnancy— the what ifs. What if our child has a disability? What if we have a miscarriage? What if something goes wrong? As soon as the fear enters my mind, I try to quell it with scripture. Two of my favorites are “Perfect love casts out all fear” and “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and rely not on your own understanding.” Fear can only paralyze us if we allow it to. I think the first step in overcoming our fears is to face them head on. We cannot live in denial, nor can we become catatonic or traumatized by fear and its cousin, worry. Once we face fear with truth and God’s love, then we must fight it with His word. The Lord has given us tools to combat fear so that we may live in freedom instead. So, yes, it is true that our third baby might have something wrong with him or her, but I cannot dwell in the suffocating place of fear. I would rather dwell in the vast meadow of freedom, which means I rely on God for all things, both good and bad. I trust in the Lord, and I know that He will not fail me.
Why is it difficult to be the same person at work, home, church and with our friends? I have observed this problem for several years, but have lately become more aware of the challenges people have with consistently being “real.” In a few recent discussions with friends, I received blank stares and perceived a lot of discomfort when I advocated for being the same person at all times and for being transparent about our lives with others. Why is authenticity, especially Catholic authenticity, so uncomfortable? My instincts and own experience lead me to think the root cause of this occurred for many of us at a young age. The first time we felt pressure to “fit in” with a particular group in school we began down the path of conformity that only accelerates as we grow older. In college, we may have heard from our professors (or our parents) that we need to keep work, faith and our personal lives separate. We may have feared being judged or criticized in those early jobs for sharing anything personal which only hardens into a compartmentalized mindset as we grow in our careers. I want to believe that deep down most of us desire to consistently be our real selves but do not know how to get there. Logic should tell me that it is inevitably harmful to suppress my true self for a sustained period of time, yet many people perceive there is no other option. Do you love being a parent but feel awkward about discussing your kids at work? Do you desire to spend more time with your family but worry about speaking with your boss about this? Is your Catholic faith important to you but perceived intolerance among friends and work colleagues keeps you from discussing it? Were you ever faced with a difficult ethical or moral dilemma but remained silent or chose the easy way out rather than advocate for doing the right thing? Obstacles to Authenticity Let us address some of the obstacles that may prevent us from being authentic Catholics. I am making a base assumption that you agree with me on some level that authenticity is important and that many, though not all, people have a desire to be more open, transparent and authentic. Here are a few of the obstacles that prevent this from happening: ◗ There could be a lack of self-awareness. Do we even know that there is a problem? ◗ Fear of people not liking the real us; fear of not fitting in; fear of being judged; fear of persecution for our religious beliefs; fear of not moving up the career ladder if we do not fit the right corporate mold. ◗ Lack of confidence in our opinions; lack of faith in our convictions; lack of courage to defend the truth; lack of knowledge about our faith. ◗ Attachment to an income level and lifestyle that requires unhealthy compromises. ◗ Conforming to society’s march toward political correctness, universal tolerance and acceptance of things which are in direct conflict with our faith, values and principles. ◗ Relaxing our standards because it is easier to go along with the crowd than take a stand. This list may be as painful for you to acknowledge as it is for me or you may have a different list. The questions I have been asking are unsettling but necessary if a more authentic life is to be pursued and embraced. “To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment” (Ralph Waldo Emerson). Embracing the REAL You Have you ever replayed pivotal moments in your life and regretted your actions or words? Ever feel a twinge when your mouth said one thing and your heart/head felt another? Perhaps these feelings are your conscience trying to get your attention. It could be the Holy Spirit. Maybe, just maybe, it is time to consistently let our true selves be seen by others. But, is there an upside to having the courage to embrace who we really are? The answer is a simple yes, because we are made for Heaven and not this place. We are here to help ourselves, our families and everyone else get to Heaven. I am writing this article from the perspective of my Catholic faith, although I believe anyone can find value in what I am saying. As a Catholic reaching out to other Catholics, I challenge all of us (including myself) to show real courage and step up in our defense of Christ and His Church. The Church is under siege on multiple fronts and is often attacked for its unflinching defense of Christ’s teaching. We can no longer remain passive and be Catholic only at Mass on Sundays, but somebody different the rest of the week. Consider the words of Archbishop Charles Chaput in Render Unto Caesar: “Don’t lie. If we say we’re Catholic, we need to prove it. America’s public life needs people willing to stand alone, without apologies, for the truth of the Catholic faith and the common human values it defends. One person can make a difference—if that individual has a faith he or she is willing to suffer for” (page 197). We can and should make a real difference through our prayers, our voices, our writing and at the ballot box. After you read this reflection, please prayerfully consider if you need to be more authentically Catholic. I do not know many of us, myself included, who could not stand some improvement! Let us ask the Holy Spirit to guide our actions and give us courage. Let us be joyful and set a good example for others by being unafraid to be our true selves. What is required of us is not easy, but our Lord will help us if we offer up our burdens and concerns to Him in prayer. He gave His life for us on the Cross. This sacrifice requires a faithful and courageous response from His followers. With confidence and purpose, with our ultimate destination in mind, let us all try to be a little more authentic.
Recently, a friend wrote to me saying, “I’m skimming ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ and Pope Benedict XVI mentions all the mountains in Jesus’ life (temptation, teaching, prayer, transfiguration, etc.) and it just struck me as really poetic. Do you have any thoughts regarding God as a poet or something similar?” Perhaps because I am a writer myself, the idea of God as a poet delights me. My first articulate thought was of course God is a poet; He is a craftsman and an artist, and we and the universe we inhabit are His great work. Something else came to mind as well and it was only in writing a response to my friend that I began to elucidate the connections: Let me begin to reply to that question with another question: have you read the last paragraph of G.K. Chesterton’s “Orthodoxy” lately? Allow me to refresh your memory; it is one of my all-time favorite passages: “Joy, which was the small publicity of the pagan, is the gigantic secret of the Christian. And as I close this chaotic volume I open again the strange small book from which all Christianity came; and I am again haunted by a kind of confirmation. The tremendous figure which fills the Gospels towers in this respect, as in every other, above all the thinkers whoever thought themselves tall. His pathos was natural, almost casual. The Stoics, ancient and modern, were proud of concealing their tears. He never concealed His tears; He showed them plainly on His open face at any daily sight, such as the far sight of His native city. Yet He concealed something. Solemn supermen and imperial diplomats are proud of restraining their anger. He never restrained His anger. He flung furniture down the front steps of the Temple, and asked men how they expected to escape the damnation of Hell. Yet He restrained something. I say it with reverence; there was in that shattering personality a thread that must be called shyness. There was something that He hid from all men when He went up a mountain to pray. There was something that He covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation. There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth.” If God is a poet— and of course He is, as He is all good things—then this is the best encapsulation of how and why. Jesus, the first and final Word, is the foundation and fulfillment of all communication. The universe and everything in it was spoken into being through and by the Word of God. The source of all poetry and all that with which poetry concerns itself is both Poet and poem and reader/audience. Poetry is distilled, refined, artful communication. Even if the poet, speaker, message and audience are a single person—the author—it is genuine communication between parts of the self, ideas and (usually) an imagined audience. (If that sounds trinitarian, it absolutely should.) All that poets do, in their minds and in their output, is a dim reflection of the self-contained communion of the Triune God and His awesome creative process recorded in the first chapters of Genesis and the Gospel of John. Thus, Tolkien’s word for the artist’s labor: sub-creation. Like a nesting doll, our efforts to create, in our souls and in action, are within and depend on the Creation. There are few more potent landscapes within that Creation for encountering sublimity than the mountaintop and the desert. The mountaintop and the desert are archetypical locations, liminal places in reality and imagination, intimately familiar to two very similar types of people: the artist and the mystic. Those who seek art, find God; those who seek God, find art. Art, perhaps especially poetry, is metaphorically a kind of alchemy. At one time alchemy was understood to be primarily a spiritual process: what one did with metals and physical transformations was only an aid to, and a sign of, the purification of the soul. That is an apt image for how art works, especially when one understands that the essence of art, especially poetry, is refining: as Chesterton put it, the essence of every painting is the frame—the limitation—where one draws the line. It is the cutting away and the framing that makes the art. Just so, the mountaintop and the desert are places where the world is refined, reduced, delineated: the extraneous is stripped away in the landscape, and so, in a kind of alchemy, that landscape helps strip away the extraneous in our outer and inner selves, leaving us primed, open and ready to encounter the elusive Divine. On the mountaintop or in the desert, we leave behind the company of the world for the privacy of an intimate relationship with the ultimate Other. The thing about the poet, often more so than the mystic, is that urge to communicate which initially prompted going out and up, it is also the desire to return to the rest of the world—to bring back what one has learned and experienced and sing it out. (In the mystic, this is primarily an evangelistic urge, though art can be its fruit. Saint John of the Cross comes to mind, whereas for the poet that is reversed.) Yet even in that return and openness, there is something personal, something private, something kept to oneself, that belongs only to and within that Divine relationship. Chesterton sees that private element of the relationship between the Son and the Father as mirth. The best poetry is, as Robert Frost so famously said, the kind where the poet learns something by writing the poem—there must be surprise. Whether a new insight, the revelation of something we did not know we knew or the fresh perspective offered by juxtaposition, I believe this surprise is the same kind of surprise that is the essence of mirth. When you examine what makes something funny, one or more of those three ways of surprise are usually at the heart of it. We have an unfortunate cultural preconception that poets must be black-clad, brooding and always very serious; it is tied into the sharply mistaken notion that angst, unhappiness and suffering are the only worthwhile fuel of art. The concept of the funny in poetry is almost completely restricted these days to “light verse” and doggerel. We similarly conceive of the truly religious person and the mystic as grave. In secular parlance, that would be conflated with joyless and mirthless, solemn. As the world mischaracterizes happiness, it also often does not understand what lies in the depths of “solemnity.” Here we really come down to it: joy can be painful. Joy and happiness are separate from pleasure. (Whereas the world says only pleasure is happiness). What should be equally yoked to this concept of “Catholic joy” but is often forgotten is this: that mirth can be solemn. Something serious can be very, very funny, and something that causes laughter can be weighty and awe-filled. Jesus is the God who weeps, who rages, who suffers. Emmanuel, God-with-us, means not just that he walked the earth but that He fully shares in the human condition, save sin, of course. In Chesterton’s image of His hidden mirth, I see the sharp outline of His humanity and, veiled from our weak sight, His Godhead—the surprise of divinity, the divine surprise, the final, satisfying twist and fitting conclusion at the end of the poem. The Triune God, revealed in the person of Jesus, is and delivers the surprise, the whole picture, the final punchline, the definitive communication—the part that takes our breath away, moves us to tears and delights us. Is God a poet? He is the Word who comes to us and goes from us, in continuous dialogue. He is the Word that seeks the mountaintop and the desert and then returns, to bring us to them and them to us. He is the Word that absolutely reveals, yet remains mysterious in His essence. He is the Word that is so beautiful it wounds us and yet, in the wounding, makes us whole.
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