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!

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.

How to become a saint – how my perspective has changed

I’ve always been captivated by the stories of the Saints. My earliest memory is one of fascination and some horror as I flipped through an old illustrated book of Saints for kids, observing the wide spectrum of gruesome ends depicted and fixating on the beautiful dresses that adorned the queen Saints (my favourite pictures in Andrew Lang’s fairy tale collections were likewise those of elegant princesses). From there, I grew to a crude awe of Saints like Padre Pio and Joseph of Cupertino, whose lives were a series of unfathomable miraculous events. I kind of wanted to be miracle-working Saint Superhero. Ultimately, I wanted to feel special and be special. I was charmingly naive to the real toll of bearing the stigmata or the humiliation of levitating in view of others. It was an awkward, immature stage of spirituality, much in line with the awkwardness and immaturity of those early teenage years.

Then I watched The Mission and fell hard in love with the Jesuits, St Ignatius, and the idea of doing great things for God. St Maximilian Kolbe was a great hero of mine as well. I wanted to bring the love of Jesus all around the world, fight like the bravest of spiritual soldiers, and perhaps die a martyr’s death. Ad maiorem Dei gloriam! I was ambitious for the higher things, right? Or so I thought.

My voracious appetite for spiritual reading led me to discover the Church’s supreme estimation of the interior life. I had a new aspiration: to become a contemplative, preferably a cloistered one, a Trappist or something if I were really heroic. I’d read little pamphlets about the slightly insufferable Thérèse of Lisieux, pamphlets that made me feel guilty if I didn’t replace the toilet paper roll if I finished the last one (dang it, conscience! Ignorance is bliss!), and I figured I’d better buckle down and learn to appreciate her. I couldn’t really get through the autobiography. It was far too simple for my sophisticated soul. Thérese got put on the back burner while I fell in love with God through St Augustine, some guy who had beat me to my trick of writing letters to God, and some eighteen centuries earlier, at that!

Eventually, as an undergrad, I encountered von Balthasar’s Two Sisters in the Spirit. What a gift that book was to my all-too sophisticated soul! It was essentially an intellectual translating Thérèse’s simple spirituality into a language a mind hampered by excessive sophistication could understand. This opened my soul to a whole new world of simplicity and humility, and I dove deep.

But I still wanted to be a great Saint. I wanted to do something for God. I wanted to be something for God. I wanted to change the world! Looking back, I am alternately embarrassed and charmed. I am a little ashamed of my blind pride, but I am also charmed by an enthusiasm that I see in my young son: that drive to be the superlative human being in all endeavours. It’s an adorable, trusting, childlike but yet immature stage of faith: instead of “when I grow up, I’m going to be the strongest and the fastest!” it was “one day I’ll be the holiest! I will be the poorest in spirit! the purest in heart! I will do great things for God!”

And, you know, Josemaria Escriva urged people to set as their goal to become great saints. However, there’s striving to become a great saint and there’s striving to become a great saint. One busies itself with becoming great, and the other becomes a beggar.

In recent years, I have not had as much time to devour holy books. I also have three children, so I can no longer spend long hours in prayer. I don’t really even have much time to build an interior life. My life is no longer conducive to my making myself a saint —thanks be to God!

I am a beggar. I am busy just trying to survive on the streets of my life. In between ensuring three small children are properly dressed to venture out into the increasingly cold weather and cleaning up the mess of food fallen under high chairs that children in impoverished countries would happily devour but sadly meets the compost bucket instead, I say, “help me, Jesus” and “I love you, Jesus” and “help me to love you more, Jesus” and, most beautiful of all, “thank you so, so much for your love for me, Jesus!” In five years of marriage that has included twins, stillbirth, unemployment, mental illness, and a perpetually messy home, I have grown in touch with my utter weakness and helplessness, but I have also discovered the greatest joy of knowing that Jesus loves me. Jesus is crazy about me. And what’s more, Jesus is the most incredibly, profoundly, heartbreakingly, terrifyingly beautiful thing I’ve ever caught glimpse of, and I could just sit in awe of his majesty, the burning, blazing furnace of his love.

I am not a great saint. I am not sure I ever will be one, but honestly, I don’t much care anymore. If it pleases Jesus to use me in some way that I am one day upheld as a model to the Church, so be it, although the thought amuses me seeing as I can barely offer up chocolate for a day for some intention at present, nor do I have any discipline of daily prayers. If it pleases Jesus to let me remain a simple soul who struggles daily to overcome her weaknesses and give him glory, who lives in relative obscurity for the rest of her life, that is fine. I only ask that I might share Him in some way with others, that I might make Him known and loved. How I will do that, I can’t determine: circumstances determine that. On the other hand, how I will do that is quite simple: I will bask in his love, and he will in turn allow that love to leak out of me as I go about my daily business.

My interior life is this: on Sunday, I go to Mass and receive the Sacred Host. Jesus takes up residence in the tabernacle of my heart, and I essentially ask him to make a monstrance of my eyes. And that’s it. I go about my daily life. I try to live a good life, but I’m currently in a season of healing. I am praying that He might lead me one day to a season of more active spirituality, one in which I can take on penances out of love for him, but for now I need to know His love for me, and I need to glory in it, and I need to adore Him, and He’ll do the rest. And I do know this: I know that He will lead me to heaven so long as I keep going to Mass on Sundays and avoiding mortal sin, so ultimately, whether I’m a great Saint or not, He has promised to transform me into a saint.

I love you, Jesus.

A Gift of God

Life has been busy, and I’ve had little time to write in spite of having no shortage of thoughts and ideas I’d love to develop. An important date is approaching, however, and love compels me to honour it.

Today in Mass, I don’t remember exactly how it came up yet it is no surprise such a subject should arise, death was mentioned. I think we were being urged to contemplate how we hope all to be united with the Father in the end. It is impossible for me to think of death now without remembering our son, Matthew. In one week, it will have been two years since his death, and as the intense pain of losing him seems at last to be diminishing, the yearning to be united with him one day is as strong as ever.

Our experience with Matthew was somewhat unique: not many people, thankfully, receive the news that their unborn baby has a condition that is incompatible with life outside the womb. We had only begun to rejoice in his arrival in our family when we learned he would not be with us for much longer. Fiat! It is truly amazing how the Lord in His great mercy gives us the graces we need to face the trials He allows us to bear for His greater glory. The Lord gave us the grace to believe that this sick baby was a gift to our family, even if we could scarcely understand how. It is why we named him Matthew, which means “gift of God,” so that we would never forget.

Now, two years later, standing in Mass, struggling to pay full attention as a somewhat weary mother of three, I am graced with glimpses into the meaning of our special gift from God. I see that it is thanks to Matthew that I have had to face my brokenness and my littleness and seek help in my growth towards wholeness. It is thanks to Matthew that I have learnt all the more profoundly that all is grace – bootstraps be hanged! all we can do is make an immolation of ourselves! It is thanks to Matthew that I have learned what it is to reach into the deepest recesses of my heart to give all that I am and have to others and not to make excuses, for so many people served me in this way when I was desolate. It is thanks to Matthew that I have greater empathy with those who have lost babies or who have no babies, having been thrown together with other suffering women. And I really have no doubt that it is thanks to Matthew’s intercession that we now have his twin sisters, born also on his birthday. There will always be pain when one has lost a child, but such a child can also bring a special joy, and my heart is confident that some bright morning when this life is over, my Matthew and I will enjoy the embrace we were denied in this world.

Today is Father’s Day. I am filled with joy and gratitude for the man who is the father of my children, for my father, for the father who raised my husband, and for all the men who have been fathers to others, be it biologically or spiritually. I am also filled with an intense joy and gratitude for our Father, Jesus’ Father, the God who loves us with more love than we can possibly imagine but which we can catch a glimpse of in the relationship of a truly loving earthly father with his children. His mercy and His generosity are beyond telling, and I do look forward to snuggling up to Him in the next life, however that might play out in the mystery of heaven! One almost begins to perceive death as a gift to be awaited and received with reverence, for it is through death that we are transformed and invited to new life… Well, that is a very large topic to consider at some point. I am grateful also for St Joseph, foster father to Jesus and patron of a good death; may he pray for us, especially the fathers among us, and that we may be prepared to meet our Father at the end of our lives.

Gift, gift! All is gift. May my little Matthew Gabriel pray for all of you who are reading this, that you may see how all that has come to pass in your lives has been a gift from God in some mysterious way, for He makes all things new!