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.

Pope Francis' Mercifying Madness

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With our eyes fixed on Jesus and his merciful gaze, we experience the love of the Most Holy Trinity. Pope Francis, Miseracordiae Vultus, par. 8

 This pope just won’t stop talking about mercy. He’s even come up with a word I’ve never heard before: mercifying. “What in the world does that mean?” I asked when I saw the word in his new book. For while his namesake, St. Francis, was charged by God to “rebuild my Church,” it seems Pope Francis has been given the mandate of “mercifying” the Church.

In Pope Francis’ first book, The Name of God Is Mercy, he talks at length about mercy with veteran Vatican reporter Andrea Tornielli. Francis clarifies the meaning of the Latin expression he chose for his episcopal motto, miserando atque eligendo, which he explains as meaning “mercifying and choosing.” (Translated elsewhere as “mercying and choosing.”)

According to the pope, mercifying describes the gaze of Jesus, who looks upon us with love, forgives our sins and chooses us. Mercifying happens when we experience ourselves as being seen by Christ, when we sense his penetrating eyes unveiling ours, and when we come to know that we are loved, embraced and chosen, calling us forth to repentance and new life.

Francis’ description of his own experience of being mercified in the confessional at age 17 prompted me to remember my own encounter with God’s transforming mercy at the age of 23, when my soul morphed from the black alienation of separation from God to being bathed in the light of Christ’s love in one split second.

Agnostic at the time in spite of being raised Catholic, I was carrying on like a complete pagan, indulging myself in anything and everything the world had to offer. After several years of vacuous living, I became aware of my own inner emptiness and began to cry out for God to show me if he was real. That small opening — to which Francis refers as conceding to God “the smallest glimmer of space” — was enough for God to move. In short order, God sent someone to my apartment unexpectedly who invited me to go to church with him that Sunday — the unforgettable day that I was mercified by encountering Jesus Christ.

“The medicine is there, the healing is there,” says the pope, “if we only take a small step toward God … or even desire to take that step” (Pope Francis, The Name of God is Mercy, xviii).

What stands out in my mind as I think back on that life-changing experience is how miraculously, in one instant, I suddenly became utterly convinced that Jesus knew me personally, that he loved me and that he wanted to be in a relationship with me. Like the tax collector, Matthew, to whose calling Pope Francis repeatedly refers (Matt. 9:9), “I knew that I was seen, loved, chosen.”

My angst over my own hollow life — which I was not even able to call “sinful” yet — had led me to the point of questioning. But it was the infinite gaze of Christ’s love that turned me on a dime, that changed my mind about what could make me truly happy, that called me to leave a lost, lonely life behind to follow him. As grace moved, I quickly saw my own wretchedness and the need to amend my life. Necessary repentance came, but it was the look of merciful love that first called me forth from sin’s stupor.

This is the dynamic of encounter that Pope Francis refers to as mercifying, wherein we experience Christ seeing our inmost hearts and are touched by his desire to respond to our deepest need for forgiveness, healing and restoration. The world is flat, desperate for mercifying at such a time as this — the very reason Pope Francis speaks incessantly about it.

I believe it is a time for mercy. The Church is showing her maternal side, her motherly face, to a humanity that is wounded. She does not wait for the wounded to knock on her doors, she looks for them on the streets, she gathers them in, she embraces them, she takes care of them, she makes them feel loved. And so, as I said, and I am ever more convinced of it, this is a kairos, our era is a kairos of mercy, an opportune time.

Pope Francis, The Name of God Is Mercy, 6

This article was first published on 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.

To My Brothers With Love

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A Jubilee also entails the granting of indulgences. This practice will acquire an even more important meaning in the Holy Year of Mercy.  Pope Francis, Misericordiae Vultus, par. 22.

No way. I wasn’t going to jump through hoops to try to gain God’s favor—because that’s how I saw indulgences at the time. As a “revert” to Catholicism from evangelical Christianity, the doctrine of indulgences still scandalized me.

An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 1471).

Gains? Under certain conditions? Nope. Not for me. While I had accepted the doctrine of purgatory and the idea that temporal consequences may need remediation after sin is forgiven, the thought that I could do something to help a deceased soul repair the damage caused by sin still seemed, frankly, like hocus pocus to me.

Until I lost two brothers to suicide—both baptized Catholics—compelling me to ask:  What if indulgences aren’t about jumping through hoops to win God’s favor, but are instead about doing something concrete as an act of love for another person?

What if I could indulge my brothers in the unfathomable, unmerited mercy of God, asking that the lingering consequences of sin—more apparent than ever in the face of suicide—be remedied?

And what if I could assist my brothers in the necessary work of purification; in healing the wounds inflicted by sin?

Why wouldn’t I want to help them if I could?

Thus began my habitual practice of asking the Lord for an indulgence for them, or someone else in my bloodline, every time I go to Confession.* Because fundamentally, indulgences admit that we’re not in this alone, but that we’re members of one Body who help and support each other on this journey to salvation. Indulgences acknowledge that we are, indeed, our brothers’ keeper, and that the voices of our brothers and sisters cry out for lavish mercy. Indulgences draw on the power of “the infinite value, which can never be exhausted, which Christ’s merits have before God” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 1476)—the power that alone can redeem sin and its consequences. We are invited to participate in that power each time we pray, each time we turn to God for mercy and forgiveness, and each time we ask for an indulgence, which applies to ourselves and others of the fruits of Christ’s redemption.

While I can’t presume to know with certainty that my brothers are saved, I believe and trust that "by ways known to (God) alone," they are (Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 2283).  I do not despair of their salvation, but entrust them to the eternal embrace of God that encompasses all time, all people, all things. I beg God’s mercy for them, availing myself of the graced opportunity to pray for a plenary indulgence for their souls.   That is just what I did on Scott’s birthday, December 30, when I walked through the Jubilee Door of the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., holding him close to my heart.

God’s forgiveness knows no bounds, Pope Francis wrote in Misericordiae Vultus. Nor does his indulgent love, which can reach into all things, making up—and inviting us to participate—wherever love is lacking.

*For a fuller explanation about indulgences, see the Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 1471-1479.

This article appeared first on Aleteia.

The Death of Zeus and the Healing of Fatherhood

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How much I desire that the year to come will be steeped in mercy, so that we can go out to every man and woman, bringing the goodness and tenderness of God!   Pope Francis, Misericordiae Vultus, par. 5.

 

Drop by drop; the water fell through the sugar cube into the glass of absinthe perched on the Royal Street bar. Elvis’ “Blue Christmas” blaring from the stage had summoned us in for a dance, just after we’d finished caroling with thousands of others in the shadow of St. Louis Cathedral. My husband, Mark, decided to try the famous New Orleans libation, and as we watched the sugared water slowly sweeten the bitterest of drinks, Leonard approached the bar.

“What are you guys doing in New Orleans?” he opened.

“We’re locals,” we offered. “We were caroling in Jackson Square. The archbishop led the singing.”

“I used to be a good Catholic,” he countered immediately. “But I haven’t been to Church or prayed in years.” (People confess the darndest things in bars!)

One thing led to another and before we knew it, my husband and I were sharing openly about our faith in God, and about the reality of a tender, merciful Father who loves us personally and wants to be in relationship with us. We disclosed that we begin every morning with Eucharistic adoration and Mass, encouraging Leonard to start to set aside time to seek God in prayer.   It was then that he turned to me and asked: “What do you hear in prayer?”

“I hear God say, ‘You are my beloved daughter,'” I replied, grateful that the voice of Love has finally supplanted the voice of condemnation in my head. Leonard’s eyes widened like saucers and welled with visible tears. “Well, I’ve never heard anything remotely like that in prayer!” he exclaimed.

Leonard stayed close by us for the rest of the night, anxious to hear more about the Father who loves him. It was clear from our conversation that his relationship with his own father had been difficult, and that he, like so many other people Mark and I encounter, was suffering from what we’ve come to call “a father wound.”

More than forty years ago, Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) said in a sermon on God:

It is well known that the Greeks called their Zeus ‘Father’. But this word was not an expression of their trust in him!...When they said ‘Father’, they meant that Zeus was like human fathers—sometimes really nice, when he was in a good mood, but ultimately an egoist, a tyrant, unpredictable, unfathomable, and dangerous. (Joseph Ratzinger, The God of Jesus Christ: Meditations on the Triune God, 32)

How many people have experienced their human fathers this way? And how many people believe this is who God is?

Being in ministries where we hear the personal stories of wounded souls on a daily basis, Mark and I know this number is not negligible. Sadly, there seems to be a consistent theme in too many narratives: physically or emotionally absent fathers, raging fathers, alcoholic fathers, abusive fathers—fathers more like Zeus that the Father whom Jesus Christ came to reveal.

Ratzinger said in the same sermon on God:

The crisis of fatherhood we are experiencing today is a basic aspect of the crisis that threatens mankind as a whole. Where…the father is seen as a tyrant whose yoke must be thrown off, something in the basic structure of human existence has been damaged. (Joseph Ratzinger, The God of Jesus Christ: Meditations on the Triune God, 29)

Perhaps the “tenderness revolution” Pope Francis is launching will not only unleash mercy on the world, but will prompt a healing in fatherhood itself, one that “will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of children to their fathers” (Malachi 3:24, Luke 1:17). Such a turn might convince us that God is not Zeus, but “Abba,” who is mercy, kindness, compassion and love. This is the truth that is revealed in Jesus Christ, and meant to be revealed by Christ in us, as a desperate world cries: “Show us the face of the Father!”

Note: This article was first published on Aleteia as "The Mercy Journal."

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