After my last entry, I got to reflecting anew upon why I want to become a saint. It’s been my life goal for twenty years or so — long enough, that is, that I forget on a daily basis why I came to it in the first place. However, though my memory is poor for external events, it tends to serve me very well for internal experiences.
Of course, the best reason to become a saint is because God wills it. Indeed, there really is no other way to strive for sainthood ultimately. It’s not about us; it’s about glorifying His ineffable goodness. But we can be inspired to desire this path from a number of lesser paths that come together like rivulets merging together in a river before it pours out into the sea.
I think my first inspiration was reading the stories of the Saints. Not long after I was confirmed, I watched the movie The Mission, and fell in love with it. In perhaps my first personal historical research project, I went to the library to take out as many books as I could about the history of the Jesuits and St Ignatius of Loyola. I’ve always been attracted to intelligence and courage, so this order bore a lot of natural attraction for me. The public library had a surprising number of books on Saints, and I remember being indebted to it for Patricia Treece’s biography of St Maximilian Kolbe as well. I found more books at our parish library, too. I read many different kinds of books, ciphening out information from books less than perfectly friendly towards the Church, and sifting out inspiration from the sometimes somewhat cheesy accounts written by simple, earnest believers. In the end, I got what I wanted: stories of men and women who had lived lives remarkable for their love for God and neighbour. It was impossible not to be seduced by their holy examples of courage, resilience, humility, and love! If the Bible seemed inaccessible to me as a young teenager, these stories revealed Christ to me like stained glass windows commute the sunlight, each in its own individual way. I admired the Saints; they were heroic. I wanted to be like them.
So there was the romance, but there was also the practicality of dedicating one’s life and efforts to holiness. After all, if death and taxes are the two inevitables in life and one carries over consequences into eternity, it only makes sense to be particularly well prepared for that. I’m not one of those people for whom Eternity has been a source of anxiety. I did try to think my way to understanding it as a child, but I eventually learned that the understanding of Eternity, as with so many other mysteries, is not something we grasp through mental exercises but more through life experience, for these mysteries are embedded in the world around us, and especially in our souls. So I looked at the Truth of Eternity calmly and reasoned simply that I ought to pack my umbrella — strive to make the necessary preparations, that is. Adventures appeal to me (they demand courage!), so knowing that this one promises to be a good one so long as we’re prepared was good enough for me.
Another reason I wanted to become a saint was that I’d gone through a philosophical phase when I was ten or eleven, thanks to my Dad. I loved reflecting on the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, and how this trinity, so to speak, was one in God, and I suppose in my little child way, I adored that and desired to be united with that above all. Sin and sorrow over the years to come only served to strengthen that yearning.
These are my roots, or some of the bigger ones. It’s remarkable, I note now, how formative those years transitioning from child to teenager are, or can be. They set me on the path I’ve been struggling to follow since, influenced the choices I’ve made, the renunciations I’ve made. It would seem, too, that though I have changed a lot since then, my foundation remains the same: I want to become a saint because it is the heroic and admirable path, because it is the best life investment a person can make for the long term, and because God is so dang attractive I can’t help myself.
Last Sunday we entered church and found our icons, pictures, statues, and crucifix masked with purple cloth. My son was very upset by this, but so was I, small matter that this happens every Lent! I spent the Mass feeling uneasy and unsettled – where could I rest my eyes? When I go to Mass, I look more at the religious art that adorns our churches than anything else. When the mind wanders, as may be relied upon, the artistic and symbolic depictions of significant people and events in my Faith serve as extra aids in keeping my attention on God, rather than my grocery list (although they by no means prevent my drawing up grocery lists). We have very nice art in our church and I like looking at it all, but in every church I visit, it is the crucifix that captivates me more than anything, and it is that upon which I fix my gaze for most of the Mass, as it facilitates an ongoing conversation with – and meditation upon – Christ, and the mystery of His almost incredible love. When, on Sunday, the crucifix was veiled, I spent much of the Mass feeling like a child lost at a family reunion: I wasn’t scared because I knew my parents were there somewhere, but I was a bit anxious because I couldn’t see them, and my eyes darted everywhere.
The veiling of the church art is an effective means of reminding us just how powerful our representations and symbols are. It made me reflect upon how empty the world would be without Mary, St Joseph, St Michael the Archangel, Divine Mercy, etc., etc. – but first and foremost: without Christ! Then would I be lost indeed!
On Thursday, I met with the counsellor who is helping me address my anxiety and insomnia challenges, and she gave me a page out of a book and spoke with me about the idea that in order to overcome anxiety, one does better to face the source of anxiety immediately than to avoid it or ignore it. Avoidance defers the moment wherein the anxiety will be addressed, allowing the anxiety to build.
“Because we are scared to feel fear, we avoid whatever triggers it. It’s the avoidance that locks the phobia [or anxiety] in place…. It’s not the fear that stops you. It’s fear of feeling the fear that stops you…. If you can let yourself tolerate feeling fear, the feeling gradually decreases…. what you really need to do is face down the fear.” – Healing Through the Dark Emotions, Miriam Greenspan (p. 173)
Reading Greenspan’s thoughts, I remembered the crucifix. After all, the representation of a man dead or dying from torture is essentially the representation of all those things we fear most: death, humiliation, vulnerability, loss, abandonment, betrayal, absolute poverty, nakedness, shame, heartbreak, defeat. Greenspan’s book presents the message of facing down one’s fear through a New Age-Jewish-Buddist mindfulness lens, but the idea is at the heart of Catholicism: there is no greater symbol in our Tradition than that of Christ crucified upon the cross. In our homes, in our churches, around our necks, on our keychains, on our dashboards, and tucked away in just about any ready nook, cranny, or pocket, we face our deepest fears on a daily basis. Better even than the acclimatization to fear (“affect tolerance” is apparently the term used by psychologists), Christians are given a real reason not to fear. “In the grand scheme of things, what’s the worst that could happen?” “Hm, well, the Powers of Evil could conquer the Powers of Good. They could even kill a God who, crazy as it sounds, is a fool for love over mere creatures!” Well, The Worst Thing that could happen in The Grand Scheme of Things did happen, and evil was still completely and utterly defeated, for the Crucified Christ became the Risen Christ, gloriously triumphant, having endured the greatest pain and humiliation.
“And the LORD said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a standard: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he seeth it, shall live.” – Numbers 21:8, a prefiguration of the Crucifix
I have many fears, and many thoughts make me feel anxious. I fear the death of those I love most, I fear raising children poorly so that they prefer sin or worldly comforts to God, I fear the stack of dishes that piles up in the sink and the floor covered with toys and food that the children have dropped, I fear the judgement of those who read my writing and of those who see my lazy or indulgent grocery choices at the check-out counter. And my heart still aches from the death of my son, and from sundry injuries past, missed opportunities, regrets. There is fear and there is grief and there is the temptation to despair, and all this Christ has taken upon himself and given us a symbol that encompasses them all to gaze upon in wonder, knowing how they were not merely faced by a brave man, but thoroughly transformed.
When Catholics gaze upon the crucifix, we gaze upon all that is the worst in this world. We bring our pain and humiliation, our brokenness, grief, and defeat, and face the darkness with Christ. Through Him, with Him, in Him, we not only grow unassailable in the face of the apparent threat of the tyranny of evil, but we find the darkness transformed into light. The “emotional alchemy” that Greenspan writes of? The High Alchemist is the Holy Trinity.
Lord, by your cross and resurrection, you have set us free. You are the Saviour of the world.
One of the persistent jokes in my family of origin revolves around the incredible richness of the Scriptures, so someone might say “the Gospel today was really good!” to be responded with “unlike those other Gospel stories!” One can’t help but laugh with joy when one takes a moment to consider the great and powerful gift of the Scriptures!
It would be foolish to spend much time ranking Gospel stories, for they are all a revelation of one and the same gloriously loving God, but it is true that some offer more material for profound reflection and therefore could perhaps be said to be more beautiful. One of these stories is that of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well. It was one of the options for Sunday’s Mass, and the priest not only chose it for our Mass, but he also expounded upon it lectio divina style, which was exactly what my heart was yearning for after being touched by it in a new way during the Gospel reading.
The story found in John 4 is a powerful story of mercy and of the ardent yearning of God for our love. In homilies past, I have had my attention drawn to the significance of the encounter happening at a well, a place that, in Biblical tradition, was a significant meeting point for man with a woman: it was at a well that Moses met Zipporah, that a bride was found for Isaac, etc. In John 4, the well that had associations with the most intimate human alliance draws attention to the marriage that God yearns to share with His people.
The following is very much inspired by Sunday’s homily.
6 Jacob’s well was there, and so Jesus, wearied as he was with his journey, sat down beside the well. It was about the sixth hour. 7 There came a woman of Samar′ia to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” 8 For his disciples had gone away into the city to buy food. 9 The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samar′ia?” For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.
Here Father drew attention to the setting: It is noon, the hottest hour of the day, the hour when most women would prefer not to be fetching water from a well. But the Samaritan woman is an outcast, the gossip of the town, having taken up with many men and perhaps being eyed with fear and suspicion, if not judgment, so she chooses this hour so as to avoid uncomfortable encounters. God knows her schedule, however, and he has plans to meet her. The division between Jews and Samaritans makes the woman wary of Jesus, anticipating more hostility, to which she is accustomed.
10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” 11 The woman said to him, “Sir, you have nothing to draw with, and the well is deep; where do you get that living water? 12 Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well, and drank from it himself, and his sons, and his cattle?” 13 Jesus said to her, “Every one who drinks of this water will thirst again, 14 but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” 15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, that I may not thirst, nor come here to draw.”
Jesus is not phased, however, by her apparent unreceptiveness; he knows her heart. We can imagine with what love he looked into her eyes and began to speak to her of the Good News. The woman does not understand that Jesus is speaking symbolically and eagerly latches onto the idea that she might not have to return to this well, a reminder of her humiliation.
16 Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come here.” 17 The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; 18 for you have had five husbands, and he whom you now have is not your husband; this you said truly.” 19 The woman said to him, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet.
Christ is eager to give her everything, all the living water of life that he has to offer, but he also knows there is an obstacle, namely her sins. He cannot avoid the truth, but he brings it up very gently; he does not launch into accusation or lecture. The woman is no doubt ashamed, but Jesus is not scandalized. Our sins may give scandal to others and even to ourselves, but they never scandalize God. Jesus sees into the confusion and shame brought about by her sins; he speaks truth to her, but he does so gently. He also lets her lead the conversation: perhaps inspired by her own discomfort with her sinfulness, she turns the conversation in another direction. Christ does not press her, he does not insist upon a discussion of her sins, he has opened that door for her, an invitation if she wishes to go further into it, but he has not come to condemn her, only to draw her to himself.
20 Our fathers worshiped on this mountain;[a] and you say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.” 21 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. 22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” 25 The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ); when he comes, he will show us all things.” 26 Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am he.”
This part of the story is exciting, the action rises to the climax: the present problems of the division of Jews and Samaritans is almost the past, the time is coming that God’s new covenant will be fulfilled, the woman becomes hopeful that perhaps this man speaking to her might know something about the long-awaited and much desired Messiah, and Christ responds to her hope with the most beautiful revelation the world has ever known: He is the Messiah, the Deliverer.
Yes, it is fitting that such an encounter should take place at a well, for it reads with the same sort of excitement and hope as when one reads a Jane Austen novel and yearns for the heroine to find peace and love in the man who loves her. Certainly, human romantic love is but a reflection of the Great Romance that is God’s love for his people, just as the moon reflects the light of the sun. I do not know that any other religion perceives the Great Romance so much as Catholicism, for in Catholicism we have some who are so overcome by it that they happily renounce human marriage for the sake of a life devoted solely to God and his Church. We believe in it so much that, in the Roman rite, we make it a requirement that priests not marry, for they ought themselves to be consumed by the Great Romance and consider themselves in relation to us as Christ is in relation to us.
I have wandered from Father’s homily. There were two other important lessons he imparted, but I don’t remember how he fit them in. The first was a reminder that when God speaks to us, it gives us a sense of peace and joy (of course, He may allow our conscience to be needled for the sake of conversion, but ultimately He brings peace and confidence; confusion and distress come from the Devil). I remember this very well from when I was making a big change in my life from seriously pursuing religious life to opening my heart to dating my now husband. All I wanted was to love God with all my heart and was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to within marriage, and I brought this confusion before Jesus one night in the tabernacle in the convent where I was living, and it seemed he placed words in my heart that I was free to do as I wanted and should not be afraid, and my heart was filled with peace and joy and gratitude. I soon realized that God was offering Rob to me as much as Rob himself was, and within six weeks we were engaged. It still amazes me how quickly one can run along what had been for years a narrow and difficult path when one entrusts one’s heart and life wholly to God, and when the timing is right.
The second lesson was that we must make time to have a daily conversation with the Lord, about fifteen to twenty minutes would be good. I struggle very much to remain faithful to a regular prayer time at home. I prefer to go to Mass or go to Adoration where Jesus is physically present, but as a mother of three children three and under, that’s simply not feasible on a daily basis. As it so happens, however, I’ve taken the past week with my husband on parental leave to enjoy a couple visits to the Adoration chapel, and there Christ has impressed on my heart that I need to find a way to continue the relationship at home in a disciplined manner. When I heard our priest exhort us to regular, scheduled prayer once again, I was confirmed in my sense that it’s time to take this relationship with Jesus to the next level, haha.
There we have it, one of the most beautiful stories among a collection of stunningly beautiful stories. Perhaps the beauty of the various Gospel stories may be likened to the beauty of the various individuals God has made: each different, and some revealing Him to a greater depth than others, but all dazzling with His radiance, His glory, His love.
As the week draws to a close and I anticipate another Sunday’s homily, I recall the simile we were given in last week’s homily that has accompanied me through the week: we need not fear the Devil or any of his henchmen, for they are more scared of us than we have right to be of them, seeing as Christ has won the battle; indeed, the priest urged us, they are like pufferfish, wishing to appear more frightening than they truly are. The priest also encouraged us to call out in the name of Christ these demons that plague us, and to command that they go away. Relevant to my recent struggles, he mentioned that while anxiety can certainly require medical attention (and he urged us to seek that kind of help if we need it), it can also have a spiritual source. The pufferfish image was memorable, seeing as my three-year-old son has a favourite page in one of his natural history books illustrating a meeting between a porcupine fish and a shark, with the shark approaching until frightened away by the porcupine fish puffed up, who has successfully given the illusion that this small prey is a threat.
Father’s counsel was just what I needed: this week, when negative thoughts crossed my mind, I called on Christ to cast them far from me. With the confidence of a Christian, I myself told them to flee in His Name, reminding them (and myself) I belong to Him, sealed by Baptism and Confirmation. If, like Peter, I quaver a little and start to sink, I cry to Jesus to save me, and He reaches out His hand. We cannot lose if we stand in Christ. It’s been several days now, and I’ve experienced a peace I haven’t had in a very long time, perhaps since before receiving the devastating news about my son Matthew two years ago (shy five days). It’s giving me hope.
Moreover, I’ve applied this teaching of the Lord’s mastery to my physical tension, which is related to my anxiety. My physiotherapist recently prescribed a practice called Mindfulness, and even sent me some audio files. I listened to one on falling asleep, something I struggle with most nights. It was all well and good, if a little odd, until it started to invite me to imagine beings encircling my bed, at which point the relaxation therapy backfired completely as my alarm bells started ringing loudly. As a Catholic, I don’t like to dabble with anything that invites ambiguous spirits, as experience has shown us that this can open the door to evil spirits, so I dropped that like a hot coal. At the same time, I recognized that the bodily tension I live with every minute of the day, even while sleeping, really ought to be addressed, especially as it’s become increasingly painful. Every night, therefore, I’ve been making my prayer one of surrendering the tension in my muscles to the Lord, asking Him to help me relax each one. I’ve never drifted off so easily.
In other news, I sacrificed my home and family to the completion of Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth this past week, and it was not in vain. I hope I might have time to write some reflections soon, for it was as rich as the very earth she kept describing.