“I stopped reading fiction when I became Catholic.” The woman talking to me was obviously serious, but I could not believe my ears. What a crime! What a shame! What a sad state of affairs! Yet, I did not express my sorrow. After all, we were at a conference about honoring God with your sexuality and there was no need to ask why she had stopped reading fiction. She had obviously figured out that chastity has to do with purity of mind— not just purity of body—and she was trying to cleanse her mind of “any worthless, evil or distracting thoughts,” as an old prayer phrased it.
Maybe she had a point. Novels and stories fill our minds and affect the way we think and act. A good novel inspires things like bravery, courage and self-sacrifice. A bad novel inspires lust and violence because that is what sells. Books do not have a rating system like movies, but words can paint pictures. Some books tell our hearts that loving someone means about the same thing as craving a chocolate brownie smothered in ice cream and drowning in hot fudge.
There are good reasons to be careful about what you read, but does that mean mysteries, adventures and romances are out because they are all bad for you? Fortunately, the answer is no. As with movies, you just have to be selective. Reading a book should be enjoyable but it will shape how you think, so pick novels that will help you envision who you want to be. Living vicariously through a character can train your heart, in reality, to react like the character. Listening to a character’s struggles can allow your mind to sort through an issue. Learning from a character’s mistakes can help you avoid disaster in your personal life. Looking carefully at a character’s life can help you see more clearly what leads to chastity and what does not. As much as some novels can create a lot of impure thoughts, others can fill your mind with thoughts of noble love.
I recently heard from a man in his early 30s who also had not read much fiction since he became a Christian. He wrote, “I have so much to write about how your book relates to my life and my relationship … Your story has helped me see suffering in a different way and helped remind me that Christ made the ultimate sacrifice … I thought a lot about life. I also find myself saying more, little random prayers throughout the day, which I never really did before.” Was he reading the Bible? No, a novel. As with all good novels, “I felt happy, then sad, then nervous and then happy again … [At one point] I felt so much anger inside and then I remembered, ‘It’s only a book.’”
Do not give up on fiction. Ask friends for suggestions. Search the web for Christian publishing companies and suggested reading lists. Look for old classics on the library shelf. A good book can help you reset your vision and your life. An inspiring novel will guide your mind and your heart toward goodness, beauty and, yes, chastity. Plus, getting lost in a story is a lot more fun than staring at the walls!
© enjoys working with a group of recent college graduates on “Adventures in the Great Mystery,” a series of novels about college students and adults struggling to love purely and remain faithful to God as they start romantic relationships and do lots of other exciting things. The first novel, “The Five Questions,” is available at AdventuresInTheGreatMystery.com.
How often do we run through the motions of life, unaware of who we are and what God is trying to convey to us? Saint Catherine urges us to become who God created us to be. As we become, we will set the world on fire. For many years, I had been going through the motions of life, just taking care of responsibilities. Then God intervened. An Ordinary Day I was putting on my tie, getting ready for work. It was an ordinary work day. I was a mortgage manager at a bank. I made a good enough living to provide for my wife and four young children. We lived in a comfortable home in a well-planned neighborhood. We belonged to a good church with a large community of friends. At first glance, life was good. Something happened on this particular day that I did not expect. While looking into the mirror, my eyes began to leak. Yes, that is right, this 6’4” 250-pound ex-football player began to cry. It was not the first time, nor would it be the last. This was not my normal daily routine while preparing to go to work. I was caught by surprise. The Heart Speaks Up at Odd Times My heart was trying to convey something that my mind was unable to comprehend. “What is going on?” I asked myself. “Why are tears flowing down my face at a time like this?” I did not have time for this, I had to get to work. So, like many previous days, I pushed these feelings aside and went to work. Lion in the Ocean? A few days later, Glenn, who worked for me, randomly offered: “Bart, you are like a lion in the ocean.” “What?” I questioned, “Lions don’t belong in the ocean!” Glenn shrugged his shoulders and quipped, “Yep,” then walked off. This stayed with me for days: “Lions don’t belong in the ocean!” Something deep within my heart was being stirred, but I did not know what it was. I offered up this quick prayer: “What are you saying to me, Lord?” Beginning of the End A few months later, the mortgage industry took a nose dive. Perhaps you may have heard about the financial crisis of 2008. In the early 2000s, the mortgage industry achieved its best years ever. Within about seven years, the industry was at its worst. Those happened to be the seven years I was in the industry. I was a firsthand witness to the industry’s best and worst years. Fortunately, I was not part of the problem, but I certainly was among those who were deeply impacted by its collapse. I hung on as long as I could, fighting to adequately provide for my young family, yet my dissatisfaction grew with each passing day. The grace that had carried me for the previous six and a half years had run out. I grew deeply discontent. I found myself longing to find a vocation that was more suited to my desires. Glenn’s words resonated deeply within my heart: I felt like a “lion in the ocean,” longing to find the “safari” for which my heart yearned. A Way Out I desperately wanted out, but I could not see a way. Where was I going to find a job that offered me this much opportunity? I felt like I was the lion Glenn spoke of, stuck swimming in an endless ocean of despair. I saw no way out. Within a few months, a representative from human resources showed up at my desk with a box. My time in this ocean had come to a sudden end. I had no idea how I would provide for my family, yet I felt an unusual peace and grace in this time of difficult transition. I had renewed hope of things to come. I was eager to find my safari. It was not an easy transition by any stretch of the imagination. I went without work for far too long. We had to sell our house and my family went through some very difficult times. Yet, at the end of this crooked road, there was a safari awaiting me. I Found My “Safari” For many years, I had longed to do ministry, yet opportunities would come and go and financial responsibilities increased as my family grew. For nearly seven years I put on a suit and tie and pushed aside my passions in order to provide for my family. That season had come to an abrupt end. My heart finally caught up to me. The tears that leaked out that day where my heart’s way of saying, “Hey, remember me?” My heart was crying out in hopes of discovering my safari. Be You We were all created for a unique purpose. A lion does not belong to the ocean any more than a shark belongs to land. Everything is created to be who and what it was created to be. We will not thrive outside of being what we were meant to be: a baseball was not created to be a light bulb any more than a light bulb was created to be a baseball. Each is created to be what it was meant to be. A light bulb would make for a terrible baseball yet walk into any dark room and turn on the light switch. Are you not glad someone did not put a baseball in the lamp? We find great comfort in knowing that a light bulb is in its intended spot. It was created to fill the room with light. So are we. Launched into Fulfillment While the circumstances were far from ideal, this closure in the mortgage business served as a catalyst to launch me into what God had for me next. Since this time, I have stumbled upon my heart’s passion. I now work full time doing what I love. I travel the country doing conferences and retreats with my brother, seeing countless lives transformed before our eyes as the Father encounters the hearts of His people with His love and presence. It was a tough swim in those choppy ocean waters, but today I am enjoying life in the safari. Where is Your “Safari”? Perhaps you are wondering where your safari is. If so, ask the One who created you. He will direct your steps. “Many are the plans in a person’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails” (Proverbs 19:21). What about the journey on the way to our safari? Is it wasted? Was my time in the mortgage business a mistake? Not at all, it was God’s tool to do a deeper work within my heart and prepare me for days to come. It also served as a means to provide for my growing family. God promises to work all things for good for those who love Him and are called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28). God used every bit of that season to prepare me for this one. There was grace for that season, yet when the time for change had come, the grace dried up. It was time to seek the next season. Every step of the way prepares us for God’s greater purposes. Know the Times and Seasons There are times when God will open doors and there are times when He will close them. There are even times when He will dry certain things up in order to redirect our steps. The key I have found is to take the time to listen; it makes things so much easier when we hear the voice of God within our heart (instead of human resources showing up with a box). Time to Hear from the Heart What do we do when God is stirring our hearts for a change? Will we listen? What does the Church say about the Heart? According to the “Catechism of the Catholic Church” (“CCC”) 2563, the heart is the dwelling place where I am, where I live; According to the "Catechism of the Catholic Church," the heart is the dwelling place where I am, where I live; according to the Semitic or Biblical expression, the heart is the place "to which I withdraw" (2563). The heart is our hidden center, beyond the grasp of our reason and of others; only the spirit of God can fathom the human heart and know it fully. The heart is the place of decision, deeper than our psychic drives. It is the place of truth, where we choose life or death. It is the place of encounter because, as an image of God, we live in relation: it is the place of covenant. Time of Silence There are times when God will call us aside so He can speak to us in silence: “contemplative prayer is silence, the “symbol of the world to come” or “silent love.” Words in this kind of prayer are not speeches; they are like kindling that feeds the fire of love. In this silence, unbearable to the “outer” man, the Father speaks to us His incarnate Word, who suffered, died and rose; in this silence the Spirit of adoption enables us to share in the prayer of Jesus. ("CCC" 2717). Time for Adventure Perhaps I am not the only one stuck swimming in an ocean of despair. Remember, lions do not belong in the ocean. They were created for a wild adventure in the safari. So were we. A Greater Lion We are not alone. Revelation 5:5 states, “Then one of the elders said to me, ‘Weep not; lo, the lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered …’”
On a late winter’s evening, my mother left her body like a discarded nightgown on an unmade bed. I was sitting by the window when I received the news, and as I looked out into the inner garden, my heart grieved that she would never again see the loveliness of the light as morning pushed into noon. The thought made me realize it was she who had first taught me the importance of beholding beauty and considering life a gift of infinite value. This loss led me to revisit the death of my own child, years before, and prompted me to begin to make peace with my abortion decision. Despite the passage of time, I was still grieving, vulnerable to remorse and shame. Obviously, I had not agreed with my mother’s sentiments when I chose to terminate the life of my unborn child. Instead, I considered such a personal decision should be entirely based on my own needs. As I confronted the memories that lay hidden beneath a veneer of excuses, I exposed a level of sorrow that at times was almost beyond bearing. After struggling with my guilt for years, I knew if I wanted to experience healing, it was time to make amends. In addition to public appearances, I focused on praying for the needs of children threatened by abortion. They became my spiritual children; they had no idea that a stranger had been helping chart their lives even before their birth. Some mothers have asked for prayers and when they share the outcome—sometimes with a child in tow—I am overwhelmed. I see it as God working through me and changing what was a most grievous mistake into a miracle. This side of heaven, I will never know who the beneficiaries of my transgression have been, but I do know that in His infinite mercy, God is able to overcome even our gravest offenses. Whenever I witnessed in front of an abortion center or spoke at a pro-life gathering, I would again experience profound sorrow over my decision. This was to be expected. As God explained, I had destroyed someone who belonged to Him, a person of infinite value whom He had entrusted to my maternal care. Instead of nurturing baby Zachary, I had him dismembered. Knowing the details of gestational development, now I realize how horrific was the pain I had inflicted on my child. It is not surprising that rectifying this injustice and making restitution would cost me a good measure of pain and anguish. Wanting to support me in my abortion recovery, the Lord eventually led me on a spiritual pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. This particular journey is famous for stripping away layers of accumulated habits and reducing life to its essentials in order to experience a deep inner cleansing. The pilgrimage was not so much a physical trek as it was an interior journey into the pain of my abortion experience. Before I could embrace God, I needed to make atonement for the lethal harm I had inflicted and the self-justifications by which I tried to excuse myself. Only after that could I find comfort in His forgiving embrace. I thought the Camino had cured me, that I had put to rest the ghosts of my past, my guilt and sorrow. While it did much to restore my spiritual health, I apparently needed to visit Lourdes, a famous pilgrimage site, for one last healing. I was to immerse myself in its famous healing waters so I could reemerge, symbolically reborn. The thousands of cures recorded in Lourdes were a profound testimony to the power of Jesus at work, and just as He had healed the paralytic in biblical times, he healed me. I was confident at last that my transgressions had truly been forgiven. However, just so I would not think my work was over now that I felt spiritually restored, I was invited to walk the Way of the Cross in Jerusalem and unite my daily trials with His suffering, for the sake of my neighbor— those countless men and women who were struggling with heavy burdens of their own. The last few paces brought me to the tomb of Christ and, before entering, I prayed that He would continue to be present in my life and direct my footsteps according to His will. At that time, I sensed no particular need—I was basking in the healing I had received in Lourdes—but something quite remarkable did happen. In emerging from the tomb, I sensed I was leaving behind all the accumulated transgressions of my past. My life had been restored by His grace and if I remained faithful there was a promise that extraordinary things would come my way. Since that experience many years ago, my spiritual journey has indeed reflected a change, and my life has been truly transformed by the Grace of God.
When I first heard the story about Pentecost in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 2:1-4), I thought, "Well, that's cool, I guess. Good for them, with all those flames above their heads and the Holy Spirit stuff." That was my reaction for a long time, anyway. I knew the Holy Spirit, the third Person of the Trinity, was real and that He gave the Apostles courage to do really intense evangelizing. Yet I never thought much more about it than that. Oddly, in everyday conversation we Catholics do not talk very much about the Holy Spirit and who He is. Jesus we understand better; the Holy Spirit, less so. Any kind of talk about the gifts of the Holy Spirit just weirded me out, until I met the Holy Spirit as a real person … and He did something very similar in me. Without getting into every detail of what happened, I will give you the nutshell version of my experience: I went on a retreat in college called “Fan into Flame” (I ended up going on four of them), which was focused on encountering the Holy Spirit in a new and deeper way. As we got into who the Holy Spirit was on this retreat, I was uncomfortable at first. Throughout the retreat, I found myself opening up a little more, despite my discomfort. As I came to understand how the Holy Spirit works in our lives and grew more comfortable with worshipping God through song throughout the retreat, the idea of surrendering my life to Him in a deeper way did not scare me as much. At one point during the retreat, our small groups prayed together to intercede for each other for particular requests: to be freed from things that kept us from God, to receive the Holy Spirit in a deeper way or to receive His gifts. I do not remember what I prayed for, but I do remember that, as I was being prayed over, I had this gentle urge to rest, to just let go. I experienced an overwhelming peace within me that resonated through my body. I could not stop smiling because I could not contain the joy inside me. It was bursting! Words fall short when I try to communicate what this experience actually was. All I can say is that I met the person of the Holy Spirit in that moment. When I stood up after what felt like hours, the time of prayer was over and, from what I could tell, almost every soul in the room had experienced the same thing I had, or at least something very similar. We had each experienced our own Pentecost. This it was not just a one-time thing, though. Since that first encounter, on other occasions I have experienced the Holy Spirit in powerful ways, and I experience Him in a quieter way on a daily basis. Pentecost was a real thing. The Apostles receiving the Holy Spirit was a real thing. But this outpouring of the Holy Spirit was not just for the Apostles. We were all meant to receive the same thing. We are all meant to know Him, to walk with Him and to receive the graces we need for our daily lives from Him. We all receive Him at baptism, and then again in a deeper way with the sacrament of confirmation. But often, the potential for the graces we could have lie dormant until we give Him the permission to come into our hearts. So how you can you encounter the Holy Spirit in a deeper way and experience a more profound outpouring of His gifts in your own life? 1. Pray to the Holy Spirit. Begin your prayers by saying, “Come, Holy Spirit.” Ask for help in difficult situations or just start by saying this simple prayer every day: “Oh Holy Spirit, soul of my soul, I adore you. Enlighten, guide, strengthen and console me. Tell me what I ought to do and command me to do it. I promise to be submissive in whatever You ask of me and whatever You permit to happen to me. Only show me what is Your will.” 2. Listen to promptings/inspirations when they come. Sometimes you will sense urges to do something you might not have thought of yourself. This is called an “inspiration.” The way to tell when it is the Holy Spirit’s inspiration is that it is always something good and it is usually something you would rather not do. See Acts 9:10-19 for the perfect example of that. None of us will ever perfectly follow inspirations. But the more we do it, the more they will come. Listening to and obeying the Holy Spirit is how we grow in holiness. 3. Stick to prayer and the sacraments. If you want to get closer to God in any way, this is pretty much the way to do it. The more you do stay close to prayer and the sacraments, the more you will notice the Holy Spirit in your life. 4. Pray to be freed from any lies or attachments that are keeping you from experiencing the fullness of the Spirit. Simply put, our sin, attachments or the lies we believe against God or ourselves can keep us from experiencing the Holy Spirit in a more meaningful way. It is powerful to pray to be freed from these things, but it is not a game of hide and seek. You do not have to be digging around asking yourself, “What’s wrong with me? Why don’t I feel close to God?” (How many of us have done that?) Simply ask God to reveal what He wants you to be free of, pray with that and trust He will free you of it over time and give you more of Himself. 5. Know that the gifts (and fruits) of the Holy Spirit are for you. Ask for them. God gives us spiritual gifts for the edification of the Church (I Corinthians 14:12), to build up the Body of Christ in love and unity, “that God in all things may be glorified through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 4:11). You can pray to receive greater gifts. The gifts of the Holy Spirit are knowledge, counsel, piety, fortitude, fear of the Lord (awe), understanding and wisdom. The fruits of the Holy Spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, generosity, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, modesty, self-control and chastity. Experiencing the Holy Spirit might not be a crazy, emotional experience for you—so just because you do not sense Him moving you emotionally does not mean He is not at work. Our emotions are not the point. It may involve them, it may not. The point is for us to grow closer to Him and to be open to Him moving in us and through us in our daily lives. The Holy Spirit is for you, today. As Jesus did for the Apostles, you can trust that He will always be with you and in you all your life by your baptism.
In my day, if I wanted to increase my tennis prowess I would watch Chris Evert Lloyd’s moves on the court. When my mother cut my hair in the iconic “Dorothy Hamill” pixie, my whole world revolved around the dream of being an Olympic skater. I watched her every skating competition, eager to pick up even the tiniest trick to hone my skills. For the record, my moves were ample for the make-believe Pond Capades but never truly worthy of the hairdo. After it became quite apparent that sports were not my ticket to riches and fame, my attention turned to music. I spent hours, hairbrush microphone in hand, trying to emulate Toni Tennille and Marie Osmond and later Pat Benatar and Madonna! I watched every video and never missed an interview, trying to figure out how they mastered their art and rose to stardom. What piqued my attention to these women? There were experts. They had reached a goal I could only dream of achieving, so if I wanted to get there as well, it made only sense I would need to turn to them achieve it. My goals have shifted slightly since the 1980s and I have not given in to a culturally driven hairstyle since “The Rachel.” My simple objective now is to know Jesus, to follow His ways and to help lead others to Him. The skills, knowledge and disposition of the heart required to achieve this end is clearly embodied in one woman, one Jesus expert, His and our mother—Mary. Unlike the role models from my childhood, Mary illustrates more than just one specialized skill set. By contemplating how she responded to the circumstances of her life, I can discover many virtues and behaviors that can bring me to heights no singer, tennis-playing- or skater-champion ever could! Here is just a small sampling of what I have learned from Mary, the Jesus expert: Courage There is no courage without fear. True courage is persevering with the task before you in face of your trepidation. This is the one thing I NEVER realized Mary would have had to embrace. I figured, her son was Jesus. She had all that grace to keep her from being worried or afraid. To me, if an angel appears to you and gives you a message from God then you have to know you are kind of special, so what is there to fear. In removing her humanness from all my pondering of her life, I missed the beauty of all she has to teach me. When I realized she had MUCH to be fearful of—beginning with not being stoned to death due to her “seemingly un-explainable” pregnancy, moving onto a king determined to slay her newborn baby and being present at the risk of her own life at the crucifixion of her son. Yet, her faith was unwavering. How, in light of all that, could I not turn to her during my own needs, to teach me how to be courageous in the trials of my own life? Where do you need Mary to teach you to be heroic? Compassion Young Mary had just received the most incredible news of her life, really in the history of the world. Unlike me, she did not sit around in shock pondering how crazy and yet awesome it was to be chosen by God and wondering if this was actually happening. She did not head to the town well to spread her good news. Mary, upon hearing her older cousin Elizabeth was with child and needing help, packed up her donkey and headed out of town. Compassion is the care and concern for another. The ability to see a need and then step up to assist with it. During the long, hot, difficult trip, her own discomfort and, yes, even perhaps her own morning sickness and swollen ankles, Mary pushed through all of it to come to the aid of another. Humble and pure of heart, her love for others is present throughout scripture—protecting the bride and groom from certain embarrassment at the wedding at Cana was at the forefront of her thoughts and, more importantly, her actions. Where do you need Mary to teach you to not only see where assistance is needed but also the heart to act on it? Trust One minute you are looking at cute dresses for Easter, the next your daughter is NO where to be seen. For most of us, this feeling of panic lasts only a few seconds until she emerges from the clothing rack next to you. For Mary, this horror of searching for her missing son lasted three days. Throughout those long days of travel and seeking Jesus, she put her trust in God; to have any peace she had to believe that regardless of the outcome God was in control. Furthermore, Mary would have known the Psalms and the promises sung by David, including these words from Psalm 37:5: “Commit your way to the LORD; Trust also in Him, and He will do it.” Mary had already lived these words as Simeon foretold of her son’s future and the sword that would pierce her heart and again, even more powerfully, when she would gaze upon her son on the cross. There is no one more committed to His ways than she. If I want to surrender myself humbly to the will of God and do so with trust and hope then Mary’s example is the one to follow. With what current situation do you need to put your hope in God and trust like Mary?
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