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We have all experienced that feeling: a sinking in our stomach, a lump in our throat, tears springing to our eyes. We have been let down, disappointed, rejected. maybe we have been tempted to think, “I am never putting myself in that situation again,” “I never want to get hurt again” or “It is not worth it.”
Vulnerability is dangerous! We open ourselves up—perhaps in a friendship, a new relationship, an opportunity in ministry or in the workplace—with the risk of being let down. Sometimes, it feels like there is no point in making ourselves vulnerable. Is it not safer, easier, to keep our hearts closed and never get hurt?
Not too long ago, I was in a situation almost exactly like one I have described. I opened my heart up, only to feel rejected. I wondered why God would let me experience this horrible feeling. I thought it would be safer to close up my heart.
1. S. Lewis tells us, “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to be sure of keeping it intact, you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken: it will become unbreakable, impenetrable and irredeemable.”
Vulnerable like Christ
To love at all is to be vulnerable. To love and live as Christ did, we have to take the step. We have to open our hearts. Jesus is not asking us to deliberately hurt ourselves. If you have been in a relationship of abuse and mistreatment, He is not calling you to continually put yourself back into that situation. Do not confide in a friend who is known for spreading gossip. Perhaps there is a friend with whom you have been waiting to confide but you were stopped by your pride. Maybe you have an opportunity to share your gifts in ministry, but you hesitate for fear of not being good enough. God may be inviting you into a deeper relationship with someone, yet your past wounds are stopping you from taking the leap.
Christ made Himself vulnerable to us. Look to the Cross! That is the ultimate picture of vulnerability, the ultimate picture of love. If we want to be like Him, we must imitate His vulnerability. We have to lay down our lives. How can we do this if we are constantly worried about getting hurt?
Vulnerable to Christ
Jesus Christ is calling us into a relationship with Himself. Have we entered fully into this relationship? Or are we holding back, hiding our hearts from the One who loves us, out of fear?
Many times, I have thought to myself, “I cannot give my life to Jesus. He will take something away from me: this relationship or that comfort, these goals and ambitions.” But He is not a God who takes away. He has already given us everything on the Cross and in the Eucharist. He is asking each of us to be vulnerable with Him in prayer. This may seem impossible at first. But He is listening. He knows our hearts. Tell Him you are afraid to open yourself up to Him. Share with Him your insecurities, your hurts, your anxieties. Offer Him your life—ask Him to help you offer it, day by day, hour by hour and moment by moment.
Vulnerable with Christ
It can be overwhelming to give of ourselves. We can feel exhausted, mentally and emotionally. That little voice inside of us pops up to whisper that it would be easier to lock our hearts away and avoid the risk of pain or rejection. yet, we are not alone; Jesus walks with us. He, also, experienced pain and rejection. His closest friends abandoned Him and the people He came to save crucified Him. He experienced sorrow and heartbreak. He wept at the death of His friend Lazarus and He weeps at our pain, as well. He knows. He has experienced all of this. That is why He came to earth—to intimately experience our unique human lives and sufferings. We do not have a God who is far off, examining us from a distance. We have a God who is united with us.
Vulnerability may sometimes lead us to suffering and pain. Offer that pain to Jesus Christ. Nail it to the Cross. He will transform it and make it redemptive.
Thank God that we have vulnerable hearts! A vulnerable heart is a heart for relationship, a heart for giving and loving. It is the key to living life in and with Christ. By opening ourselves to Him and to the people He places in our lives, we give the Holy Spirit the chance to work in us and through us to bring about the glory of God.'
I have watched all five of my kids play sports of all kinds for more than three decades. I cannot count the number of meets, matches and games I have faithfully attended. Whether it has been sitting on the sidelines in freezing rain, in the bleachers on a 90-degree summer day or putting up with the loud rap music they play for warm-ups, my heart’s desire as a mom to be present always trumped my physical or mental discomforts.
What I have learned in later years is the beautiful art I call “praying the game.” It is an art because there is huge battle with noise and distraction and one must find a way to connect with God even though there is so much going on. Initially, we cannot believe this sporting event could really be a place of prayer. It takes some discipline and practice to really master the art of it, but I have found it truly rewarding! Here are some ways that, while my kids play the game, I “pray the game.”
First of all, I recognize that God is present in each of the young athletes. He is in every heart, mind, soul and body that He has created. He loves us all the same. (you mean He loves those archenemy rival people as well? Indeed He does.) I see in my mind’s eye the guardian angel of every player and spend some time asking them to protect all the kids. (I have actually pictured guardian angels flying over each player as he or she moves about the field or court, which makes for some good mental creativity! It is actually a beautiful sight!) I ask that the athletes will not only be physically unharmed but also that if, in some way, the Lord wants to use the game as an opportunity to help them on the way of salvation, He would do that. Perhaps they must temper their anger or learn how to take a bad call. Maybe a coach takes them out of the game or they miss the winning shot. Maybe, if they are the talented ones on the team and are being showered with abundant praises, they will need to exercise humility. Whatever it is, God can use all these things to teach them about the real meaning of life and its ultimate goal of union with Him in heaven.
Second, I recognize God’s presence in the other parents and spectators around me. No doubt, we end up in conversations with friends and that can be part of the fun for us. We catch up, share stories and maybe complain about the refs together. I find that listening more and talking less here can be key. I pray for the needs that my friends share or the hopes and dreams they might have. An inner prayer might go something like this, “Lord, you see how my friend here is hurting and you see how much she loves her family. Please touch her heart today and let her know that you are near. Let something happen today that might help her see your hand in all the events of her life. Console her in her heartaches as a mom and give her grace. Mother Mary, give her peace.” Depending on how the Spirit leads, I might even sense God wants to use me to share a bit of the faith … how God has worked in my life lately or how I believe He can bring us true joy.
The last way I pray the game is to try to see the whole event as God does. I imagine Him rejoicing in the love and gathering of families. I imagine Him rejoicing in the human body and its capabilities in the gift of playing a sport. I must pause here and say I truly marvel at the ways the body can coordinate its movements, its speed and agility and its strength in the battle. A swimmer doing the butterfly stroke is poetry in motion. The lengths to which a body speeds and stretches out to make the diving catch in baseball is amazing. This, of course, cannot be separated from the soul within! God sees the drive of the heart, the discipline of the mind and the tenacity of the human spirit at work among His people. Though I do think He grieves that He is not remembered or thanked often for these gifts, I know He still loves and because He is so good He gives the athletes the joy of exercising those gifts in the game. I pray that God will help all of us present in the big crowd to come to an understanding one day that this longing we all have for communion, and for winning, is really based on the human heart’s longing for heaven. We will not worship a sport or the players but the one true God. We will gather to see that the enemy of evil and death has been conquered. With God on our side, we will sing, as they often do at games, “We are the champions.”'
‘I will bless the Lord who gives me counsel, who even at night directs my heart.’ —Psalms 16:7
For decades I have called myself a morning person, an early bird. I am drawn to the light for so many reasons. It reveals truth with such clarity. It renews hope. It warms the soul. On the contrary, darkness veils the earth and thus my life. I do not like having anything concealed. I cannot trust the darkness, because I cannot see clearly what is before or behind me. The murkiness of the night sky frightens me, because daylight does not muddle what is and is not real or true or good.
So my heart, like my aching body, was recently jostled awake once our newborn made her debut into the world. All at once, I was thrust back into chaos with her erratic need to sleep and eat. It did not coincide with mine, of course. The party did not usually begin for her until nightfall, just as I was peacefully drifting into sleep. Agitated, I got up with her night after night, wishing for eight consecutive hours of sleep but knowing it would not arrive for months. I needed those eight hours so that I could tackle life and whatever surprises lay in store on a daily basis. Over time, I found myself loathing the darkness, willing it away. I dreaded dusk, because I knew sleep would be elusive, albeit temporarily.
Then something unexpected, something graced, happened. The night feedings gave way to prayer, for me to bask in the rare silence that night afforded me; when everyone else slumbered, I had a sacred space for God. So I entered that solitude hazily at first, then hungrily. It was the only time each day I could cry out my frustrations to Jesus and then be still in His soft, gentle presence. After a while, the night became my day. I had forgotten the hidden beauty of darkness and how often holiness disguises itself from the naked eye. Night, darkness, reminds me that God longs for us to pursue Him as He pursues us—relentlessly, desperately, endlessly.
Love—authentic, deep, abiding love—cannot be easily found. It must be sought, protected and fought for. It must be worth giving up our preference for security and assurance. It must be worth us changing, conforming to the One who waits for us in the stillness and silence that night provides.
I may be clothed in darkness in this stage of life, but I anticipate the dawn. Life cycles through moments of concealment to revelation and back again. Whether we operate as early birds or night owls, God meets us and transforms us when all of our time—days and nights— becomes offerings of love for Him.'
I am going to get all fairy-tale on you for just a minute: my wedding day was the most amazing day of my life to date. I loved every minute of it. I still get happy when I look at the photos of our day (Blu-Tacked to our bedroom wall as we are not allowed to hang frames in our apartment; we are renting).
Our wedding day felt like the culmination of all of the talking, dates, praying, seeking and journeying toward our vocation. my husband and I were 20 and 21. It did not feel like I was “too young” to get married. We had an incredible amount of support from our family and friends. We were, and are, so blessed.
It is not all mountain-climbing adventures, cute selfies and warm winter snuggles on the couch watching tv. Sometimes it is like that, but not as often as you think.
My husband and I are both studying full time, I am working two jobs and he works full time. We are busy. We are also normal and need down time. We need to hang out with our friends (that are not each other). We argue about stupid things and important things. My marriage requires a lot from me when sometimes it does not feel like I have anything to give.
Sometimes we are too tired from university and work to cook dinner, but we have to cook dinner because we do not live at home and mum cannot just whip something up for us (love ya, mum). I have not lived at home since I finished high school and I did not know how to appreciate a fully stocked fridge of food back then.
So how do we do it, being young and married? Jesus is the one who fuels me on this journey. His love flows straight through my veins and into the heart of another. It is Jesus who calls me to holiness through my marriage.
I am not going to tell you that marriage requires sacrifice (because it does, but I am sure you have already heard that hundreds of times). I want to tell you that it requires honesty. Being honest with yourself and with God about where you are. How are you doing? Are you stressed? What is the deal with budgeting? Do you need more quality time than you are receiving?
You need to be honest with your spouse. marriage is not for running and hiding. Maybe for a little while, but in the long run honesty will be your best friend. You need to create space for your spouse to be honest with you as well.
Being young and married does allow us to be adventurers together. Like, how many weeks can we stretch out our trip to Europe before it affects our studies? From where is that smell in the kitchen coming?! (We mastered that one). Our weekly trips to the dog park to pat stranger’s dogs are a necessity for us to remember that married life is not all about serious work and strategic organization.
I am still growing up. I do not know everything there is to know about life or marriage. Neither does my husband (although he does know a lot) and it can be so confusing for the both of us trying to figure it all out, at the same time. We need grace. We need ALL of the grace.
We need to approach the Sacraments regularly; not just because “we should” but because we NeeD to. How can I offer forgiveness if I do not know of it myself? How can I offer unconditional love to my husband if I have forgotten the ultimate act of unconditional love?
Jesus is not just my ultimate example; He is my ultimate teacher. I cannot take direction from myself, from society or from my friends alone. I need to take all things to and from Him. There is no other way that I can expect to be faithful in my vocation if it is not with Jesus.
Let us create a culture of young people so desperate to live out their vocation that they cannot put aside holiness any longer. Whether you get married or serve the Church through single life, priesthood or religious life—or if you are still on your way to figuring it out—seek God with your whole heart. Do it now. He will not disappoint you.'
It has never been easy to discern a vocation, but it is especially difficult for people in the current milieu because modern society is complex and messy. yet it is precisely in the complexity and messiness where some of the most important answers in life are found. The good news is that no matter how confused we feel, our own unique purpose in life lies deep within our own soul:
“Discovering vocation does not mean scrambling toward some prize just beyond my reach but accepting the treasure of true self I already possess. Vocation does not come from a voice ‘out there’ calling me to be something I am not. It comes from a voice ‘in here’ calling me to be the person I was born to be, to fulfill the original selfhood given to me at birth by God.” —Father Thomas merton, O.C.S.O.
Just the idea that God has a plan for each of us should be thrilling, but modern Catholics struggle with exactly how to live faithfully the teachings of the Church while remaining true to themselves as members of contemporary society. Any vocational decision seems to clash with contemporary concepts of feminism, masculinity and success. Life as a religious or a priest is a laughable waste of time if one views monks, nuns and priests as retreating from the world. A celibate single person faces derision from a culture obsessed with sex. Women, whose heartfelt desire is to become mothers, feel dismissed and ridiculed for wanting to embrace this most sacred, natural role of women as nurturing mothers.
The problem with discerning a vocation is that most Catholics do not even have a sense that everyone has a divine purpose in life. Catholics simply have a vague idea that only a few holy people are called by God for something special. even worse, many are afraid to even begin to seek their vocation, fearing what God will force them to do.
Any devout Catholic girl assumes God wants her to be a nun. Decades ago, I was secretly terrified Jesus would ask me to be a cloistered nun, especially when I heard the nearby monastic community of “The Sisters of the Precious Blood” was interceding for me. A priest who was conducting a retreat at the monastery had asked me to share my conversion story. I was shocked when he guided me through a latched iron gate in the chapel and then turned a corner, where I suddenly faced twenty sisters dressed in black veils, white tunics and long scarlet scapulars, sitting in individual choir stalls with their heads bowed in prayer. I had envisioned I would be sitting in a circle, informally sharing my story. Instead, I stood awkwardly, without a lectern, wearing a casual top, jeans and sandals. Soon these serene nuns were not just smiling but laughing; one sister actually doubled over with mirth when I recalled my grandfather’s horror at my conversion to the Catholic Church. “my God, how did she get herself into that mess?”
After my talk, I was sure I would soon be entering this monastic community, even though it was not my heart’s desire. I wish I had been able to hear the words of Pope Francis as he constantly tells us that a dedicated Christian life is one which sets us free to become fully who we are.
Seeking A Vocation
Sometimes Jesus will hit us over the head with a miraculous intervention which reveals His will for our lives in a burst of clarity. most often we must intentionally seek the face and voice of God to discover our authentic vocation. “The one who listens attentively to the Word of God and truly prays, always asks the Lord: what is your will for me?” says Pope Francis. It takes prayer, reflection and a sincere desire to mature spiritually to find our specific calling.
Pope Francis describes this spiritual journey, “When the Lord gives a mission, He always has us enter into a process, a process of purification, a process of discernment, a process of obedience, a process of prayer”. This vocational process is the most important, exciting adventure in life.
Christian revelation recognizes two specific ways of realizing the vocation of the human person in its entirety, to love: marriage and virginity or celibacy. either one is, in its own proper form, an actuation of the most profound truth of [wo]man, of [her] being “created in the image of God.” (Pope St. John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio)
Of course, there are a few traditional discernment steps which are helpful in revealing our vocation. Journaling really helped me discern a vocation because the process of writing clarified my thoughts and feelings. When we put down our gifts, our limitations and the pros and cons for certain vocations, we can see things better in black and white rather than simply allowing our thoughts to swirl around in our heads.
Most importantly, if you want to find out who you really are in Christ, place yourself in the presence of the loving God, come to a sense of peace and then try to listen to your heart. even as a young Christian, God gave me an inner sense of which road to take when I stopped long enough to ask Him and listen to Him. Often His answer was opposite to what I thought would be the ‘holy’ choice.
For example, when I wanted to attend a Protestant Bible School at 18 years old with my sister, I knew I was supposed to remain in university even though it felt like I was refusing to dedicate my life to Jesus. But God surprised me; six months later when I attended my first mass, God ripped the rug out from under me as I found myself yearning to receive the Eucharist. I made an appointment with the university chaplain right after that first mass.
This not only led me into the Church, he became my spiritual director. This Jesuit was a good director who helped me deepen my relationship with God and helped me get to know myself better. If it was not for this priest challenging my preconceived notions of who I was, where God was calling me, I shiver to think where I would be right now.
Our vocation does lie deep within our own soul but we are part of a community of believers and we need each other as we journey together towards the heart of God.'
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.
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.
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.'
It’s Not Automatic
Kate and I have been married for just under ten years, and we currently have six children under the age of eight (four sons and two daughters). So, from the get-go our relationship has been defined by our constantly having more demanded of us than we seem to have to offer. This often drives us to prayer to ask God to make our kids (and one another) less demanding, to miraculously give us more energy, patience, and love, and to somehow get us on the same page each time fertility comes back around and we’ve got decisions to make. God is faithful, and He responds beautifully when we come to Him, so our deepest struggles usually don’t come from His lack of communication but from our own.
We had both studied and given presentations on the Theology of the Body prior to marriage, and I was proud of how we prayerfully discerned big decisions, so I expected that entering into a Sacramental union with my wife would somehow provide the grace of a sort of spiritual “mind-meld.” I realized pretty quickly that God doesn’t actually work that way, and we were both pretty quickly overwhelmed by the fact that we are completely different people, each with our own unique perspective (who knew?). It was like moving to a foreign country and expecting to naturally speak the language somehow.
I spent hours in prayer asking God to bridge the gap for us, and I was constantly nagging Kate to do the same. We would go to Adoration together, and I expected that God would provide us with a perfectly unifying experience, but it usually ended with us in the car afterward trying (and failing) to understand what the other was sharing about their own particular experience in prayer.
There was also the almost constant discernment about massive decisions having to do with openness to life, career changes, the education of our children, etc., and we didn’t feel like we had the material resources for any of it. Our foundational differences in our understanding of God and how we related to Him (especially when suffering is on the line) quickly came to the surface and seemed insurmountable. We would each get different answers in prayer, we would struggle to articulate ourselves, and we felt like we ultimately couldn’t trust each other’s discernment. After a while, we stopped wanting to even bring it up; we felt trapped within the walls that were growing between us. This division became a deep source of pain, despair, and bewilderment. If God cared about our marriage and He wanted us to be united, why didn’t He fix it?
We Don’t Make Sense By Ourselves
It was during my reflection on the Stations of the Cross one Friday during Lent that I realized where I had been going wrong. During the Fifth Station (Simon helps Jesus carry His Cross), God showed me that I was like Simon, unwilling to allow my own individual “progress” to be hindered by my wife’s struggle to trust God in the same way that I did. I was prideful of how well I thought I was carrying my crosses, and I realized that I didn’t really want to be affected by her weaknesses. I quickly recognized that if I were able to “get to the finish line” without her, it would be completely pointless. It was God who joined us, and because of that, our lonely journeys to Him no longer make sense. I realized that my life really only makes sense if I am willing to get under her cross, our cross, moving as slowly as both of us can move together. And, as it turns out, this completely changes the experience of the journey for both of us, making it so much more fulfilling and very real.
We began to see that what we were yearning for was what Saint John Paul II continually referred to as conjugal spirituality. But, we didn’t have the tools or even a vision for how to develop that. We prayed together often using the Rosary, the Liturgy of the Hours, and other devotions, and we discussed our insights and experiences, but we each still felt like outsiders to the deepest movements of one another’s heart. I realized that I could not know Kate in her truest self without coming to know who she is in the presence of God.
Simple, But Not Easy
It wasn’t until we were introduced to the Couple prayer Series, a simple program created by Deacon Bob and Kathy Ovies to get couples started in praying together, and later to Domestic Church, a movement from Poland that provides basic formation specifically for conjugal spirituality, that we began to see that developing a conjugal spirituality wasn’t a new or complicated process, but it certainly wasn’t easy. We learned, for example, that the spiritual intimacy experienced when praying together openly and out loud is truly deeper than any other form of intimacy. The vulnerability involved in even sexual intimacy still doesn’t compare to the experience of allowing our spouses to enter into our deepest prayer.
Praying together can be as simple as just holding hands and taking turns praying out loud, but there’s a reason why couples tend to avoid it. It’s not because we don’t have a few minutes to spare. The truth is, I don’t want my wife to know that I don’t have it all together and that my real prayer sounds more like a lost fourth grader than a contemplative monk. However, when we do pray together, it feels like something truly real is happening rather than the usual experience of just having ideas bounce around in my own head in hopes that God somehow hears them. And, it’s always surprising how much more quickly and powerfully the answers come for the things we pray about together. It’s as if God is saying, “This is what I’ve been waiting for! This is what I put you together for!” Individual prayer is still necessary, but it is informed by the beautifully real experience of our couple prayer.
Spiritual intimacy will most definitely strengthen and improve all other types of intimacy (especially physical intimacy—just sayin’, guys!). It can be tough to get started, but the good news is that you don’t need special techniques, you just need to do it. Hold hands and pray. It may be awkward at first, but all you have to do to get better at it is to keep doing it. pick a time each day (right before bed may not be best for one or both of you), and fight hard to stick to it, even when you fall off the wagon.
We, as men, naturally want a battle worth fighting, and we must not leave this one to our wives. They usually feel the desire for this kind of connection more than we do, but they are also deeply sensitive to the possibility of rejection if they were to ask us to pray with them. We are made to take the initiative and to pursue our wives, and there truly is no better way to do this than to actively pursue a deeper understanding of their minds and hearts as God sees them. The hardest part is agreeing to pray together and just getting started, but you’ll find that you’ll always be grateful that you did.
A few practical tips:
◗ Don’t be critical of your spouse’s prayer—this is a huge breach of vulnerability.
◗ Pick a time and stick with it. But, agree that if you haven’t done it before going to bed, you won’t go to sleep until you do. Make it a “no compromise” activity!
◗ Take turns (at least at first). Agree that you will squeeze hands or something like that to let your spouse know when you are finished.
◗ Start with thanking God for specific things—you’ll find it totally changes the attitude of the rest of your prayer.
◗ Involve Scripture (lectio divina) here and there. It gives you a great place to start your prayer.
◗ Just do it!'
The world is in turmoil. Everywhere, people cry, “peace, peace.” But there is no peace. Our hearts are filled with anger, envy, violence, and anxiety. Every day, a tumultuous and passion-filled torrent of words and emotions gushes forth on the Internet and across cable news networks.
We long for rest, for tranquility, but cannot find it anywhere. In their desperation, some would even impose peace by force, by beating their ideological enemies into submission—a bitter paradox if there ever was one.
The upheavals of the world are not random. They are simply a reflection of the emptiness and futile strivings of our own hearts. Saint James the Apostle diagnoses the ills of our time: What causes wars, and what causes fighting among you? Is it not your passions that are at war in your members? You desire and do not have; so you kill. And you covet and cannot obtain; so you fight and wage war (James 4: 1, 2).
Our passions are running wild, and they are killing us.
Saint Paul’s Prescription
The way of the world is the way of anxiety and death, but the way of the Lord is the way of peace and life. The enemy of our souls is the one who sows enmity and hate and striving against one another. The only solution to the peace of the world is to find peace in our own hearts.
We have a natural tendency to think our own times are the worst that have ever existed. Yet, Saint Paul lived in times that were more painful than our own. His whole world was in turmoil, with the Jewish authorities persecuting the burgeoning Church, heresies invading from all sides, and wayward Christians bickering and forming factions. In these trying circumstances, Saint Paul labored tirelessly to preach the Gospel, a seemingly impossible task.
Wherever he went, he met adversity. He was relentlessly persecuted, beaten, stoned and left for dead, starved, shipwrecked, imprisoned, and maligned. If anyone had a right to be anxious and discouraged, it was Saint Paul.
But that was not his answer. Despite the literal and figurative stormy seas that he encountered, Saint Paul was always at peace. In his letter to the Philippians, Saint Paul outlines his prescription for soul peace in troubled times.
Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.
The very first thing Saint Paul encourages is rejoicing. Be joyful. Let your joy shine from your face. Do not be discouraged or disheartened.
But how, you might ask, can one be joyful when there is so much pain and suffering in the world? It is often easier said than done. The answer is simply because we serve a good God who loves mankind, and He has trampled down death by His own death on the Cross. We rejoice because we know that while we are daily surrounded by defeat, we serve Jesus Christ, who defeated defeat by being defeated—and rose victorious to die no more. It is in encountering the Risen Christ, most especially in the Eucharist, that we experience the joy of His victory.
Rejoicing is not optional for the Christian. In another letter, Saint paul tell us to “give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God for you.” Give thanks in all circumstances. Not by finding something positive to be happy about in the mess, though there is nothing wrong with this, but rather by giving thanks for the tribulations themselves. This is the sure way to joy and the highest form of thanksgiving. It is only possible by grace. Yet rejoicing, even in trials, is the path to peace.
Second, we are told to be gentle. Gentleness is not much valued in today’s world of swagger and machismo. Violence, both literal and rhetorical, rules the day. But it should never characterize the followers of the Crucified, who should be known for their meekness, humility, and gentleness towards all, especially those who hate us or despise us—our enemies. Do not return cursing for cursing, no matter how tempting it may be, but rather bless those who malign and persecute you and pray for them, so that you may be truly the children of God, not in word only, but in reality. peace starts with hearts full of peace, not vengeance and retribution.
The third thing Saint Paul exhorts us to is prayer. Only in opening our hearts to the Lord God will we find peace. A holy man once said, and I paraphrase, that looking for peace in external circumstances is foolish. They will never truly exist. The only peaceful place on earth is the heart when the Lord is there. It is only in communion with the prince of peace in our deepest heart that we will find the peace we so desperately crave.
And how do we come to know Christ? How do we abide in Him as the branch abides in the vine? By prayer. “pray without ceasing,” Saint Paul tells us. prayer is the tuning of the heart to God. The more we grow in the awareness of His presence, the more our hearts will be at peace.
Finally, we are told to fill our minds with what is good and true. So often, we think entertainment is harmless. We believe all the “right” things, so we imagine we can consume whatever we want. This simply is not true. In a very real sense, we commune with what we consume. It becomes part of us. Watching endless violence and debauchery on TV is not harmless. Likewise, watching a 24-hour news cycle intent on creating feelings of dread and doom and filled with all the worst humanity has to offer is a quick recipe for anxiety.
Saint Paul is clear: Do not dwell on what is evil. You are taking this knowledge into yourself and it is becoming part of you. Neither can you ever expect to find peace by filling your mind with the horrendous acts that stream across the Internet and cable news networks incessantly. Dwell on what is good and holy. Read and watch and consume what will elevate your mind and fill your heart with peace, for you will become what you gaze upon.
Earthly Problems, Heavenly Solutions
Saint Paul’s solutions are not the world’s. The world says protect yourself at all costs. Stockpile food and weapons. Scream and riot and smash things. Write scathing editorials and angry polemics. Sign petitions and intimidate. Mock and humiliate. Yet, these false cures will never bring peace—only more emptiness and pain and anxiety. They are a foretaste of hell.
The way of the Lord is the way of peace. Rejoice. Be gentle. Pray. Think on what is good. And the God of peace will be with you always.'