The Saint as One Who Finds His Worth in God

I don’t have much to say, and what I have to say has been said before: one defining aspect of the saints is that they find their self-worth completely in God.

My husband and I watched a movie tonight that had been recommended to us, Murder Mystery on Netflix. It was mostly “meh” by my critique and I can’t say I could recommend it, but it was mildly entertaining and led to a Life Reflection: namely, the above. The first scene sets up a cop character who is lying to his wife about being a detective because he wants to impress her. His self-worth lies in impressing her. Many other characters invest their self-worth in wealth.

I have met people who have placed their sense of self-worth in intellect, in refined judgement and discerning taste, in their possessions, in their abilities–in short, in their own identities.

It is very important in our day to build our own identities and sense of self-worth. It’s not a new idea by any means: I recall Petrarch excitedly seizing upon the idea back when the Middle Ages was melting into the Renaissance, and surely this is what motivated the Pharaohs to be buried in the manner they were, but today Everyman is being encouraged to be the author of his own happiness. “Our only limitations are those we set up in our minds,” I recently read, a quotation attributed to Napoleon Hill. By pseudo-Jedi power, we can will our desired future into being, and that is essentially the highest level of being.

Catholics do not believe this. We believe our self-worth rests in God alone as His adopted children. We don’t even find our self-worth in how good or holy we are. At the end of the day, we have absolutely nothing to do with our self-worth at all, and have absolutely no control over it: there is nothing we can do to make ourselves any more or less valuable.

This is good news! For some crazy reason, God has evaluated us as being so precious that He gave His Son as ransom for us. We couldn’t aspire to be more valuable than that, could we? It is also good news because it means that no matter how much evil we may have committed, we are still infinitely valuable in the eyes of God. Our self-worth lies in Him alone.

However, even though we know and believe this as Catholics, we don’t always live it out, thanks to sin and fallen nature. We are distracted by the world and begin to judge ourselves and others on the basis of various merits: beauty, wealth, intelligence, health, abilities…. I believe many of us are constantly judging according to erroneous criteria, and therein lies our sorrow. How can we be happy if we have always to be grasping to hold forever that which we invest our self-worth in?

“Being good” is one of the erroneous traps I often find myself falling into. It’s not a bad one in itself–none of the traps really are–but I often get down on myself for not being a good mother, a good housekeeper, a good teacher. I see how I could be much better and grieve that I am not. Again, this is not in itself bad, or it wouldn’t be, if I then turned it over to my Father. Without Him, I begin to believe the lie that my self-worth is dependent on how good a mother I am, etc. God does not think like man, though: He desires that we be good, certainly, and it pleases Him very much when we succeed, but it is our love and our trust He wants. He wants us to live in Him, for that is our true purpose in life.

Although it can be useful to be motivated by worldly prods to become our best selves, the great saints are those who have ultimately forgotten those worldly influences and who place all their sense of self-worth in God. Whether they are spoken well of or ill, it matters not to them. Whether they succeed or fail, it matters not. They live for God. Their identity lies in Him, and thus so also their happiness.

What to do after a bad Confession

Like all other Catholics who have been practising their Faith for years, I’ve been to Confession countless times. We all know that God gives different gifts to different people, even among those whom He calls to serve as priests. Usually the most we have to complain about is a “boring,” cookie-cutter penance of three Hail Marys (if you think that’s boring, just consider how tedious your sins are!). But, occasionally, we experience a Confession that is not simply uninspiring, but a truly bad experience. I had one such experience recently, and I will share how I dealt with it.

Over the weekend, I was blessed to participate in a retreat. The direction was good, the food was wonderful, and I slept like I haven’t slept in years. Indeed, I must confess I slept through most of the silent meditation sessions, so exhausted had I arrived. It was truly a gift in all respects. Of course, there was opportunity for Confession offered by a number of priests anticipating a large number of penitent retreatants, so I went. Let’s call him Fr Well-Intentioned, for I do believe he is a well-intentioned man, and he is very kind—dare I say, too kind? During the course of the Confession, Fr Well-Intentioned gave me the advice that I “shouldn’t bother” trying to set time aside to pray since I am a busy mother, and that instead I should find God in “the smiles of children and flowers.” Setting aside all amusement I took in his idyllic vision of motherhood full of meadowy frolics and grateful, angelic children, I became quite alarmed at this counsel, which raised a big red flag in my conscience, as well as a great fear.

In many ways, I’m a fair-weather friend to Our Lord. I have struggled for years with the discipline of prayer, and the recognition of this was part of what made me desire religious life before the Lord opened a different door to me. Recently I’ve begun setting aside time—maybe ten or fifteen minutes while the children watch Paw Patrol—and I have seen the fruits of it. The prayer time is always subject to interruption and incompletion, but my intention is to try, just try to offer a little of the day in a more intimate way to my Beloved. So, when Fr Well-Intentioned advised me to sacrifice this prayer time in the interests of my “busy-ness” I knew he was wrong, but I also knew that me, being weak, might easily take this advice from a voice of authority and use it as an excuse to neglect my attempts to build my spiritual life once again. Hadn’t I already tried his advice and found it wanting? Truly, the danger lay in his authority as a priest, combined with my present weakness.

Now, if that were all, I might have simply took the matter to prayer and worked through it on my own. However, Fr Well-Intentioned, bless him, assigned me a well-intentioned but impossible penance: he offered me a line I vaguely remembered from Scripture about how precious I am to God, and told me to reflect on it “until it sank in deep.” I was already confused and distracted by the bad counsel I’d received and didn’t think to ask for a more refined description of my penance, but as I was walking away and feeling confusion and frustration and even anger, the weight of the vague penance fell upon me: open-ended and ambiguous, I would never be able to walk away from the penance feeling confident I’d fulfilled it. It’s likely I’ve been assigned such similar penances before, but there was a time when, not having children, I could sit in prayer until I detected God’s movements in my heart that I’d done what I could. I do not have this luxury anymore. To assign an open-ended penance to a mother is to torment her. I’d say it’s a bad move on the part of the confessor regardless, but I can now say from experience that it is a torment to an exhausted, weary mother who can only clutch at the occasional prayer time and has no mental energy left for frolicking in vast meadows of prayer. Motherhood has made me wonderfully efficient in my spiritual life and has done much to detach me from my formerly highly emotionally-based spiritual life. Whether I feel God’s love for me or not does not matter so much anymore so much as I know that I am honouring Him. Not to say that I don’t prefer times of consolation, but when desolation strikes, I have no time to sit around and beg God to return to me: life keeps on going, and I wait for Him, striving to be patient and faithful in the apparent darkness.

So, what did I do? My first instinct was to go to another priest hearing confessions, a priest I know and trust, but his line was long and moving slowly and I was not sure I should take up his time when I had already been to Confession. So I called my Dad. 🙂 I’m incredibly fortunate to have a father who has been a true spiritual guide and teacher in my life and who knows Catholic doctrine thoroughly. Dad’s advice confirmed my instincts: this had been a bad Confession, and that I should talk to another priest. Dad went further to say that what I could do is try to fulfil my penance as best I could for about five minutes and then, at my next Confession, preferably within a week, tell the priest exactly what had happened and how I had done my best to fulfill the penance given me. This was reassuring. My dad is certainly not a priest, but as a trusted spiritual authority throughout my life, this set me at ease.

As it happened, I ended up waiting in line to consult with the trusted priest. After all, getting to Confession when I’m at home with my family is challenging and I could not commit to getting to a priest within the next week or two with any confidence. On the retreat I had TIME. So I prayed my rosary and waited my turn. I am so glad I did.

The second priest heard my tale (marvellous, considering the effusive tears that wouldn’t stop streaming), gently gave his sacerdotal authority to my desire to set time aside for prayer insofar as my family duties would allow, and invited me to give a mini re-do confession for which he promised he would offer me a very concrete penance with a start and a finish. And so it happened. I walked away with the taste of freedom in my mouth that comes when you know you have been forgiven and when you have been given the incredible gift of a tiny but (so to speak) tangible way in which you can make repair for your offences, a co-participation in your own redemption.

The take-away, in brief: if you experience a bad Confession, go to a priest you know and trust and ask him to help you.

A Mother’s Prayer by Julienne du Rosaire

Mother Julienne du Rosaire was not a biological mother but a Dominican nun, and thus, I suspect, the mother of many saints, especially considering the following prayer that she composed.

As the mother of small children, I rarely have enough mental and spiritual energy to read it all the way through, but a paragraph taken here or there helps refocus whatever energy I have.

Jesus, I give you my heart so that you may replace it with your heart and so that I may thus love God our Father as you do, love my brothers [and sisters] as you do.

May it be no longer I who live, but rather you; I who pray, I who adore, but rather you; may it be no longer I who work, but rather you; I who suffer, but rather you. May it be no longer I who love, but rather you.

May your gaze transform my eyes so that I may look upon all people as you would, with kindness and benevolence.

May your light full my mind and may it radiate through me and enlighten those whom I meet.

May your love set my heart ablaze and move through my words and gestures, filling all with your meekness, your goodness, your humility, your tenderness.

May my life be an incessant prayer of praise of adoration and if love to God, our Father, through a sincere “yes” to his will at at every moment.

Taken from a prayer card published by Les Dominicaines Missionnaires Adoratrices.

Mary and the Innocents

“In my struggles with these questions, I found it surprising and somewhat reassuring to discover how many theologians believe Mary had it tougher than the rest of us, because her sinless nature made living in our sinful world especially painful. Like Jesus, Mary probably approached the world with acute sensitivity, alert to both the tiniest whispers of God’s voice and the slightest suffering in the lives of others. The casual cruelties and everyday injustices we inflict without thinking probably disturbed Mary more than they would someone with a calloused, sin-hardened soul. And the torture and Crucifixion of her innocent son must have ripped her heart in two. Luke alludes to Mary’s sorrow in his story of Jesus’s presentation at the temple, where the prophet Simeon holds the infant Jesus aloft and warns Mary that her son is destined “to be a sign that will be opposed … and a sword will pierce your own heart too” (Luke 2:34–35).” (from “My Sisters the Saints: A Spiritual Memoir” by Colleen Carroll Campbell)

Today we commemorated possibly the most horrendous feast of the Church, at least from a natural point of view: the Slaughter of the Innocents. As a child the story horrified me, and now as a mother I’m possibly even more horrified. If you’ve never wrestled with the question of why God permits evil, then you’ve never spent much time reflecting on this story (cf. Matthew 2:16-18). It’s like a demonic parody of the celebrations befitting a royal birth: the King of the world is born and the local powers that be mark it by a massacre of babies – and not even just the newborn babies, but all boys up to the age of two. The mere thought is enough to make me feel physically ill.

One of my favourite passages from Colleen Carroll Campbell’s excellent book is the quotation given above, which affirms something I’ve come to understand better as I’ve grown in my faith and devotion: namely, that the closer one is to God, the more sensitive one becomes to evil, and it naturally follows that Our Lady, preserved from sin since her very conception, would have been highly sensitive to even the slightest offences that she both witnessed and endured.

It seems to me quite possible Mary learned of Herod’s response to her Son’s birth. If the news did not follow the Holy Family to Egypt, would she not have learnt of it upon her return to Galilee? And what would have been her reaction? What went through Mary’s mind and heart? Her empathy and love was beyond that of most people; if she learnt of it soon after the deed, she was newly postpartum and experiencing the extraordinarily acute feelings that hormones tend to foster; moreover, she held in her arms just such a one: an innocent, feeble, utterly vulnerable and fragile baby, making the horror of child-slaughter all the more vivid. Simeon had warned her that a sword would pierce her heart – surely this was a sword, whatever other swords might follow. Did the thought flit across her mind, as only great compassion could entertain, an almost-wish that her Child might have been sacrificed in the place of the babies killed for His sake, that they and their mothers and families might have been spared? Did she remember this inclination at the foot of the Cross, some thirty-three years later?

This is all speculation. Scripture does not mention that Mary knew of the slaughter, only that Joseph was told that Herod wanted to kill Jesus and that they had to travel as far as Egypt to escape. I sometimes think, however, that the Lord may have prepared Mary’s heart over the years to offer her Son’s Sacrifice in full communion with Him, something we try to do ourselves, especially when we participate in the Mass. Any mother knows that Christ’s Sacrifice was as much His mother’s insofar as her suffering would surely have been as great as His had He not been God taking on the sins of the world, for what brings greater pain than to watch someone we love with all our heart suffering? There are, I gather, many wonderful reflections out there on Mary’s participation in Calvary, but I haven’t read them yet myself. I base my suppositions on my experience as a mother, and on my having experienced divine preparation for great suffering in my life.

In any case, let us remember the innocent and seemingly insignificant souls whose sacrifice history would have forgotten, save for Matthew’s testimony. And let us consider with how much love and patience and trust in God Our Lady would have endured this horror, just as she endured the Crucifixion of her baby boy, no less innocent than the day He was born.