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.

Everything Old Is New Again: Why the Women's March Was More of the Same Old Stuff

Dear Friends,  In honor of today's March for Life in Washington, I offer the below reflection, which is not meant to be polemical or to condemn any one person for their participation in the Women's March last week.  It is simply meant to name the spiritual reality that I believe we are dealing with and the spiritual remedy needed.  Let us pray for the healing of the wounds of our nation, and all that drives women to seek abortion as a solution to an unexpected pregnancy.   Our Lady of Guadalupe, patroness of life, pray for us.  

Answer me, Lord! Answer me, that this people may know that you, Lord, are God and that you have brought them back to their senses.           1 Kings 18:37

A quick perusal through the Old Testament story of the Prophet Elijah (1 Kings 16 ff.) and his showdown with the wicked pagan queen, Jezebel, confirms that this week in America, everything old is new again. New again is the sinful human tendency to want absolute power and control, and new again is the willful determination to use aggression, violence and all manner of ungodly means to achieve it.

Case in point: This week’s January 22 anniversary of the infamous Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion in America was preceded on January 21 by the Women’s March on Washington. After watching the coverage all weekend on various new outlets, I could conclude only one thing: the fundamental thing the marchers wanted to protect the state-sanctioned prerogative of killing their children, and they will steamroll anyone who tries to deny them that power. Because, while claiming they were marching for women’s rights, not one protester could actually articulate a right they were marching for which women don’t already possess. What bled through their protest, however, is that they fear losing the right to unrestricted access to abortion on demand under the Trump administration, and that they are willing to engage in a tirade of biblical proportions to make sure that doesn’t happen. Which brings me back to Jezebel.

Jezebel, the wife of Israel’s King Ahab and the power behind his throne, could be called “Eve on crack.” She influenced her husband to both engage in Baal worship and promote it among the Israelites, leading God’s people into apostasy through the practice of deviant sexual rituals, human sacrifice and self-mutilation—all for the purpose of controlling the fertility gods. Sound familiar? Jezebel operated without conscience or scruples to have her way, urging her husband to oppose the worship of the one true God, destroy his altars and kill his prophets, which Ahab promptly did. When Jezebel wanted Naboth’s vineyard, she had Naboth unjustly tried and killed. When Jezebel wanted to silence God’s prophets, she had hundreds of them slaughtered. And when Jezebel’s pagan prophets lost a major power encounter with Elijah on Mount Carmel, she chased Elijah down with all of the vim and vigor of hell to have his throat slit.

Sadly, Jezebel represents the epitome of disordered, fallen femininity: an unapologetically grasping woman who will assert her will and have her way, no matter how much blood is spilled. I couldn’t get her out of my mind as I witnessed the vulgarity and hatred spewing from the mouths, signs and clothing of those at the Women’s March. To my mind, what we witnessed in the Capitol last Saturday was the show of a demonic "spirit" named Jezebel that is the antithesis of spirit of Our Blessed Mother. Such a spirit can only be “tied up” through prayer, fasting and repentance (Mk 3:27, Mt 17:21), all of which we are summoned to by our bishops in response to the stronghold of death in our culture.

The hopeful news is that there’s another march in Washington today, and its protestors will march Mary’s way. They will humbly, prayerfully and respectfully show up in our nation’s capital to make a plea for protection and justice for the unborn. They will sing praise to God, carry banners that are dignified, and meet with legislators politely to plead the case that all human life is sacred and inviolable. They will dress modestly, behave courteously, and demonstrate nobly, seeking to show a confused world that love and humility beget love and humility, and that violence and aggression spawn more of the same.  Marching Mary’s way, the protesters may remain unseen and hidden to the world-at-large as the secular news media, power brokers and pundits ignore them. Nonetheless, hundreds of thousands of March for Life protesters will march mightily under the standard of Almighty God for the cause of truth and life.

Mary’s way is never one of self-assertion, domination or control, but is instead the way of generous, unassuming, self-sacrificing love. Her open and welcoming stance toward both God and human life would never be labeled “powerful” according to the world’s criterions, but the Mother of the God-man is the most powerful woman who ever lived. Paradoxically, her power is manifested not through assertion, but instead through her absolute surrender to God and to love. She has much to teach us today about what it means to be women, but we must choose to follow her way.

Let us beg God to place Mary’s mantle of peace and protection over over each and every one of us, and over our nation. May we also ask, as Elisha asked Elijah, for a double portion of Mary’s spirit to fall upon us and upon the women of our land.

This article was previously published at Aleteia.

The Manger and the Miracle of the Body of Christ

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At morning Mass, the image of the infant Jesus repeatedly flashes through my mind as I ponder the innocent body of Christ in the manger while simultaneously beholding his broken, glorified Body among the people in church. As I think of his humble baby body—and his beautiful Mystical Body—it is as though I can hear his words ringing through time: “This is my body, given up for you.”

Having heard the stories of many of the daily communicants in church over the years, I can only marvel at the broken splendor of Christ’s Body; this Body on its knees in hunger and thirst, this Body famished for the Bread that alone can satisfy, bring divine comfort, give eternal hope.

I look around the church to see the humiliated woman whose husband left her for another lover, and the praying man whose mother died during his adolescence with a Vodka bottle pursed to her lips. Before me is the mystic father whose young adult daughter is fighting for her life against deadly cancer, and across the aisle, the holy grandmother who buried her husband and two young grandsons after the same devastating accident. And I hear his words:

This is my body, given up for you.

To my left is the devout teenager who recently became Catholic after her father opted out of their family, as well as the woman of God who holds the painful secret of a child given up for adoption while she was only a teenager. There’s the man ever on his knees praying to God for a wife dying of lupus—the wife he couldn’t get along with before the lupus struck—the same wife which he now sees, and every last day spent with her, as immeasurable grace and gift.

There beside the altar is the Christmas manger, but do we even begin to digest its meaning? Jesus, born in Bethlehem, which means “house of bread,” offering his innocent lamb-body as “the bread that came down from heaven”…the bread that he will give as flesh for the life of the world (John 6:51). Not coincidentally, Bethlehem currently bears the modern name of Beit-Lahm, which literally means "house of flesh”. The city of Jesus’ birth now unwittingly proclaims Christ-Bread as flesh indeed: true food, true drink—flesh for the healing of the world.

This is my body, given up for you.

One by one we process forward to “manger”—which means “to eat” in French—the blessed, broken Body of Christ craving the one Body that can make our brokenness blessed. We believe that it is his Body alone that can gather our poverty, mourning, hunger, and persecution into blessedness; the one true panacea that can provide the comfort, satisfaction, peace and belonging that we seek.

To my right is the smiling woman whose grandbaby is racked by an incurable disease, and the wise man whose daughter died of an overdose on Christmas Eve. I thank God for Christ’s Body, given for us as bread, as life, resplendently proclaiming the life, death and resurrection of the Lord until he comes again.

The Bread of Life, already present in all-holy omnipotence in the manger, is what enables us to see God in all things, including our wounded selves and stories. His Body empowers us to trust that we, too, can be taken, blessed, and broken—that we, too, may become hallowed flesh given as gift for other hungry souls.

Author’s Note: I have amalgamated the stories of the people in church to protect their identities and privacy.

This article was previously published at Aleteia.

Healing Our Decembers

6439494505_e600b288a4_b Tears flowed freely during the meeting with my spiritual director, Sandy, as I shared with her the pain I was feeling. “December is here,” I said. “I get such a wave of anxiety and grief at this time of year.”

Somehow, I have a hunch I’m not alone in experiencing December this way.

December is the month that “our lives blew apart with more violence than we ever dreamed possible,” I wrote in my book Miracle Man. The month that my late husband, Bernie, suffered a massive heart attack—leaving my children fatherless and me a widow after 87 excruciating days in the ICU. Eight years and a wonderful new marriage later, December still brings it all screeching back.

“Beg the Lord to heal the trauma of all your past Decembers,” Sandy wisely advised. “And ask him to fill you with the joy of his birth.”

For December is also the month when we celebrate our Savior’s presence penetrating Earth’s agonies, defying what human eyes behold as mere babe-flesh, disguising the God-man. This is the month that Hope is born, ushering in the time of fulfillment for the long-awaited healing of our crippled souls and lame lives. December is, indeed, the month of Advent hope.

The hope of Advent lies in experiencing the reality of human frailty—and in believing that Someone, though fragile in appearance, is coming to heal us soon. The hope of Advent consists in a hearty cry for deliverance from the weight of sin and death—and in trusting that God’s glory-weight will pierce right through all of this world’s darkness. For we have all known the sorrow of “Decembers” during life’s winter months, times of shadows and suffering where we cry out for the Light to come.

Every year I’m reminded that December is a fitting backdrop for Advent, as it is the month that throws off the least amount of light in the calendar year. The days grow short and winter begins. The darkness brings with it a certain sense of vulnerability and disorientation, along with the knowledge that we need more Light, so we can see.

Advent hope has everything to do with vision. Advent hope is inexorably connected with eternal perspective. That’s because hope—Christian hope—is so much more than plain old wishful thinking. It is the theological virtue by which we order our lives toward heaven; the virtue that establishes trust in us that there is a heaven, and gives us the conviction that we’ll live there with God some day. Hope reminds us that this earth is not paradise, strengthening and sustaining us as we travel toward the longed-for Promised Land. Hope gives us a new vision for our lives, enabling us to see that what may look like “disaster” to human senses is but a moment of time that God holds in his hands, shaping it for our good, while simultaneously, mysteriously, molding us into good.

“Can you see your Decembers as a time when God reaches into your life to work miracles, instead of as a time of sorrow?” Sandy gently asked. “You saw that once,” she continued. “You wrote a book about it.”

Yes, I saw it clearly then. But somehow I go blind every December.

And maybe that’s as it should be. Since it is December’s darkness that beckons me to encounter my desperate need for a Savior. Along with my need for a divine infusion of hope.

Thankfully, it is Advent. The season of so much blindness healed. The Church’s daily readings ring out promises of what the Messiah will bring, along with rich Gospel accounts of those promises being fulfilled:

On that day the deaf shall hear…and out of gloom and darkness, the eyes of the blind shall see. The lowly will ever find joy in the Lord, and the poor rejoice in the Holy One of Israel.       Isaiah 29:18-19

And then we hear:

Two blind men followed him crying, “Son of David, have pity on us!” …Then he touched their eyes...And their eyes were opened.   Matthew 9:29-31

 Touch our eyes, Lord, and enable us to glimpse reality from heaven’s angle, through the lens of Advent hope. Heal all of our Decembers, and fill us anew with the joy of your birth.

Last week to order our Pre-Christmas Special: Get signed copies of both books, “Miracle Man” and “Mary’s Way,” for a bundle price of $25 right now at www.memorareministries.com. Free “Mary’s Way” Consecration Prayer Card included.

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When the Crib Meets the Cross: Our Personal Adoption Story

The minute the judge walked into the courtroom on December 5, I knew I was in trouble. What I had envisioned as a measured ritual of signing papers at the courthouse became an extremely emotional event when the judge, who surprisingly was a family friend, swore us in and asked for personal testimonies. Suddenly, I was weeping openly as my forever baby boy, now seventeen, sat beside me grasping my hand.

“Judy, can you tell the court why you want your husband, Mark, to adopt your son? And can you tell the court why you believe Mark will be a good father to Ben?” the judge asked kindly.

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How could I explain to her that I had begged God to send a mentor and father figure into my child’s life, but that I’d never expected that God would answer my prayer with a wonderful husband, too? How would I convey in words the way I’d watched Ben latch onto Mark from the day he walked into our home, and how obvious it was that he’d loved Mark from the start? And how could I possibly articulate Mark’s generous, patient love for my beloved son—love that helped Ben find steady ground again after his Dad died months after he turned the tender age of nine?

After all, how do you put love, suffering and redemption into words?

“I knew your Dad, Ben, and he was a wonderful man,” the judge continued as the tears flowed. “And I know your family has been through a lot.”

Especially during December, I wanted to say.

December will forever be remembered in our family as the month a much-loved husband and father suffered a massive heart attack, never to return home again. In one fell swoop, December had morphed from the month of attending annual Nutcracker Ballets, decorating always enormous Christmas trees, and binge watching Miracle on 34th Street into the month of spending endless desperate hours beside a loved one labeled by doctors as “the sickest patient in Louisiana.” One seemingly insignificant day had converted December from the month of fresh piney smells, magical white lights and the sound of Christmas carols playing in the living room to the month of nauseating hospital smells, ominous fluorescent lights, and the never-ending clanging of life-saving machines attached to the hallowed body of a husband and father.

Here it was December again and we were standing in court recalling the pain of a crucifixion while beholding the glory of a resurrection, all at once. How could I explain that to the judge?

Because how can you possibly put love, suffering and redemption into words?

Love, suffering and redemption: they encompass the beginning, middle and end of the Christmas story. The story moves from a holy night to a holy Cross, from the wood of the crib at Bethlehem to the wood of the Cross at Calvary. In both places a Mother prays, knowing that only God can make a way for deliverance from the dark threats that surround life, believing that only God can somehow work things out for good.

I’d worried endlessly about Ben after his dad died, wondering who would encourage him, teach him, show him how to be a man? I’d felt the fear of what it could mean to be a fatherless child in a fallen world, begged God to somehow make a way for my son when I could see no path before us.

Mark literally showed up out of nowhere; having spent almost three decades as a missionary in foreign lands—many of those spent rescuing orphans from the streets and serving as a father figure to glue-addicted kids running for their lives from human trafficking. He had clearly heard God say it was time to go home to Louisiana, and though he didn’t understand why, he obeyed. Months later our paths converged in the tiny adoration chapel of our parish church and the rest, while they don’t say it quite this way, is holy history.

The wooden beams of our own crib and cross were transformed before my eyes by the wood of a judge’s gavel, as I heard her declare Ben “adopted” and Mark “father.” Indeed, I heard it as clearly as angels singing on high: love, suffering and redemption put into words—words made flesh during December.

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This post appeared previously at Aleteia.

Pre-Christmas Special: Get signed copies of Judy’s books, “Miracle Man” and “Mary’s Way,” for a bundle price of $25 right now at Judy’s website at www.memorareministries.com. Free “Mary’s Way” Consecration Prayer Card included.

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How Advent Helps US: Seeing Our Limitations as an Opening for God’s Greatness

 

sfbnflevf0m-kimson-doanThose who see only limits feel lost in a senseless universe. They live a despondent life-style. Those who see limits as possibilities to go beyond live a hopeful life-style…True freedom is found in people who maintain what the philosopher Paul Ricoeur calls ‘the passion for the possible.’   Susan Muto, Blessings That Make Us Be, 4-5

As December dawns and propels us toward the celebration of Christ’s birth, we are bidden to be an Advent people, to experience this sacred time with a “passion for the possible.” In short, we are reminded to live in hope.

In the darkest time of year, we light candles to remember the Light who has come into the world. On the shortest of days, we stretch forward in both anticipation and acknowledgement of God with us. As winter begins to dawn and flowers wither and die, we carry fresh, live trees into our homes to be lighted and ornamented with dazzling color, reminding us that we carry hope precisely by affirming what is alive and beautiful in our midst.

To be an Advent people is to make Christ’s coming truly present among us, not as some far-off distant memory, but as a calling forth into the present moment the presence of the One who is real.  To be an Advent people is to choose not to ignore the pain and darkness in this world, but instead to embrace those realities with confidence and trust that Someone has come, is coming, and will come again to liberate us from the long night of sin.

Advent hope breaks right through the misery of sin to remind us of the mercy of God. It clears our vision of earthly concerns by inviting us to see light in the darkness. It blesses the human condition by remembering that a fully human God has redeemed our frail humanity. Advent is the hallowed time during which we gratefully acknowledge that our finite limits have already been met by eternal limitlessness.

Each and every day that we awaken, we are confronted anew with our limitations, be they tiredness from a sleepless night, fresh angst over troubled relationships, or the remembrance of failures and tribulations we must face again that day. But to arise resting assured that we are the fragile, fallible children of an all-powerful, infallible God makes us an Advent people: a people who see “limits as possibilities to go beyond,” who believe that the God-man has already gone beyond every human finitude.

For Bethlehem was indeed a place of finitude. Poverty, deprivation, cold and dark provided the “nursery” for the birth of the Savior—the hallowed space where the Transcendent One broke into, and through, those stark actualities with divine presence. There, in abject humility, God offered starlight to open blinded eyes, babe-flesh to woo hardened hearts, and the silence and solitude of the night to quiet the whole human race unto awakening. There, the waters of a virgin womb ushered in a new creation—bringing not just life, light, and hope, but the remedy for every human constraint, conquerable only through infinite power.

Advent “enables us to hope in (God’s) unpredictable generosity toward humanity,” (Muto, 5). Not just two thousand years ago, but today and every day.

Will we let Advent draw us in? Will we touch and feed upon the divinity that begs our remembrance of God’s unbounded potential to heal our human impotence? Will we awaken afresh to God’s presence, to light breaking through our darkness, and to the reality that every human weakness is an opening for a manifestation of God’s greatness?

Advent is meant to inspire in us a “passion for the possible,” which sees instead of “the darkness of sin, despair, inhumanity and persecution” the “how much more of God’s promise of redemption” (Muto, 5).

It is Advent. Anything is possible.

Author’s note: Thank you to Susan Muto, PhD, for her beautiful insights on the Beatitudes, which I have applied liberally to the theme of Advent.

This article was previously published at Aleteia.

Advent Special:  Order "Miracle Man" and "Mary's Way" now to receive a signed copies of both books plus a free "Mary's Way" Consecration Prayer Card.  Bundle price $25 at www.memorareministries.com.  Order yours today.

 

My St. Jude Miracle: God Changed My Name From Hopeless Cause to Praise Of God

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Feast of St. Jude

You shall be called by a new name pronounced by the mouth of the Lord…No longer shall men call you, “Forsaken,” or your land “Desolate,” but you shall be called “My Delight,” and your land “Espoused”.    Isaiah 62:4

It came on like a bad hangover before I’d even sipped the cup. The lump in my throat burned with the double embers of shame and regret: shame over my screwed-up life, suffering-infused life; regret over my decision to speak about it at a large Catholic conference.

The inner slamming began at the airport, the second I got into a car with another conference speaker. Pumped up like a heavy lifter, he gave me the run-down on his whole amazing family during the drive to the hotel.

“My oldest son is 22, and he’s a gifted videographer who’s already earned enough money to buy his own house,” he began. “My second child, a daughter, is brilliant. She runs my ministry full time.” On it went, blah, blah, blah, as I sunk down into the back seat wondering how I’d become the poster child for suffering—the topic I was asked to speak about at the conference.

How has his life managed to go so right, and mine so wrong? I began to agonize before I could even access a scripture verse or slogan I try to live by, such as “Compare and despair,” or “We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28)

The weekend conference happened to be taking place on the dual anniversary of my late husband’s death to a massive heart attack and my brother Stephen’s death by suicide. I was already feeling emotionally brittle when I left home, and the account of my fellow speaker’s thriving family burned like salt in open wounds. Stupidly, I’d forgotten the upending sting of tragic anniversaries and the grief they evoke when I’d agreed to the speaking engagement. I’d also forgotten how easy it is to be thrown back into an old, worn-out narrative—a story we believe about our lives or ourselves that keeps us bound to self-rejection and hopelessness.

 Hopeless cause, I brooded as we rode along to the hotel. Yep. That’s my name and my story.

I’d heard the story my whole life: My sweet, young Mama had caught the Asian flu in the final weeks of her pregnancy, and prayed a novena to St. Jude that I wouldn’t come down with it and die. I caught it anyway, and my serious infant illness caused her endless anxiety as she stood over my bassinet for days listening to see if I was still breathing. She named me after St. Jude, given both the novena and the fact that I was born the day after his feast day. I guess St. Jude came through in the end, because I lived to tell the tale. I joked throughout life that I was a “hopeless cause” when telling the story—until my life my life imploded and I began to own the moniker.

Hopeless cause. That’s my name and my story, I repeated to myself with self-pity as I wheeled my suitcase weepily into my hotel room.

And then I remembered God’s voice, thundering loudly in my heart one day: Your name does not mean hopeless cause. It means praise of God! I had heard God speak with such piercing clarity that I’d wept at the holy force of the message.

"What matters in life is not what happens to you but what you remember and how you remember it,” novelist García Márquez once wrote.

What would I remember about my one hallowed life, and how would I choose to remember it?

Would I remember my life not as suffering-infused, but as glory-filled—thanks to all of the outrageous ways God has shown up? Would I memorialize tragic days as sacred days—recalling what God did for me instead of what life dealt me? Would I see beyond grey ashes to silver linings—indulging myself in God’s graced perspective instead of my own puny perceptions?

Help me, God, I prayed. Help me remember what you’ve done for me.

“I’m not here to talk about suffering today,” I heard myself declare convincingly as I stood at the podium later that afternoon. “I’m here to tell you about God’s glory!” I then listened to myself tell my own story with honest amazement and gratitude over the marvelous works and ways of God all along the way. God had changed my name—and my story—from hopeless cause to praise of God.

I put water in the desert and rivers in the wasteland for my chosen people to drink, The people whom I formed for myself that they might announce my praise.   Isaiah 43:20

This article was previously published on Aleteia.

Fitting Through the Narrow Gate: Feeding the False Self As A Sign of the Times

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Strive to enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction, and those who enter it are many. How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life. And those who find it are few.     Matthew 7:13-14

It’s been said that much of American Christianity today preaches the Gospel to the “false self”—the self that Jesus warned can’t fit through the narrow gate. So much of the message currently conveyed in Christian churches is geared at making us feel good about ourselves instead of challenging us to die to ourselves. Hence, our overblown cultural identification with what’s come to be called “Churchianity”—a feel-good system of punching Sunday attendance cards which demands no radical change of its adherents—has yielded a post-Christian culture that is anorexic in its moral fiber yet obese in its habits of pleasure-seeking, consumption and entertainment.

So what, exactly, is this “false self” that’s been fed to the point of implosion? It’s a term coined by Trappist monk Thomas Merton to describe the fallen, sinful self that operates in opposition to the power of the Holy Spirit—the egocentric self who is driven by pleasure, power, popularity, and possessions instead of by imitating Jesus Christ, the man of the beatitudes. This “self” is both sneaky and subtle, and it only comes to light in the burning glare of the Spirit’s hot fire, which both challenges and equips us to die to our fallen self and live as a new creation in Christ.

Merton described the false self eloquently in his book, New Seeds of Contemplation:

Every one of us is shadowed by illusory person: a false self. This is the man that I want myself to be but who cannot exist, because God does not know anything about him. And to be unknown of God is altogether too much privacy. My false and private self is the one who wants to exist outside the reach of God’s will and God’s love – outside of reality and outside of life… All sin starts from the assumption that my false self, the self that exists only in my own egocentric desires, is the fundamental reality of life to which everything else in the universe is ordered. Thus I use up my life in the desire for pleasures and thirst for experiences, for power, honor, knowledge and love, to clothe this false self and construct its nothingness into something objectively real. I wind experiences around myself and cover myself with pleasures and glory like bandages in order to make myself perceptible to myself and to the world. (New Seeds of Contemplation, 34-35)

St. Paul called the false self the “flesh”—the same self Jesus describes in the verses immediately preceding and following his teaching on the narrow gate (Mt. 5:21-Mt. 7:28). This is the self who postures proudly, lusts after people, power and things, and constantly sits right on the fence instead of taking a stand. This is the self that lives for public approval, fasts and prays to be noticed and places its hopes and heart in passing fancies and treasures. This is the self that must decrease that Christ may increase, must die that we may truly live— the self to whom at the end of the day Christ can only say: I did not know you.

As a culture, failing to move beyond the collective false self has placed us directly into the precarious political and social climate in which we now live—a climate that has spawned two representative presidential candidates who incarnate the false self with its accompanying “works”:

Now the works of the flesh are obvious: immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, rivalry, jealousy, outbursts of fury, acts of selfishness, dissensions, factions, occasions of envy, drinking bouts, orgies, and the like…let us not be conceited, provoking one another, envious of one another.      Galatians 5:19-21, 26

In contrast, we are called to feed the “true self”—the self who sells out completely to Christ, the self who is empowered by the Holy Spirit, the self who produces the fruit of “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23).

How do we find and fuel our true selves? St. Paul gives us the painful, but absolutely necessary, key. We “(crucify) our flesh with its passions and desires,” using our hard-fought freedom not to gratify the desires of the flesh, but to serve one another through love (Galatians 5:24,13). We trade countless hours of entertainment for committed hours of prayer, rampant materialistic consumption for frequent reception of Eucharist, and endless words of media-driven bantering for lavish meditation on the Word of God. In short, we feed our bodies and souls with Truth: Truth that alone can make us strong enough—and true enough—to enter the narrow gate (Luke 13:24).

This article was previously published at Aleteia.

 

 

How The Feminine Genius Can Save The World

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The hour is coming, in fact has come, when the vocation of woman is being achieved in its fullness, the hour in which woman acquires in the world an influence, an effect, and a power never hitherto achieved. That is why, at this moment when the whole human race is undergoing so deep a transformation, women impregnated with the spirit of the gospel can do much to aid mankind in not falling.   Second Vatican Council, Closing Message to Women

In last week’s post, which quoted Saint John Paul II on the problem of “models of male domination,” I suggested that the prevalence of a deformed prototype of masculinity has gotten us into the political and cultural mess we’re in.

The piece was oddly prophetic in its timing, given the fact that it ran the same morning the story broke exposing Donald Trump’s horrific comments about groping women—confirming in living color how the man shamelessly objectifies women, treating them as “things” to be possessed and violated at his whim.

Three days later Hillary Clinton stood on a debate stage and proudly announced that she will appoint Supreme Court justices that will uphold Roe vs. Wade—affirming once again how she shamelessly objectifies unborn children via her unapologetic stance that a woman should have the right to kill her pre-born child without restriction until a baby is born, treating them as “things” to be disposed of at a woman’s whim.

Again—these behaviors speak of what Saint John Paul II called “models of male domination”—systems of power that blatantly employ exploitation, aggression, and violence to rule over others and to have one’s own way. Obviously, Trump and Clinton didn’t invent this problem, but are instead the perfect representatives of a culture that largely embraces such an approach to reality.

What is the remedy for these disordered attitudes, beliefs and behaviors—attitudes that have spawned what John Paul II termed the “culture of death”? Interestingly, the visionary pope taught that it is the “feminine genius” that can re-humanize and re-civilize the world, and echoing the words of the Second Vatican Council, suggested that “now” is the hour when the genius of women is needed to save a free-falling world:

Unilateral progress can also lead to a gradual loss of sensitivity for man, that is, for what is essentially human. In this sense, our time particularly awaits the manifestation of a “genius” which belongs to women, and which can ensure sensitivity for human beings in every circumstance: because they are human! Pope John Paul II, On The Dignity and Vocation of Women, 30.

Pope John Paul II taught in various documents and ways that “the ‘woman’ is the representative and the archetype of the whole human race: she represents the humanity which belongs to all human beings, both men and women.” (Pope John Paul II, On the Dignity and Vocation of Women, 4) As such, woman stands as the symbolic key to humanity’s return to a right relationship with God and the entire created order—as the key to bringing the culture of death back to its senses.

Why?

Because woman—in the image of the Woman, Mary—incarnates in her very nature the way in which all human beings are purposed to relate to God: that is, standing in the feminine posture of Mary’s fiat mihi proclaiming “Let it be done unto me.” With hands, heart, mind and body surrendered to God, Mary becomes a conduit of life and love, both human and divine, becoming the icon of the sacred call of every human person. Conversely, when hands, hearts, minds and bodies close in on themselves, turn against God and turn instead to their own lordship, human beings become a channel of death for themselves and for others.

When we continue to declare that success in this culture means winning, subverting others, and aggressing anyone whom we choose in order to achieve our own agendas, we fall prey to a disordered masculine approach that inverts self-sacrificial love into domination, control, and flagrant disregard of the human person.  On the other hand, when we assume the Marian, feminine posture of active receptivity, saying to God thy will be done, we cooperate with God in opening civilization to his grace, grace that alone can save us and a fallen world.

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 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.

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