Surprised by Joy

For seven years now, I’ve thrilled in the story of how I came to be engaged to my husband. For me, it feels like it is almost extraordinarily special, almost as though it is more special than our actual wedding day! In the past few weeks, I’ve been asking myself why that is. Why is it that the anniversary of our engagement means so much to me? I can’t answer that question fully, but I have discovered a lot through my pondering.

Primarily, I have realized that the reason I love my engagement so much is not so much that the man I loved asked me to marry him, but that through this man’s commitment to me, I came to know God’s love for me in a way I’d had trouble believing till then. My engagement was very, very much the incarnation of God’s love for me, and the fulfillment of so many hopes and dreams I had scarcely dared ask Him.

About a year before our engagement, I’d attended a discernment retreat. It was a landmark occasion for me, as I was blessed with the personal direction of a very good and holy priest over the course of three days. For me, it was a very Paschal experience, for I went from deep sorrow to joy, spanning Friday through Sunday. Though I came from a loving family, I struggled to believe in my heart (head was easy) that God loved me. My whole motivation in wanting to become a nun was not my response to His love for me, but wanting to show Him my love for Him. Cute, but definitely immature. That weekend, I became convicted deep in my heart that God Himself was crazy about me, and that I didn’t need to do anything at all to earn that love. I worked through deep wounds I’d suffered, and I came out radiant. Full of love for God, I felt ready to risk everything for Him and entered a discernment house I hadn’t even known existed.

But all this time, I still had not dared to admit what I wanted most. I’m not sure I even knew what I wanted most, apart from pleasing God. That’s a perfectly fine place to be, really, especially if you manage to disentangle yourself completely from all your own ideas about what you should be wanting and allow the Holy Spirit to direct your heart. It took letting go of my grip on all my convent dreams and aspirations, and standing before God completely empty-handed, for me to arrive at the place where at last the Holy Spirit had enough room to move and quiet to speak.

Now, even though I had not really known for years what I wanted, apart from not wanting to be without a vocation, I had many years and much literature and opera to have me contemplating marriage and, well, an ideal husband. I had not originally wanted to be a nun. Rather, I had grown the desire out of my own distaste at the idea. Indeed, it was my revulsion at the idea of joining a convent as a young teenager that compelled me to learn more and to grow a desire for it, for I hated the idea even more of holding back anything from God. I wanted to love God, no matter what the cost, just like the great Saints I’d read about–all of whom, I noted, had pursued religious life or priesthood. Clearly my aversion needed to be conquered! But, I was weak, and I would often find my heart yearning for companionship, and no matter how close I grew to God, I always felt lonely and incomplete. I assumed that this was just part of the vocation, part of the sacrifice, and I embraced it, offering it up for all those who find themselves alone or celibate by chance rather than choice. I could carry that cross, I said to myself. I would do so with love. It didn’t really matter whether I enjoyed it or not. I wanted to love!

Yet still, I would find myself smitten with Tom or Harry or whomever, and I’d laugh at myself and analyze and over-analyze my feelings and my ideas of what God maybe wanted of me. And I’d certainly go through many periods of desiring marriage and wishing I could find a good man who wanted to date me. Finding a good date was hard, as I was very serious about dating with the intention of discerning marriage. What was the point in allowing romantic feelings to grow if we didn’t have an end goal in mind? To save time and heartache, I spent time outlining the bare minimum of shared values or interests I would need to share with a prospective date. And I also occasionally dreamed of the most wonderful man I could imagine, who quite possibly didn’t exist. I’d probably have to end up sacrificing some of the traits of my dream man. After all, how many men were good at Latin? How many of these were also funny? And how many of those loved classical music and literature? And, the biggest yet most significant hurdle of all, how many would kneel beside me before the Eucharistic Lord in adoration? I decided to prioritize the latter, as it was the closest to my heart.

When my husband–legendary Latinist, witty, well-read, gentle, a match for me in music knowledge, and devout Catholic–proposed to me and I finally accepted, it was for me the fulfillment of the deepest desires of my heart for this world: a perfect companion. Better yet, it was a complete surprise. I had known this man for five years. Four of those years I hardly knew him, occasionally hoping he would date me, but the shy guy never made a timely move. Then I began to take religious discernment seriously, and I also encouraged him and a friend to date. It was in some ways thanks to their friendship, that never grew beyond a friendship, that I got to know him better and realize that here was a really amazing guy. Cultured and Catholic? Amazing! He had great taste in music, recited Beowulf in Old English, and enjoyed Shakespeare, but he also went to Sunday Mass, and even weekday Mass, for I’d seen him there often, not knowing he’d hoped to see me there.

God loves me. He really, really loves me. He even wants my happiness, not only in the next life, but even in this life. He delights in surprising me with good things. He wants to fulfill every wholesome desire of my heart. He blessed me with a man who cares deeply for me, who admired me for years, and who is a really terrific companion.

My engagement story is much bigger than simply the story of a man and a woman who fall in love and decide to get married. It’s the story of God showing His love and provision for His beloved daughter (and son!). My engagement is such a source of joy and beauty for me much less because of this incredible mortal I am now bound to, and much more because of the incredible God who arranged such an event in the history of the world, an event so seemingly insignificant and trivial compared to all the great events in history, and a tremendous gift for two very unworthy servants. I do not deserve this kind of joy!

I knew at the time, and I know even better now, that married life is not happily ever after: it’s hard work, and there are times of deep grief and suffering. But through it all, God is constant. He is faithful. He loves us, and He is with us. My good husband is a daily reminder of that. He is truly a Sacrament to me.

My engagement is my Annunciation event, my cause for a Magnificat! It is my Good News, my Gospel! Forever I will sing the goodness of the Lord! That is why May 8th will always be a most important and wonderful date on my calendar.

For our ridiculous love story of literary proportions, including an engagement ring sent from heaven, see: My own Austen novel — extended version.

A Most Unusual Palm Sunday

How is it Palm Sunday already? Weren’t we only half way through Lent when the quarantining began? And that was last week or thereabouts, right? I am clearly losing track of time here. I was excited to hear from my son’s teacher last week saying that she was going to be hosting a half hour class on Mondays and Fridays–a little hint at normalcy! My husband actually keeps fairly regular weekday office hours in his home office these days, so, for me, weekends still feel like a relief, but I do miss the structure that school gives.

And really, that’s the only way in which we are being affected by this business. We are undeservedly fortunate to have (a) a salaried position, and (b) a teaching job that had already mostly shifted to online work with our February move. We live in a nice, spacious rental house, have a van for taking drives for a change of scenery, and internet to keep us connected to our loved ones. As I was driving my girls yesterday so that they would nap, I saw many many people outside their homes in their pyjamas, and it had an odd effect on me: it made me think that these COVID closures are a gift. Here we are, forced to slow down, and likely led to contemplate to some degree how much others mean to us. It’s quite possible some people might not have had the opportunity to slow down in their lives at all. Silence, or a lack of busy-ness, is essential to the soul’s health, though. In that respect, COVID is a gift.

But it’s not all sunshine and roses. We’re losing loved ones prematurely, we’re losing income, we’re losing our freedom to enjoy company in person and even to enjoy nature in our parks. There is a strong element of suffering. I am not the first Catholic to observe that this suffering comes at a liturgically appropriate time of year: Lent. And now, heading into Holy Week, we are really invited to contemplate the mystery of suffering.

Today we tuned into Ascension Press with Fr Mike Schmitz celebrating Palm Sunday Mass. The kids fell asleep and napped through most of it, making it just about the easiest Mass I’ve ever attended with them, and I got to listen to the homily! I’d like to recount some of it here, as it was just packed with points worthy of contemplation. Is Fr Mike Schmitz the new Fr Fulton Sheen? It kind of feels like it, eh? This man has a gift for preaching, and I praise God for leading him to the priesthood every time I listen to him preach.

He began the homily by picking out the words from the Gospel “It is finished” and started talking about unfinished furniture–so much to my surprise that I turned to my husband and asked if I heard it right! He made a beautiful analogy with it, though. He observed that just as sometimes we can buy unfinished furniture and choose our own finish, making our own mark on it, so too we complete Christ’s sufferings. For an unfinished chair is no less a chair being unfinished–it is as much a chair as it ever will be; so too Christ’s sufferings are lacking in nothing–except our own “finish,” or participation. Christ does not need us to participate in His suffering, but He invites us to. This was the best explanation of St Paul’s problematic line that I’ve ever encountered.

Fr Mike went on to say that, for the Christian, there is no senseless suffering. There is wasted suffering, but there is no senseless suffering. But when we join our suffering to Christ’s, our suffering takes on meaning, for, like His suffering on the cross, it becomes redemptive. When we say “yes” to our suffering and offer it back to the Lord as a sacrifice for, it becomes full of meaning.

Fr Mike distinguished between two kinds of suffering: physical and moral. The physical is bodily suffering, and the moral is basically every other kind of suffering: grief, sin, even irritation and frustration. When we offer these sufferings up, no matter how small and seemingly insignificant, we help make up “for what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ”–which, paradoxically, is nothing, but Christ so loves us that He desires that we might derive meaning from our suffering and so He invites us to join our small “yes” to His crucifixion, which, I need not tell you, saved the whole world.

I love that he spoke about how even our grief over sin can be used redemptively. Those things we’ve done that we feel awful for but can’t go back and change? Those words we’ve uttered and can’t take back? Those times we’ve avoided doing something good and something bad happened as a result? We can ask the Lord to use them. And He will. We just have to ask.

How do we “offer it up”? We just ask. We state our intention, and that is all. “This is for so-and-so.” Fr Mike says Christ was doing that all through His Passion. He saw each one of us, and His love for each of us individually motivated Him towards the bitter end. I remember doing this with my first labour and delivery. I was in too much pain to think of every intention during the labour individually, but I collected them at the beginning and offered them up, and then I entered into the suffering, a physical suffering I’d never experienced the like of before.

It became important to me that my children should learn how to suffer well. I hardly knew what that meant. I just knew that suffering was unavoidable in life and that I wanted my children not to turn to bitterness and cynicism, but to offer it always to the Lord. Little did I know that the greatest Golgotha of my life was right around the corner!

I’ve occasionally felt some guilt for embracing my suffering with Matthew so poorly. On the one hand, I suffered well: the Lord gave me the grace to rejoice in the terminal diagnosis and to accept it. On the other hand, I suffered poorly: I fell into a dark self-inwardness and nigh despair. I found I had nothing much to offer, as I had been reduced to nothing. Now, I realize that to some extent, my mental health was so greatly affected that I can hardly be blamed. But until I die, I will not know to what extent I embraced my suffering and made it redemptive, and to what extent I wallowed and wasted my suffering. As someone who has overcome past scrupulosity, I let it go, but I still felt bad for not loving Jesus as fully as I might have. Watching Fr Mike today, I think triggered by his comment that even grief for our past sins can be offered up, I suddenly realized that even this grief, the grief of not suffering as well as I might have, of wasting opportunities to do good, could be offered up. God is nothing if not opportunity. The Devil is nothing but a dead end.

So there we have it. Suffering well is easy: we just offer it up in the form of an intention–Do something with this, Lord! Of course, the reality isn’t that simple, as we have hesitations and reluctance to overcome, but God can make something with even the smallest of intentions.

Let’s offer up our little (and large) sufferings this week and in the weeks to come for the salvation of souls.

In Lieu of Silver Linings

There has been a lot of talk about looking for silver linings in the Time of Coronavirus 2020. The pandemic is affecting everybody, to varying degrees. There is fear, there is anxiety, and there is boredom and frustration. Those of us who can are working from home, schools are closed, and, for those of us who are parents, the family home has become a kind of petri dish in which the flaws and strengths of our relationships are coming into sharp focus. It’s not easy. On media and social media, one quickly gets the impression that many people are experiencing a deep sense of foreboding and a deep-seated fear in the face of marked uncertainty. To counterbalance the “doom and gloom,” many are looking for silver linings, such as increased family time, a forced slowing down, or even, as I read somewhere, the opportunity to look our fears squarely in the eye.

I attended an online conference for Catholic women this past weekend and we received some amazing advice on facing current circumstances, including from Kimberly Hahn. She said we need always to remember that although it’s good to make plans, we must always make them with the caveat “God willing.” God’s will for many of us right now is to stay home, to thank Him and praise Him for all that He is permitting to happen, to trust that joy is ours even in the midst of sorrow (the Paschal Mystery!). So I’ve decided I need to work less on seeing a silver lining and more on seeing the Light of Christ Who is already here.

It’s not always easy. One moment I am inspired and hopeful, but winds change and the next moment my heart is heavy with grief. But the Light of Christ seems to be a theme in my life right now:

A few nights ago, I was enveloped in grief, the grief of losing my son, but not only that: the loss of formative years for me establishing a good family rhythm, a secure and happy home, etc. Instead, I was emotionally volatile, I spent a lot of time lying down and ignoring my living child and household duties thanks to depression, and I was in such great pain I could not bear to maintain an actively intimate relationship with God–I did the bare minimum, and I tried to avoid personal prayer as much as possible because facing God meant facing my pain, and I just couldn’t. But recently, just before COVID19 swept the Western world off its feet, so to speak, I began to see that I had the strength to cultivate once again the intimacy God has always invited me to have with Him.

But one thing I’ve learned in the past few years is gentleness with myself: I don’t have to push myself–in fact, I don’t have to do anything–even though I didn’t pray much the past few years, I was well aware that God was with me, watching me, loving me. I knew He knew I loved Him and wanted to love Him more. I knew He was giving me space. Like the wonderful man I married, the Lord is gentle and patient and ever-faithful. I trusted that in time, He would draw me to Himself. This was a profoundly different approach to faith than the striving and effort and, well, fear that I had experienced in all my life prior: worried that I wasn’t holy enough, that I didn’t do enough, that if only I were better then life would be so much better and the whole world a much better place. I pity former Me, trying so hard, wanting so much, and unable to simply sit and do the one thing that is needed: not worry about myself and simply adore Him.

That night, a few days ago, when I was enveloped in the grief of losing my son, my family dreams, and my intimacy with God, I prayed with a rare desperation. I wanted a hug–no, I still couldn’t bear His touch–but I wanted to be close to Him! The Lord must have suggested then that I ask for His Light, that I might be enveloped in His Light, warming myself in it, and allowing it to rest gently upon my aching heart.

Prayer is a strange thing. In twelfth grade, I had the gift of being able to write about a section of the Catechism for an assignment. I chose the fourth section, on prayer, driven by my thirst for relationship with God. I learned a lot, and I went on to read more and more after that. At that age, I found it frustrating that prayer itself is mysterious. I half wanted a checklist that I could satisfy so that I could know I was on the right track. Instead, all the answers I received led me instead to contemplation. We’ve heard it often said that prayer is not a technique. Many times I’ve been told that ultimately it doesn’t matter tuppence how a person prays. All that matters is that a person does pray. But if there is no “how,” then how can one do? Ha! It’s amusing, isn’t it? The simplest things are sometimes the hardest.

The section on prayer in the catechism begins with a quotation from St Therese of Lisieux, if I remember correctly: something about prayer being the leap of the heart towards God. How simple! How utterly simple! And how beautifully expressed, although experience suggests to me that “leaping” can also be “panting on the floor unable to move.” Prayer is relationship with God.

COVID19 is, I have read, causing many people actual grief. I don’t doubt it. For many, it is the greatest uncertainty they have ever faced, and uncertainty is one of the most painful and challenging states of life to be in. I have read some people writing that, much to their surprise, they find it harder than ever to pray now. When I saw that, I knew immediately the sort of thing they were suffering. I’ve always found it a strange thing that most people apparently only remember God and pray to Him when they are in trouble. I love talking with Him in good times, but when the bad times hit, oof! Give me some space, Lord, my heart hurts too much. Perhaps, without acknowledging it, I’m angry at Him. I don’t know. But I do know that fear and uncertainty can fill a person’s heart to the extent that it becomes very hard to open the door to Christ.

If this is you, do not be afraid. God is bigger than any of our closed doors. He is always waiting. He loves us. He expects nothing of us. He only yearns for us to allow Him to love us. We need do nothing. If you find you can’t pray, don’t beat yourself up. Remember that prayer is not a formula. This may be a season in life in which you enter into a different kind of prayer, just as I did when my life felt sunk. Do the bare minimum (which right now is very little indeed!), and then allow God to love you as much as you can. Sit in His Light, or curl up in a fetal position in His Light. It doesn’t matter. He loves you and is always with you.

I’m not saying there aren’t silver linings, or we shouldn’t count these blessings, but we should find our comfort ultimately in God.

Not Another Motivational Post

It’s that wonderful time of year when everyone feels like they’ve got a fresh start and are making new resolutions and bringing a renewed sense of focus into their lives and determining to make 2020 the best year ever… and then there’s me.

Sometimes I feel like a Type A person trapped in a Type… W… body: I love the idea of GTD (Getting Things Done), and I love writing lists and planning schedules, but as soon as I have to live that stuff out, I freeze inwardly, grab my phone and/or coffee/chocolate, and sit on the couch and try to pretend the world does not need me. This is not the kind of person I want to be, but somehow that’s where I am. Maybe it’s connected with my GAD (Generalized Anxiety Disorder), I don’t know. I do tend to find myself visiting the Sahara of Overwhelm and the Great River of Denial quite frequently.

This year, I didn’t do the New Year Thing: I didn’t reflect extensively on the past year–heck, I couldn’t even remember the first half of the past year!–and I didn’t even try to make a resolution. Life ticked on as usual, with me barely treading water most days, although occasionally lucking out with an Amazing Day of Energy (can I tell you how much I love those days? sometimes I think I would be a seriously amazing mum if I had energy).

But I am always seeking improvement, list or no, and my health, both mental and physical, has become a sort of holy grail I’ve dedicated myself to seeking the past couple years, as I see it as essential to serving my family better (tiny cute faces make for good motivation). Today saw my first time stepping foot into an alternative health clinic primarily based on TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) and seeking–gasp–acupuncture.

As the acupuncturist assessed the state of my health (weak, weak, weak–uniformly weak!), identified the root of my problems as my diet that has caused an inflamed and irritated gut incapable of absorbing sufficient nutrients, and left me to “get some rest” with a bunch of tiny needles sticking out of my body at various points she determined as salutary, I had some quiet moments to reflect and pray.

All my life, I have largely tried to ignore my body. Thirsty? I’m not going to drink a glass of water until my lips are cracking. Sore tummy? Just ignore that. Pain? Best to ignore that, too, unless it’s completely interfering with my life. I just did not have TIME to look after my body. Sports were for people who didn’t have to get As. Eating was something to be done without thinking overly much about it because that’s either being too picky or wasting precious time that could be spent doing other things. As for emotions, those are what we learn to control. I did not want to be self-absorbed or a difficult person. Push through it. Be the hero.

It struck me that, throughout my life, I have only “listened” to my body when it became absolutely necessary: when my gallbladder needed to be removed, when my son died and my emotional world turned pitch black, when I had a panic attack while driving on a busy highway. I have been the complete opposite of gentle.

Gentle.

I had not thought I would lob onto a single word for the new year that is forgotten by the next, but this one slapped me in the face, so to speak. I need to learn to be gentle, foremost with myself. I need to be gentle with my body, listen to its pleas and respond fittingly. I need to be gentle with my spirit, and allow myself to fail in everything save turning to God. I need to be gentle with my emotions, and give them more acknowledgement.

Gentleness is an aspect of respect. I was not respecting the body God gave me, nor the person He made me. Ultimately, I have not been respecting Him and His glorious designs. I have been treating my body like a neglected workhorse, and it’s starting to revolt by giving out on me.

Gentleness is giving room to God, giving Him space to act.

In some ways, we don’t live in a very gentle era. The pace is fast. The expectations are high (although often misguided). There is an emphasis on having the best of you-name-it, as quickly and efficiently as possible. Information comes instantaneously through the internet, and we complain if it takes us twice as long as we are used to to get somewhere. If you’ve ever done a walking multi-day pilgrimage, you’ll have experienced something of the kind of pace people must have experienced in days of yore. It’s hard, very hard, but it’s gentle. Much like Christ promises His yoke is easy and His burden light: it requires effort, but it feels like that which we are made for. Very rarely, I’ve met someone who seems to have a special grace that sets them apart from this world of rush and bother. They seem to see every moment as sacred, even the pouring of tea, and treat it as such. Their outlook on life is exceptionally gentle. They have goals, but they are not so much driven in the sense of self-propelling as in the sense that they’ve handed the wheel over to the Lord. If I have any goal in life, it is not ultimately to be the sort of person who has accomplished everything on my list of Ideal Me; rather, my goal is to be this kind of person, no longer driven by ambitions but pure trust in God.

I’ve chosen a patron Saint for my new Polaris virtue this year: St Francis de Sales. I hope I might get the chance to read and re-read some of his writings as well, but at the very least, I trust he will intercede for me.

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.

Coloss. 3:12

Joy

I rambled recently on Facebook about Christmas, and how I feel that I might be a Christmas kind o’gal at heart. I realized tonight what it is that led me to that reflection, what it is that I am experiencing this week: joy!

This has caught me by some surprise, as I hadn’t quite realized I’d been lacking it, but of course: the past few years and Christmasses have been quite hard. Each holiday I feel keenly the absence of one of my dear children at some point. Although not chronically miserable and even at times happy, I had lost joy.

I am a joyful person! I had not realized. Without joy, I am not myself. What a wonderful thing to discover about oneself! But it is not just true of me: it is the same for everyone! Even the most Ebenezer Scroogiest among us!

This is what I love about Christmas: the total abandonment to joy! Untarnished, unblemished by any cynicism, pure, innocent joy!

Clearly, not every Christmas is joyful to all people. One learns as a child, to one’s astonishment, that one can feel quite contrary to the intended spirit of the special occasion being celebrated, just as the weather can be wretched rather than gay. The past few Christmasses, though happy, have been coloured by grief and anxiety, and I cannot describe my heart as having been joyful.

There is a levity to joy. It is this levity that sets it apart from mere happiness, I think. When one is happy, one’s feet, as it were, remain on the ground. When one is joyful, one is levitating, at least interiorly. My favourite depiction of joy in a movie is from the 1951 A Christmas Carol starring Alastair Sim:

Ebenezer [grumpily]  I don’t deserve to be so happy.

[starts laughing uncontrollably again] 

Ebenezer I can’t help it!

When joyful, we forget ourselves. We lose or renounce the control we typically enforce on our lives: the worries we have about how we might be perceived by others, about whether we are living up to our own standards, about living up to the Idea of Oneself that one has decided one ought to be. If we are uptight, anxious, fearful, or controlling in any way, we cannot be truly joyful. To be joyful, we must lose ourselves in God. And perhaps it will manifest itself in smiles–it certainly does with me, or at least a softening of my face. And there is an excitement in joy, the same sort of excitement the multitude of the heavenly host stirred up when they praised God in the fields, saying “Glory to God in the highest!” When I am joyful, my heart is united with that heavenly host stretched across the vast field, praising God. There is also a deep and intimate aspect to joy, as intimate and ineffable as a mother’s love for her baby.

And true joy is rooted in love. Sometimes we get a taste of joy in our relationships with people. I look upon my husband, or think about a friend who is very close to my heart, and I know joy. The deepest joy, however, is when I turn that gaze towards the Lord in my heart. I smile at Him, knowing He is smiling at me, who is totally unworthy of His smiles.

Joy! Joy is known at Easter, too, but in a more glorious and mature way. Joy at Christmas is so simple, so innocent of suffering albeit wise to it.

I am really quite fortunate to have known joy in my life. I know not everyone has joy in their homes. Perhaps, indeed, most people do not know more than happiness at best. I do not know. My wish is that everyone could know joy, but it is hard to see how one could be truly joyful without knowing Christ. Happy, certainly, but joyful? Perhaps, perhaps. Certainly there are many who know God and find joy in Him. Yet… yet to know God as Christ and Holy Spirit is about as intimate as we mortals can get with the Almighty. There is no other God who became one with us in body and soul, who fused his very being to our matter. This lends an intimacy that cannot otherwise be achieved. It is what marriage is a mere shadow of. And in intimacy, there grows the deepest and the greatest joy.

The most joyful people are the Saints, it has been said to me. I believe it! Who is more free, who is less self-conscious and more God-conscious than a saint? Some are so joyful that their interior levitation has been reflected in physical levitation! A priest my father knew once swiped his foot underneath Padre Pio as the saint was levitating, astounded that a human body should be floating above the ground! Such an amazing and miraculous external reflection of an internal reality!

I am grateful. I am deeply grateful to know joy again. I know that in my life joy comes and goes, but overall, when I am well, I am a joyful person, and I have always wanted to be a joyful person like St Philip Neri. I have prayed that God might grant me the grace of joy, just as I have often prayed that He might grant me the grace of wisdom.

In my joy, I do not forget suffering. I still remember my Matthew. I quickly recall dear friends who are undergoing terrible hidden crucifixions even at this very moment–some, remarkably, enduring these with a continued determination to rejoice in the Lord, God bless them! Rejoice in the Lord always! Newly equipped with joy, however, I can face these sufferings with a levity that is not of this world, a trust that God truly is God, and a good and loving one at that.

For now, my own life is enjoying some reprieve from major grief, and I am taking the time to thank God and to rejoice in my blessings: friendships many times more valuable than gold, family so near to my heart, wonderful children, and a husband I adore the Lord in, for the man is such a good man and such a delight. I am trying to bottle up my joy, label it, and shelve it for a future date when trials strike again, as they are sure to. The joy will still be there, but it will feel more distant, more of a memory than a present reality. And that’s ok. That is how this life is. In the next life, it will be pure joy beyond anything we have ever known in this life. We will all be levitating!

Renaming the Rosary: The Stressful Mysteries

We received some stressful news last week and it’s become a big lesson for me in Trust. In short, our landlord has plans to sell the house we are living in, so we have to find a new home sooner than we’d anticipated. It’s also teaching me Detachment in a big way: over the past two and a half years, I’ve made a nice home, finally relaxing into a sense of security in the past year, and now I’m being asked to give that all up. Thanks be to God!

I don’t really like it, I’ll be honest. I’m forcing myself to praise the Lord and give thanks, but it’s not coming naturally. I have noticed, though, that the more I forget myself and the more I praise Him, the happier I feel. It’s a bit like eating vegetables, though: I know they make me feel better, but I struggle to make myself eat them. Chocolate cake tastes so much better, and wallowing in worry has a similar weird appeal.

I was going to write through my feelings in my journal, but felt prompted to pray the rosary instead. My go-to set of mysteries is the Joyful Mysteries, the only ones I knew as a kid, so I would say those ones over and over again. They’re “my” mysteries. While I like the other ones, too, the Joyful are the ones I feel most at home with.

It occurred to me, while praying this morning, that “Joyful” is rather a strange appellation for this set of Mysteries. Had Mary not been her incredibly admirable self–had she been more like me–these mysteries would most certainly have been called the Stressful Mysteries. They’re basically proof that Mary was utterly amazing. Let’s break this down, for the sake of illumination:

The First Joyful Mystery: The Annunciation

A young woman, engaged to be married, is asked to conceive the Son of God.

  • Visited by a terrifying non-corporeal heavenly being. Stressful. You try not being afraid when the supernatural comes knocking at your door!
  • Unmarried and pregnant. Stressful. Couldn’t you have at least waited until I was securely placed in marriage?? How important is proof of this virgin birth anyway? I thought you said you loved ME and this is not helping ME right now in any way.
  • My betrothed may not look too kindly on this baby that’s not his. Stressful.
  • Possibility of being stoned to death for conceiving out of wedlock. Great idea, Lord.
  • Mother to the Son of GOD: ha! ha! um… can’t even.

The Second Joyful Mystery: The Visitation

Unmarried young woman in the first trimester of her first pregnancy ever travels to visit her pregnant cousin.

  • I don’t know about you, but I spent as much of the first trimester of my first pregnancy in bed.
  • Travel while pregnant on foot. Stressful.
  • Exhaustion on account of tiny, miraculous parasite. Overwhelming.
  • Morning sickness. NOT FUN.
  • Body changes. Whaaaaat?
  • Prospect of returning home with an increasing and imminently noticeable belly.

The Third Joyful Mystery: The Nativity

Young woman arrives in foreign city about to give birth. Gives birth in a place where animals are kept.

  • Moving before giving birth. Stressful. Also, I don’t care who you are, nobody wants to be riding on a donkey for days when you’re nine months pregnant and about to give birth.
  • Finally arrive in Bethlehem, but there was no internet to make room reservations in advance, so gotta trust God will find us something. In fact, the entire city is over-full thanks to this census. What happened to this whole “God will provide” thing? Couldn’t he have figured out an easier way to have his kid born in Bethlehem?
  • A stable?? This is not living in the manner to which I have become accustomed, Lord.
  • Couldn’t we have brought my mummy to help? I am about to give birth and some lady I’ve never met is the only person here to assist with the birth. Goodbye, privacy and comfort!
  • Wait, what? I just gave birth–NO RANDOM VISITORS. FAMILY AND FRIENDS ONLY. Please don’t touch the baby. Someone let me sleep? Is there any place to take a shower? Please leave: I actually just want to lie in the straw naked doing skin-to-skin and inhaling my new baby.
  • Could someone turn down the volume on those angels? And that star is shining way too brightly.
  • Joseph, do you mind shoveling that manure out of here?
  • WTF nobody told me breastfeeding would be so un-intuitive!!! Please use your omniscient powers to nurse, little baby!!
  • Bleeding everywhere. So gross. So gross. Your design is so icky, Lord.

The Fourth Joyful Mystery: The Presentation 

New mother brings her firstborn son to be consecrated to the Lord and circumcised.

  • They’re going to cut my baby. It’s going to be ok. —I can’t stand hearing him cry!!
  • Have you people ever heard of unsolicited advice? How does having a baby make you a target of every stranger’s passing remarks?
  • A sword? My baby? Old man, please… I don’t need this right now. I can hardly handle my baby getting a pinprick. Please don’t tell me there’s worse to come. I’m postpartum hormonal and I really don’t want to cry in public.

The Fifth Joyful Mystery: The Finding in the Temple

Twelve-year-old son has been missing for three days. He’s found in the Temple back in Jerusalem.

  • You are SO grounded.
  • What the heck do you think you’re doing preaching to these old men? They want wisdom? Tell them to talk to your mother next time!
  • Lord, I’ve never been so scared in my life. I’ve been having constant panic attacks. How could you do this to your mother??
  • We left the city! We told you we were leaving! How on God’s green earth did you think it was acceptable to stay behind?
  • You may be God, but in human terms you are only twelve years old. You haven’t even hit puberty yet. You aren’t growing up that fast!
  • I’m going to need about three days to sit on the couch and recover from the shock you just gave me, young man.
  • Where is chocolate when I need it?

 

As you can see, I am a long way from being the Blessed Virgin Mary. The mere responsibility of being the mother of God is terrifying to think of. I feel overwhelmed and unprepared just raising my merely human children. Mama Mary was clearly AMAZING. No joke that she was FULL of grace. You can’t do this kind of stuff unless you’re full of grace.

The good news is, everyone can be filled with grace. The more we surrender ourselves to God, the more he can fill us with His grace.

I still love the image of Our Lady of Grace that a priest once expounded on personally for me: he pointed out that her hand are open, not clenched. Grace can’t be poured into and through clenched hands. God won’t force our hands open to receive grace, but as a kindly Father will invite us and urge us to loosen our grip. Let go, let God.

Our Lady of Grace
Our Lady of Grace

Courage and Prudence

A topic near and dear to my heart throughout my life has been that of true courage, which in my opinion encompasses prudence. After all, if courage is foolhardy, we tend to call it rashness or impetuousness. Courage is acknowledging risks yet not being intimidated by them. Courage is taking control of our fear and doing what we have best discerned needs to be done. It’s one of my favourite virtues, up there with generosity. Of course, courage is one of the utmost forms of generosity, being a willingness to sacrifice oneself. And what is generosity, if not the freedom of self to give in love?

I’ve been drawn to reflect on the Parable of the Talents (Mt 25:14-30) of late. When I was a child, I was surprised that no mercy was shown to the servant given a single talent, who buried his coin for fear of losing it. I was a somewhat fearful child and appreciated the comfort of certainty, and wondered why those who were free, seemingly even careless, with their money should have profited. I saw more fault with the harsh and demanding Master.

It has taken the wisdom and perspective of some years to come to a better understanding of Christ’s message in this parable. It has taken some maturity to see that the simple portrait of the Hard Master, painted by the Nervous Servant, may be an inaccurate portrayal, coloured by the deficiencies of the observer.

Let us, for a moment, step back from our empathy for the Nervous Servant (if, indeed, you are like me and can easily identify with such a one).

‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, 25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here, you have what is yours.’

The perception of the Master as a hard man comes from a timid observer. If we look to the beginning of the story, we see that he “called his servants and entrusted to them his property. 15 To one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability.” What I see from the objective facts is that the Master trusts his servants, and not only does he trust them, he has the wisdom to see that each has a different level of aptitude and he does not give them more than he sees they can handle. He gives each an appropriate degree of responsibility. 

The Nervous Servant has noted that the Master reaps where he has not sown and gathers where he scattered no seed. The Nervous Servant is so blinded by his anxiety and fear that he interprets this as a sign of harshness rather than a sign of trust and respect. As a result, he quails, panics, and buries the entrusted treasure.

“You wicked and slothful servant!” cries the Master, upon learning what the Nervous Servant has done. Now, as a child, I was already standing in the shoes of the Nervous Servant, so I thought to myself that here was the miscoloured assessment of character. Wicked? Slothful? More like prudent, careful, responsible!

No. If I take that perspective, I miss entirely what Christ is trying to tell us.

Let us imagine that God the Father is the Master. He entrusts to each of us a different amount of “talent” (oh, how wonderful to have this synonym in English!), as every homilist I’ve ever heard has observed. What the text does not reveal explicitly is that He does so in an outpouring of His love, but, of course, that is how God executes all his actions, for we are told He is Love itself. To quail before such love is a respectable initial reaction; however, we are then faced with a choice: do we respond in like love and trust Him, as He invites us to, or do we hide in fear, as Adam and Eve attempted? To base our decisions on fear is to listen to the Devil, who wants so desperately to sow doubt and self-loathing in our hearts, to turn the focus away from our relationship with our glorious, infinite God and towards our own dull, finite navels.

IMG_1883

The above quotation is taken from Fr Jacques Philippe’s Fire and Light: Learning to Receive the Gift of God (p. 70).

The Nervous Servant thought he was being prudent, but he was not. As we see, it did not end well for him at all, for the Master took the pittance He had entrusted him with and “cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness.” Why this apparent harshness? Why the seemingly callous claim that “to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away”? Doesn’t that sound like kicking a man who’s already fallen on his face? But put it in the context of the story: the Master had trusted each of the servants, yet the Nervous Servant proved that he did not in turn trust his Master’s wisdom. The Nervous Servant was proud enough to refuse to believe that he could do anything with what he was given, even though he knew it was expected of him.

Lucy led the way and soon they could all see the Dwarfs. They had a very odd look. They weren’t strolling about or enjoying themselves (although the cords with which they had been tied seemed to have vanished) nor were they lying down and having a rest. They were sitting very close together in a little circle facing one another. They never looked round or took any notice of the humans till Lucy and Tirian were almost near enough to touch them. Then the Dwarfs all cocked their heads as if they couldn’t see any one but were listening hard and trying to guess by the sound what was happening.

“Look out!” said one of them in a surly voice. “Mind where you’re going. Don’t walk into our faces!”

“All right!” said Eustace indignantly. “We’re not blind. We’ve got eyes in our heads.”

“They must be darn good ones if you can see in here,” said the same Dwarf whose name was Diggle.

“In where?” asked Edmund.

“Why you bone-head, in here of course,” said Diggle. “In this pitch-black, poky, smelly little hole of a stable.”

“Are you blind?” said Tirian.

“Ain’t we all blind in the dark!” said Diggle.

“But it isn’t dark, you poor stupid Dwarfs,” said Lucy. “Can’t you see? Look up! Look round! Can’t you see the sky and the trees and the flowers? Can’t you see me?”

“How in the name of all Humbug can I see what ain’t there? And how can I see you any more than you can see me in this pitch darkness?”

“But I can see you,” said Lucy. “I’ll prove I can see you. You’ve got a pipe in your mouth.”

“Anyone that knows the smell of baccy could tell that,” said Diggle.

– The Last Battle (C. S. Lewis)

The Nervous Servant, much like the Dwarfs in the final tale of Narnia, could not see beyond his own dingy perception of the situation. Perhaps the other two servants even attempted to encourage him to think differently, but neither their example nor their entreaties made any difference.

Let’s consider those other two servants for a moment. They were trusted with five and with two talents, each according to his ability. Each went forth in faith and doubled his entrusted fund. Must we imagine that these two were repulsively confident, reckless risk-takers? Or might we entertain the possibility that they were courageous, loving, generous, willing to take risks in the hopes of pleasing their Master? For all they knew, they would fail and have nothing to hand over when their Master returned. Yet they trusted their Master: they knew He had expectations of them, and they saw that He trusted them. With little thought to themselves, they went forth and did their best. Their efforts were rewarded, for although the text does not say so explicitly, we know that the Master blessed their efforts.

Was the Nervous Servant jealous of the other two servants? Quite possibly. He saw how much they had been given, and he despaired. He did not see what he had, but what he had not. There was little room in his heart for love. He was concerned only with his own self-preservation, with not making a mistake, with avoiding the humiliation of failure.

“For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” – Mt 16:25

“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.” – 1 John 4:18

Do not be afraid. God is love.

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.” – Prov. 3:5

“Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” – Joshua 1:9

I could go on! I cannot think of a faith that is more empowering than that of the Gospel. Who else tells us that we are sons and daughters of God almighty and proves it through the waters of Baptism? Are there any other creeds that bridge that gap between God and man in such an astonishingly intimate manner? Our God loves us so much that He sent His own Son, His own Self, to dwell among us, and to tell us: Do Not Be Afraid.

Walk to the Lord on water and do not doubt. If you begin to flounder in your doubt, trust God, as Peter did, to pull you up and rescue you. With God, you cannot falter.

Let us not be timid like the Nervous Servant, but as confident as a child in her father’s lap, as confident as the Little Flower, St Therese, who clung to the Lord in all her weakness.