Dear Self: How Holy Are You? How To Become Holy In One Not-So-Easy Step

IMG_3312 What does it mean to be holy? And how do we become holy?

These two questions burned in my mind for years as I moved from agnosticism, to fundamentalist Protestantism, then home to Catholicism. When I returned to the Catholic Church, I continued to ask the same questions about holiness as I specialized in apologetics, moral theology and bioethics. Finally, thanks to my life imploding, I came to the conclusion that holiness consists, quite simply, in love of and surrender to God.

Truth be told, I can now see that my trajectory within Christianity was an attempt, albeit a worthy one, to have an authority tell me the truth in black and white, give me the laws, and present me with the parameters in which to live. I used to joke that I just wanted someone to tell me the flipping rules so I could follow them!

Because deep down I knew that following the rules was a heck of a lot easier than surrendering to a wild, unpredictable God—especially a God who allows so much suffering in life. It took many years of prayer, study, soul-searching and, of course, personal suffering before I began to see that the essence of holiness is not formulas, facts or feats—good as those can be—but trusting God. And that the indispensable ingredients of holiness are hoping in God in all things, believing he is good no matter what, and surrendering to his love with abandon.

Sounds simple enough, right? Simple maybe. But easy, no.

Thanks to a suggestion by Amazon, I recently happened upon Dr. Peter Kreeft’s new book, How To Be Holy: First Steps In Becoming A Saint, which explains masterfully why holiness is simple but hard.  Amazingly, at least to me, Kreeft affirms exactly what I’ve been trying to say in both my writing and talks—that holiness it isn’t about performance, but surrender. In other words, holiness has much less to do with asserting my will as it does with assenting to God’s. And therein lies the crux of Kreeft’s message.

With the brilliance, wit and logic that is classic Kreeft, the prolific author and philosopher sums it up neatly in these words:

“Abandonment’, or “islam”, or “surrender”, to God’s providential will is also the very essence of holiness.” Kreeft, How To Be Holy, 31

He builds his thesis on the truth that God is all-good, all-knowing and all-powerful, and upon St. Paul’s words in Romans 8:28 which say: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”

Most of us would readily agree that God is good and working all things together for our good when things are carrying on happily in our lives; that is, when they are going according to “our will.” During these times, we are invited to cultivate the virtues of faith, hope and love by aligning our will with God’s and growing in relationship with him.

But it is when God allows us to be sanctified, or made holy, “against our will, through suffering” (Kreeft, 32), that we are frontally challenged to exercise the theological virtues in a more radical way. It is then that we must decide whether we really believe that God is good and whether we truly trust that what he is permitting in our lives is for our good. In these moments of permitted purification, we are beckoned to abandon ourselves with confidence to God’s providential will, allowing the fire of God’s love to burn away the dross of our own self-love and self-will—in a word, selfishness—which, Kreeft says is the main obstacle to holiness. When we assent to God in the midst of suffering, we begin to experience what the sage author calls “joyful, trusting self-surrender,” which requires saying: Not my will, but thy will be done.

And that, my friends, that hard prayer of willing, intentional surrender in abandonment to a God we believe is good and loving—in the teeth of what is often a hard-fought battle through suffering—is what makes us holy.

Simple perhaps. Easy no. But entirely possible with grace.

This article previously appeared at Aleteia.

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Hope For Troubled Parents: Become A Child Yourself

FullSizeRender-2 Twice recently I've heard parents say: “I did everything right, and my child is still doing (name your favorite sin).” “Good luck with that!” I responded to one of them in a voice that was louder and more vigorous than I intended. Because the lie that if you do it all right, then you’ll be guaranteed a good result is a form of an ancient heresy known as Pelagianism. The old heresy now has a new moniker: the Prosperity Gospel, which purports that if I do X and Y then I will earn Z from God. Oh, how it misses the point of God’s grace!

What a relief to heartily admit what two of the greatest saints of our era, namely St. Faustina and St. Therese of Lisieux, freely admitted: they couldn’t get it right. While simultaneously reading St. Faustina’s Diary and Fr. Michael Gaitley’s 33 Days to Merciful Love, I was almost giddy when I happened upon Faustina and Therese’s own words:

O my God, I understand well that you demand this spiritual childhood of me…I am an abyss of misery, and hence I understand that whatever good there is in my soul consists solely of His holy grace. The knowledge of my misery allows me, at the same time, to know the immensity of Your mercy. (St. Faustina, Diary, par. 56.)

And if the good God wants you weak and helpless like a child…do you believe you will have less merit?...Agree to stumble at every step, therefore, even to fall, to carry your cross weakly, to love your helplessness. (Gaitley, quoting Therese, 56)

Before I read those words, I’d been feeling particularly low about the mistakes, failures and foibles I’ve made as a parent. But surprisingly, every time I turned to the Lord for guidance he said the same thing to me: Become a child yourself.

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Why?

Children are spontaneously, intuitively in touch with their own neediness, and they are quick to ask for help. Children have open hands and open hearts, and they stand ready to receive love with gratitude and joy. Children live in expectant faith that if they fall, fail or flail their Papa is going to take care of it—and he’s going to take care of them, too. Children trust completely.

This is the way of spiritual childhood that Faustina and Therese found so liberating; it is the way of the child through which we, too, must pass in order to enter the kingdom of heaven. The way of spiritual childhood is the path of humility and trust: I freely and humbly admit that I’m a hot mess, while furiously trusting that I am loved and redeemed by a merciful God who is bigger than all of my sins and weaknesses.

Of course, I try my best to live and love according to the ways of Christ. And when I fail to do so I turn to God, trusting that he will fill in the gap of all I am lacking in love and holiness with his love and holiness, and that his offering is superabundantly sufficient. Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) said it this way:

What faith basically means is just that this shortfall that we have in our love is made up by the surplus of Jesus Christ’s love, acting on our behalf. He simply tells us that God himself has poured out among us a superabundance of love and has thus made good in advance all our deficiency. Ultimately, faith means nothing other than admitting that we have this kind of shortfall; it means opening our hand and accepting a gift. (Ratzinger, What It Means to Be A Christian, 74).

Are you fretting about all you lack as a parent? Then become a little child. Abandon yourself and your children completely to God, trusting that his love will make up for whatever is lacking in yours. This is grace. For as the Little Flower herself insisted, all is grace.

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This article was previously published at Aleteia.

Abortion and the Logic of Love

On this day of prayer, fasting and penance, we sadly remember the 56,000,000 babies who have died through abortion since the legalization of abortion in America in 1973.  May God have mercy on us and upon our nation. FullSizeRender

In short, the mercy of God is not an abstract ideal, but a concrete reality with which he reveals his love as that of a father or a mother, moved to the very depths out of the love for their child.                Pope Francis, Miseracordiae Vultus, par. 6.

The only desire I had when I boarded the plane was to power down, enjoy some silence, and read Bishop Robert Barron’s Catholicism: A Journey to the Heart of the Faith, newly downloaded to my i-Phone. It had been a very busy weekend of non-stop talking, which included giving two one-hour presentations at a Marian conference.

But when a 20ish-looking blonde woman sat next to me, something told me to put down the phone and tune into her. “Where are you coming from?” she asked.

“I spoke at a Catholic conference in St. Louis,” I replied. “I’m headed home to New Orleans.”

Introducing herself as Paige, she shared that she was getting married in May, and that she and her Jewish fiancé had recently traveled to Israel for a month-long visit to attend a friend’s bar mitzvah. She disclosed her horror over the routine violence that is part and parcel of life there, especially as Muslim extremists increasingly engage in random stabbings of Jewish people.

“A man was stabbed right by our hotel,” she lamented. “And it didn’t even make the news. It’s incredible!”

We both agreed that the world needs much less hatred and violence, and much more love.

Paige shared that her parents had raised her without faith, even though they’d sent her to Catholic schools her whole life.

The conversation somehow turned to abortion. “I know you’re Catholic,” she said unapologetically, “but I’m totally pro-choice. One of my best friends is an ob-gyn who wants to learn how to do late-term abortions. She feels so badly for people who really want to be parents, really want a baby, then find out that their child has some unsurvivable abnormality. They’re totally stuck, you know, because Louisiana law prevents them from having a late-term abortion.”

“Well,” I offered gingerly, making every effort to use my kindest voice. “It would indeed be a horrible suffering to learn that your baby was going to die within hours of its birth. But what would be even worse is being stuck for the rest of your life with the knowledge that you had caused their death.”

Paige’s eyes grew bigger.

“I know of people who have lived through this,” I continued, sharing the story of presidential candidate Rick Santorum and his wife, Karen.   “They were able to welcome their son, Gabriel, into the world, baptize him, hold him in their arms, and shower him with love for at least a few hours. That was a very merciful way of dealing with both themselves and the child.”

By this time, Paige’s big, beautiful blue eyes were locked into mine.

“Here’s the thing,” I went on while I had her attention. “We both agree that we need more love in the world. And that’s precisely why I’m against capital punishment, war, and violence against Jews, women, and babies in the womb. Abortion is a very violent act against both the woman and the baby. We could use so much more love across the board in the world.”

Paige continued to fix her eyes on mine, and I finally laughed a bit nervously and said, “You must think I’m crazy telling you all of this on a plane.”

“No,” she said slowly. “I’m listening…I’m listening to what you’re saying.”

The plane touched down. “It was really nice talking to you,” Paige offered with a smile. “I like Judys. I’m going to buy your book.”

“It was really nice talking to you, too, Paige,” I smiled back. “God bless you.”

With that, an hour plane ride from Dallas to New Orleans had offered the unexpected gift of a mile-high defense of human life. Because while Paige was raised without faith, she was raised with love. And anyone can understand the logic of love, including someone who is “totally pro-choice.”

This article was first published at Aleteia.

The Scandal of God's Love

The Sacred Heart of Jesus, Pompeo Batoni, 1767/Public Domain

I sat at the dinner table of a friend recently and asked: “Do you believe that God loves you? Have you had a personal encounter with the love of God?” Much to his obvious dismay, he answered no. But his eyes, heart and voice were full of hunger to know God’s love. I want that, he communicated with ardent longing.

I shared with him my own story of “waking up” to the love of God. Much like what St. Augustine described in his famous Confessions, God literally shattered my darkness and unbelief with His majestic presence and personal love. I was agnostic at the time, and in painful desperation, I begged God to show me if He was real.

You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness.  You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness.  You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you.  I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more.

St. Augustine, Confessions 

My life has never been the same. God’s love changed and transformed me, and I have hungered and thirsted for more of Him ever since. He has brought me along a continual path of conversion these past thirty years, wherein He has given me the grace to love Him and the desire to do His will.

This is precisely the Good News we are meant share with others when we evangelize: I have encountered the gracious love of God and so can you! God’s love will change your life! Yet so often, we communicate the opposite message, saying something that’s more like: Get your life straight! Then God will love you!

Sadly, it practically creates a scandal to suggest that God loves each and every one of us infinitely and unconditionally—and that nothing we think, say or do can make Him love us more or less. Do we really believe that deep down? Yet, this is the incredible truth of who God is: God is love, and we if we do love Him, it is only because He loved us first (1 John 4:19).

There is an urgent need in the Church today to proclaim the love, kindness and mercy of God, because it is the personal experience of God’s love and kindness that leads us to change. We see this over and over in the Gospels, where sinners meet Christ and change in response to His love. But tragically, it seems that so many people—even in the Church—have never encountered the tender love of God, hence the profoundly wounded condition of both the Church and the world.

I believe this is the message Pope Francis is trying to convey as He speaks constantly of God’s love and mercy, proclaiming love to a world bleeding to death from open wounds caused by an alienation from God that has led to numerous personal and social evils. “I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds... And you have to start from the ground up.”*

How do we heal the wounds of the world? With the same remedy that Jesus applied to the wounded of the world. With Love.  Love that goes out of itself to meet sinners right where they are. Love that eats with prostitutes and tax collectors and is not afraid to mix with the lost, the unrighteous, and the hurting. Love that is willing to proclaim liberty to captives and a recovery of sight to the blind.

This is only possible when we, ourselves, “have come to know and to believe in the love God has for us” (1 John 4:16); when we, ourselves, have encountered the medicine of God’s love. When we do, we will want to share “the love of Jesus which we have received, the experience of salvation which urges us to an even greater love of him.” It is then that we will “feel the need to speak of the beloved, to point him out, to make him known.”*

This is the new evangelization to which we are being called. For it is only a heartfelt witness of the experience of God’s love that will awaken us once more to the goodness this world so sorely needs.

*From “A Big Heart Open to God,” America magazine Sept. 19, 2013.

*From Pope Francis, The Joy of the Gospel, Par. 264.

Becoming Like Children

Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the Kingdom of heaven.   Matthew 18:2

Photo Credit: @jamesgraysonhicks; My three grandsons, waiting for the train to see Pope Francis.

I have noted with some interest this week that several of the daily Mass readings—on the heels of Pope Francis’ visit to the United States—have been about becoming like children. A defining feature of children is that they trust their parents; trust that is also meant to be a delineating mark of Catholics in regard to the Pope. Yet, while many “faithful” Catholics spent the week picking apart Pope Francis’ messages—looking for a blunder, for something with which they disagreed—it seems that his messages managed to touch and transform the hearts of many who supposedly do “not follow us,” which God-incidentally, was the Gospel for Sunday’s Mass in Philadelphia (Mark 9:38-43).

I sat glued to the television watching the Pope make his way from the White House to Ground Zero, to the United Nations, and through the City of Brotherly Love. I was struck by the fact that the secular news media, typically known for their full frontal attack on the Catholic Church, gave non-stop coverage to a man who one mystified reporter laughingly stated was “not a rock star coming with pomp and pageantry,” but the Bishop of Rome, of all people. Furthermore, the personal reaction that secular news reporters had to the successor of St. Peter was nothing short of stunning.

“Here he comes! Here he comes!” a CNN reporter squealed gleefully as the Pope’s motorcade approached, unable to hide her excitement. “The crowd is electric as the shadow of Peter passes by!” she said breathlessly as the Pope’s motorcade passed the CNN platform. She then went on to share that she had left the Catholic Church in dismay over the sexual abuse scandals, but that the love she’s felt from Pope Francis has reignited her faith, bringing her back to the Church. “He passed right by our CNN platform out there and I can’t tell you what I felt. I didn’t expect it. It was the presence of holiness and goodness…Pope Francis is speaking a message that is hungrily received by a world that is desperate to hear good news.”

That message is the unconditional love and mercy of God for every single one of us; a communiqué that is a balm to the ears of so many who are beaten down and exhausted by the amount of hatred, rancor and division in this world.

My husband, Mark, and I watched the coverage in stunned silence, smiling broadly over the childlike exuberance repeatedly displayed by secular news reporters on both CNN and MSNBC. It was real. Their hearts were touched by Pope Francis’ love. So much so that New York Times reporter David Brooks said Sunday morning on NBC’s Meet the Press:

"the big effect of this week is not what (the Pope) says on global warming. It's that hundreds of thousands of people will have their hearts opened by his presence. And (for) some percentage, their life will be utterly altered by this week. Today in Philadelphia, there'll be tens of thousands of people whose souls are just exploding. And they will look back on this moment as the moment their life changed."

His words resonated with what broadcast journalist Maria Shriver wrote in her blog on Monday, the day after the Pope departed:

"Francis has had a dramatic impact on my life this past week. It’s almost hard to put into words…No, I didn’t get to interview him. I didn’t even get to meet him, but it didn’t actually matter because his words met my heart and ignited my spirit. I felt them deep in my soul. Every sermon, every speech moved me further, moved me deeper. Some I’ve read and reread 10 times."

She then proceeded to describe how, since Pope Francis arrived in the United States, she has taken “an internal inventory of everything in her life, reassessing power, success, joy, money…I’m going forward differently because of him.”

All of this has made me ask myself: have I been as open as those who don’t claim to adhere to everything the Church teaches, yet whose hearts were accessible enough to listen, to trust, and to learn from what Pope Francis had to say? Am I willing to turn, to change, to let the Pope’s visit make a difference in my life? Will I, like Pope Francis, approach others with love, mercy and kindness—which will surely win more souls for Christ than any good dose of scolding about the doctrines of the Catholic Church ever could?

I must admit that on day one of his visit, I wanted the Pope to read our President the riot act. Instead, he simply shared the beauty and joy of his faith in Jesus Christ, as he continued to do throughout his journey. By day five, I could see that Pope Francis was disarming the skeptics and unbelievers with humility and unconditional love, the hallmark of his childlike heart—signs that are meant to be a hallmark of every child’s heart.

Photo Credit: @jamesgraysonhicks; My little grandsons, trying to get a glimpse of the Pope.

Who Are We To Judge?

While I had planned to write a blog today on why I love Pope Francis, my daughter, Kara Klein, sent me the following blog this morning.   I think she is spot on.  We can all learn from Pope Francis' attitude of love and mercy, especially when we are tempted to fight (yes, I'm preaching to myself:)  Below is a picture of me kissing Pope Francis in Rome when our marriage was blessed--truly a highlight in the lives of my husband, Mark, and I.  He asked us to pray for him and we assured him we would.  God bless Pope Francis!

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"Who am I to judge?"

These very words both moved and enraged countless hearts at the start of Pope Francis' pontificate. Since elected pope, Francis' words and actions have been unpredictable, including during his first days in America when he addressed the White House and the U.S. Congress, emphasizing issues like climate change and seemingly steering clear of anything controversial.

When I first read his speeches I, like many, felt anger. "Why would he stand before our government and not reprimand them for legalizing gay marriage and slaughtering millions of babies through abortion... key issues which the Catholic Church fights vigorously against?"

But then I thought: "Who am I to judge?"

Could it just be possible that the Holy Father knows a great deal more than I do about the world's problems, has a much broader and global perspective, sees political relationships from a completely different angle than I am capable of, and hears things from the Holy Spirit that I am not privy to?

Could it just be possible that there is wisdom in how the pope chooses to behave, and in the words he chooses to use? That if he met with Congress only to step in with the most controversial topics, that they would immediately shut down, and his speech would fall on deaf ears?

Instead, like Jesus often does in Scripture, he meets them where they are. And so very much like his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, he "speaks the truth always and uses words when necessary." He passes on dining with the rich and powerful in order to feed the homeless, which turns more heads and hearts in this country than any mere words ever could.

Could it just be possible that he is showing us the way of love? As Jesus said, "I have not come to condemn the world but to save it” (John 3:17). Could it be possible that through this way, abortionists, homosexuals, atheists, those who feel most bitter about the Church and have seen it as a great enemy just might be able to say:

"What is this Catholic Church? I have to know more! And who is this Jesus Christ that Pope Francis serves?" That their ears might be opened to actually hear the truth, and their eyes be opened to see: "Oh! Why doesn't the Catholic Church support abortion? Because it loves! Why doesn't the Church support gay marriage? Because it loves!"

Pope Francis is a pope of love. Interesting that he does not put himself above meeting with Obama and his friends, above feeding the homeless, and that he also refuses to judge another person. But all too many of us are all too quick to judge Francis.

I think many of the things Pope Francis says and does, like Jesus, are not for we "righteous" but for "sinners"--meeting and speaking to them where they are. “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do,” Jesus pointedly said to the Pharisees when they challenged Him on eating with tax collectors and sinners. “Go and learn the meaning of the words, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’” (Matthew 9:13).  This is a pope of mercy, speaking to a world desperately in need of mercy. In the end, who are we to judge?

Harsh and divisive language does not befit the tongue of a pastor; it has no place in his heart; although it may momentarily seem to win the day, only the enduring allure of goodness and love remains truly convincing.

Pope Francis to the United States Bishops

Finding Hope When Hope Seems Lost

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Dear Friends,

With all of the bad news around us, could you use a good dose of HOPE?  I encourage you to watch my recent address to Legatus, which I gave on the Feast of St. Mary Magdalen.  It explains how I found hope when hope seemed lost.  Enjoy!  Please share!  Click here to watch the talk.

Praying always for God's blessings upon you and yours,

Judy