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.

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.

Please visit my website to see the exciting updates and to grab some shareable graphics with quotes from "Mary's Way."