From Slave To Friend of God: My Son's Story

I no longer call you slaves, because a slave does not know what his master is doing. I have called you friends, because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father.   John 15:14-15

No one knew better than Christ that the pain against which we so desperately try to numb ourselves, and all the world’s evil, seem to stem from our terrible fear that we are basically unlovable.     Heather King, Holy Desperation: Praying As If your Life Depends On it, 66

Few people I know have experienced the bondage of slavery like my beloved twenty-six year old son, Christian—who has struggled with a life-wrecking addiction for over ten years; an addiction mercilessly driven by a core belief that he is not loved.

But lately, something has changed. Something akin to a miracle has occurred.

Instead of using words like shame, rejection, fear and punishment, Christian is suddenly speaking the language of love. Specifically, he’s speaking about having encountered God’s personal, gentle, merciful love for him—an encounter that has changed, well—everything.

“My life has always been about failing, about suffering, about punishment,” Christian shared with me in a conversation two days ago. “But when I finally came to God in stillness, in quiet, with an open heart and mind, I heard him whisper in my heart—I love you.” As I listened in grateful awe, he continued: “Since I’ve allowed a little bit of that love to seep into the deepest places of my heart—into the darkest things I’ve ever known and done—I’ve seen that has always God loved me, that he only wanted to embrace me, and that he has always been there with me.”

This is precisely how we transform from slaves to friends of God.

 My son has a “new way of thinking,” as he referred to it, and it has everything to do with coming to believe that he is deeply loved by a merciful God, and that he’s called to live out of that reality.   This new way of understanding has convinced him that many people aren’t interested in God because they have the wrong idea about who God is, thinking of him as a punitive, exacting taskmaster instead of “as a gentle Father whose love and mercy hold the world together.”

Believe me, I know words can be cheap. But when you hear those words coming from the depth of a son’s heart—a son who’s been afflicted for so many years—you know something has radically changed. And you genuinely rejoice.

“Punishment is not who God is!” Christian stated emphatically. “He is love and what he wants is our hearts. People need to know that we are loved by a Father who wants to heal us, set us free, and bless us. And we can’t know that until we personally know who God is.”

Christian went on to say that he now recognizes that recovery—freedom from slavery to drugs—is not about shaming himself out of screwing up or beating himself over the head for falling. “Recovery is about healing the broken heart,” he concluded with conviction. “It’s about opening up, trusting, and allowing ourselves to be vulnerable to God and to others. What matters is that we are loved, and when we live our lives based on that fact, we become free.”

Indeed, I hear the sweet freedom of a friend of Christ in my son’s voice, a young man who has discovered at last that Christ’s “friends” are “those whom he loves.” I see the liberty of a child of God who has finally heard the voice of the Father whispering: You are my beloved son in whom I am well pleased.

Such is the cry of freedom of the children of God, freedom won only through love.

This article was previously published at Aleteia.

Are We Seeking Miracles or Magic?

Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding and my entire will, all I have and call my own. You have given all to me. To you, Lord, I return it. Everything is yours; do with it what you will. Give me only your love and your grace, that is enough for me.     St. Ignatius of Loyola, Suscipe

If you’d asked me six months ago if I believe in miracles, I would have responded with a resounding “Yes!” Especially since I was praying ardently for a miracle at the time—the healing of someone whom I love that suffers from the dreaded disease of addiction.

I’d prayed for the same “miracle” countless times before—pleading with God for an outcome I desperately wanted and believed I needed for all to be “well.” As months passed and my prayers went seemingly unanswered, I felt more and more desolate, finding myself engaged in old, worn-out mental gymnastics that kept me ruminating constantly in fear and regret about “what ifs” and “woulda, coulda, shouldas.”

Then came the day that changed things: the day I walked into my spiritual director’s office and began weeping before I sat down. At my wits' end, I felt trapped by a gnawing sense of doom and despair from which I could not wrench myself.

“Maybe,” Fr. Robert gently suggested, “you’re hitting your own emotional bottom. Maybe this is active addiction is going to be the ‘new normal’ in your life. And maybe this is an invitation from God for you to learn to how to live in peace, no matter what happens with the circumstances.”

As usual, Fr. Robert had a way of nailing things quite precisely.

Later that day, I felt prompted to begin working on the next step of my Twelve Step Recovery Program, Step 3: “Made a decision to turn my will and my life over to the care of God as I understood him.” Step 3 was accompanied by a question that hit me like thunderbolt of grace: Am I willing to stop asking God for the addict to change?      

 Was I willing to cease and desist with my constant prayer for God to heal my addicted loved one, the first prayer that came to my mind every time I had a rush of anxiety about his wellbeing?   Was I willing to accept that “God’s will” and “my will” might not be exactly the same, given the fact that God alone could grasp the big picture of our life stories? And could it be that placing my loved one radically into God’s hands—earnestly praying only “thy will be done” for him and for his life—is the only “miracle” I really needed?

 As I pondered and prayed over these questions, I began to experience the difference between magic and miracle, between willfulness and willingness, between an interior attitude which insists that “my will be done” vs. a trusting stance of finally being willing to turn everyone and everything over to the will of God. Though I’d learned this lesson before, I’d regressed, and God was inviting me again to let go of how I think things ought to be and shift from a posture of demanding magic to receiving a miracle.

Miracle involves openness to mystery, the welcoming of surprise, the acceptance of those realities over which we have no control. Magic is the attempt to be in control, to manage everything—it is the claim to be, or have a special relationship with, some kind of ‘god.’ (Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham, The Spirituality of Imperfection, 118)

Though I’ve joked many times that “there is a God and it ain’t me,” there I’d gone, playing god again. I was praying for a miracle, but in reality, I’d been trying to exact magic.

That very day after meeting with my spiritual director, in a space of surrendered grace, I “made a decision to turn my will and my life over the care of God as I understood him” believing he could restore me to sanity.

At last, the miracle arrived. His will. His ways. Peace.

This article was previously published at Aleteia.

Finding The Ultimate Pleasure Park

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We live in a world where pleasure-seeking has become a highly prized ritual. And we keep upping the ante on what constitutes “pleasure.” Sado-masochism is being normalized, evidenced by the immense popularity of “Fifty Shades of Grey.” Addiction is rampant, and kids are smoking more than “plain old pot.” They are, instead, indulging themselves in cheap, synthetic marijuana, guaranteed to give both an outrageous high and a psychotic break.

The stakes are going up, and so are the consequences. I’ve gotten five phone calls in the last few weeks from desperate mothers trying to figure out what to do about their drug-abusing children. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that our societal disorder is escalating. So, what in the world is the answer?

I was praying about our collective cultural quandary the other day, and quite frankly, my heart was heavy. I decided to meditate on where it all began—the place where sin, chaos and disorder first entered the world. I began reading Genesis and glanced down at the footnote for Genesis 2:8, where the Garden of Eden, paradise, is first mentioned. I was stunned to learn that “Eden,” translated literally from the Greek, means “pleasure park.” Well, I thought, that explains everything!

Human beings first resided in a pleasure park, and it was positively delightful. Teeming with love, life and light, God’s blessing rested everywhere. Banished from paradise due to original sin, we’ve been trying to recreate Eden ever since. We seek endless pseudo-pleasures to fill the void, yet we avoid the one thing that can bring us real fulfillment.

Because here’s the thing: the bliss of paradise consisted in being in God’s presence, and in enjoying an intimate love relationship with Him. Paradise cannot be found outside of the Divine Presence—no matter how wildly we seek it elsewhere. St. Augustine, who discovered this personally, said it this way: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”

It’s not surprising that the less time we make for the pleasure of God’s presence, the more frantic and chaotic we become in trying to fill the God-void. Busyness is epidemic today, as we chase after endless activities, trying to do it all. On occasion, when we’re “still,” we plug ourselves into any number of gadgets that consume our attention.  The endless noise makes it impossible to find interior silence, the place where Presence dwells and the sacred space into which God speaks.

How do we get back to Eden? Where do we find again God’s life, love and light? We must cultivate the garden of our soul, and we must be intentional about doing it.

There is no substitute for spending time alone with the Lord daily, where we speak to Him, become still and listen for His voice.   God asks each of us, every day: “Where are you?” and He wants us to honestly tell Him. He yearns to uncover, possess and penetrate our hearts, and He wants us, in turn, to unveil ourselves, remove our fig leaves and let Him come in.

The secret to finding paradise is simple, yet it comes with a cost. If we “waste” time in God’s presence, and seek Him for His own sake, the place of delight will unfold from within like a beautiful garden. And the pleasure park it contains will surprise and satisfy us with its sweet, healing fruit.

God's Love Is The Best Beauty Treatment

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“Do you think it’s wrong to have a facelift?” a girlfriend asked as we sat on the beach house sofa in our pajamas, sipping coffee and looking out the window at the boats in the harbor. We were on retreat with a wonderful band of women, and as it frequently happens with women, the subject turned to beauty.

“I had the same conversation with my sister just last week,” I replied. “I’ll tell you what I told her. I don’t think it’s ‘wrong’ to have a facelift, but my desire is to be so full of God’s love that it shines through my face so I don’t NEED a facelift,” I continued.

Our culture’s preoccupation with physical beauty is but one sign that we’re living from the outside in, instead of from the inside out. But as Christians, we’re meant to live from the inside out, letting the love of Christ inhabit us so fully that it radiates within us and shows up on our faces as “glory.”

Think about Blessed Teresa of Calcutta. She was not “beautiful” by the world’s standards. But she was one of the most beautiful women who ever lived. Why? She was overflowing with the love of God and it showed on her face.   Such beauty is not exclusive to women.

I often think of Moses, who enjoyed such personal intimacy with God that he spoke with God “face to face” (Ex. 33:11). Moses’ face became so radiant when he conversed with the Lord that he had to veil his face to come into the presence of the Israelites. That manifestation of glory foreshadowed the glory of Christ, who is the very “imprint” of God’s being, and who reveals to us in flesh and blood the face of God (Hebrews 1:3-4). If we want to see God, we are to look at Christ. And if we want to look like God, we are to become like Christ. How? St. Augustine gave us the secret: we become what we contemplate.

We contemplate Christ by spending time with Him in prayer, and by meditating on His Word and His presence. We contemplate Christ by making Him our best friend and top priority in life, and by learning all we can about who He is. We contemplate Christ by serving others, as Blessed Teresa of Calcutta demonstrated so wonderfully through her life’s work, wherein she saw the face of Christ in the “poorest of the poor.”

When we contemplate Christ, we become Christ-like, and we take on His beautiful countenance. Nowhere have I seen this truth manifested more evidently than on the faces of the recovering drug addicts of Communita Cenacolo, a lay Catholic Community that ministers to those in bondage to addiction. The residents of the Community usually arrive there looking beat up, strung out, and exhausted. And indeed they are. Their faces bear witness to the hell they’ve lived in the grip of drugs, which has become their main preoccupation.

I have pictures of my own son the day he arrived at Cenacolo, wearing black circles under his eyes and an almost palpable shadow of darkness on his face. His face looked markedly different when I saw him months later, not because he was being “rehabbed,” but because he was being “restored.” He was returning to the truth that he is a beloved child of God—a child in whom God delights—in large part by spending hours a day before Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. He was becoming what he meditated upon, and his face told the tale. Over the years, I’ve heard many parents echo the same amazement when they see their children’s faces for the first time after they enter the Community, because the change in their faces is nothing short of remarkable.

Do you want to be beautiful? Unveil your face and gaze upon the face of the Lord, that He may transform you from glory to glory (2 Cor. 3:13). His love is a beauty treatment that’s not only free—it has lasting benefits.

Look to Him that you may be radiant with joy, and your faces may not blush with shame.   Psalm 34:6