This past week, we received the Spring 2018 issue of the Sisters’ of Life Imprint magazine, a quarterly publication both my husband and I read eagerly as soon as it arrives. One of my favourite (and most practical) excerpts I will share here:
“In our work with women, we have tried to learn the great art of being with others, which we call accompaniment. It’s a way of receiving another – looking at the person before me, not as a project or a problem to be solved, but as a gift, a unique masterpiece of God’s love. It’s developing the habit of gazing at this person with the heart, seeing things that are hidden beneath the surface. It’s a way of listening for precisely the things that are not said out loud. Perhaps after much tending, a heart can be awakened and come alive in a new way. A new beauty is revealed. In this exchange, a hidden treasure is discovered; something that was limping can move more freely; buried reservoirs of strength can be uncovered; new areas of the heart are brought to life.” – ninth page of Imprint, Sisters of Life, Spring 2018 Issue
Anyone else perceive the fruit of Eucharistic prayer here? I think it’s quite obvious that the women who wrote this have a habit of practising Adoration, wherein, indeed, one really learns the depths of this sort of love.
I love using Facebook. I love seeing what my friends and relatives and even acquaintances are up to. It keeps me connected with them, even though I might live far away from them. It also connects me to groups that help me grow in various areas such as my faith, housekeeping, recipe collecting, etc. What a wonderful medium! Yet I have often felt a little discomfort with my use of Facebook – even though I see a lot of good come out of it, my conscience will often needle me, suggesting that I am wasting my time. Frequently I’ll give it up to some extent for Lent, or at other spontaneous times during the year when I feel overwhelmed by it. Somewhere deep down, a small little voice tries to warn me that I should be careful not to let Facebook rule me to the extent that I do. When I read the following reflection from “My Daily Bread” tonight, I understood why.
CHRIST: My Child, uncontrolled curiosity draws your attention away from your duties and brings needless distractions. It can waste a good deal of time and energy which you might use to greater good. It leads to pointless visiting and useless conversations. It fills the mind with so many empty distractions, which prevent you from freely receiving the holy thoughts and good desires which I send you throughout the day.
2. You would have great peace if you were less curious about things which do not concern you. One who is too interested in the sayings and doings of others, becomes forgetful of the glorious ideal which I present to him – the ideal of pleasing Me in all things and thereby gaining eternal life.
3. Many things occur during the day which do not help you become a better person. What does it matter whether this one has a new garment or that one has failed in some personal project? Think of what concerns you, and of any good which you can do to others. Keep your heavenly goal before your mind, as far as your daily occupations will permit. Avoid idle words and useless activities.
THINK: A curious nature, intelligently controlled, has often led men to make great discoveries. Yet, unless curiosity is controlled, it can hurt me forever. My highest interest must be to follow God’s law, and so to enter into eternal life. The less I burden my mind with unnecessary interests, the more will I understand and appreciate my supernatural purpose on earth. too many worldly interests make me forget or disregard my heavenly goal. Many sins of omission and carelessness spring from uncontrolled curiosity.
PRAY: Jesus, my King, Your enemies are whoever and whatever draws me farther from You and closer to sin. Therefore uncontrolled curiosity is Your enemy. If I am loyal to You, I will fight this enemy of Yours. In so doing, I will also be fighting for my own eternal happiness. Lord, give me light to recognize this enemy and to oppose it in my daily life. Amen.
Book I, Chapter 86: Needless Curiosity, My Daily Bread (1954), Confraternity of the Precious Blood
I like that the passage acknowledges that curiosity can be good, but it must be disciplined if it is going to benefit us. Curiosity in itself is not a virtue, and unbridled curiosity will often do more harm than good. Perhaps I might be tempted to deem my curiosity in the goings-on of Facebook a neutral curiosity, but it is a distraction – and at times a very great distraction – from better things, such as paying full attention to my family, finishing (or starting) chores, reading, or even simply praying and contemplating God. Indeed, if a pastime is a wholesome one, I find it directs my mind to God. While I’ve tried to redeem Facebook by subscribing to numerous Catholic pages and groups, even these wholesome feed-fillers begin to act as unwholesome distraction from my life.
I don’t think every activity has to be based in an explicitly God-minded pursuit in order to be wholesome. Saints often talk about sanctifying the ordinary day by offering up dishes or mopping. I have even found myself considering BBC’s Planet documentaries spiritually nourishing, as I can’t watch them without admiring God’s gorgeous design. And Facebook, too, can direct my mind to God, either in rejoicing in the people He’s made or in the spiritually inspirational quotations and articles I often encounter there. I can pray for the people who show up on my feed. However, as the Greeks so wisely observed millennia ago, μηδὲν ἄγαν – nothing in excess!
Perhaps Facebook is not your great temptation, but all social media and even old-fashioned media (news, magazines, books) can work the same way and distract us from our heavenly goals and the things we need to do to get to Heaven. Since our society no longer even pretends to put any focus on God, I think it’s quite a common error to fall into idle curiosity, to the point that people frequently do not even see it as error! And then we wonder why our hearts are troubled and we have no peace in our souls….
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 night, my husband and I had the opportunity to talk a little, and we discussed the day’s homily and got onto the topic of the Narrow Gate Christ speaks of, and how the purifications of Purgatory are reportedly more painful than any purifications we might endure in this life, and this brought me to a place of frustration I’ve been heading towards for some time now:
“I’ve been trying to become a saint since I was something like twelve years old, and look at me! I’m still impatient, still moody, still irritable, more irascible than ever, and I still crave the regard of others! For all my striving, I don’t seem to be getting very far. It’s like there is a delicate balance of making an effort and relying upon God’s grace, and I can’t strike it. Recently, I just feel like giving up trying. Maybe the secret is to nag God: hey, God, I need more grace because, as you can see, I’m still pretty pathetic and not getting anywhere, so if you want me to become a saint, you better give me a lot more help!”
Shortly thereafter, we acknowledged the hour was late and we should go to bed, and on my way, I picked up one of the most densely inspirational books in the way of Christian living that I know, My Daily Bread, written by the Confraternity of the Precious Blood. I flipped through and landed upon the following – it was a bit of a tolle, lege moment, if you recall St Augustine. Each chapter begins with the (imagined, yet arguably inspired) voice of Christ, followed by a reflection, followed by a prayer.
“Son, the grace of devotion is not just a holy feeling, nor is it a religious mood. It is an intelligent attachment of your will to Me and to whatever I command or desire of you.
2. This is a very great grace. I will grant it to you if you will make a sincere effort to turn your back on whatever hinders your spiritual progress. You must empty your heart of all useless interests in order to make room for Me.
3. Often it is such a small matter that prevents one from obtaining this grace. Misguided self-interest cuts many people off from this glorious gift.
4. I desire you to have this grace. It will make you loyal to Me in all things. If you do not have it yet, it is because you have not yet prepared your soul for it. Pray for it and labor for it. Gain control of your feelings and unreasoning desires by acts of self-denial and self-sacrifice. Above all, begin a determined battle against the outstanding faults in your daily life.
5. With this grace of true devotion, you will find many things easy which now seem difficult and impossible. You will never again lose sight of My power, wisdom, and love, and you will consider it a privilege to follow My Will.
THINK: If I make a firm and persevering effort to abandon my foolish love for unnecessary distractions, God will give me the gift of devotion. From then on, I will no longer depend on feelings or moods, but will follow God’s Will intelligently and faithfully even when I do not feel like doing so.
PRAY: My loyal and loving Saviour, you lived an earthly life of devotion to Your Father’s Will. By self-giving action You made reparation for my many acts of disobedience to His holy commandments. By self-giving action You also proved Your love for me. You gave me an example of true devotion. Grant me the grace of true and solid devotion to You, so that I may prove my love for You by self-giving. No matter how I may feel, let me do only what is pleasing to You. I desire not only to avoid all sin, but also to do many little extra things for Your sake. Make my devotion like Yours – a constant self-offering which will prove my love beyond all doubt. Amen.
My Daily Bread, Confraternity of the Precious Blood (1954), Book 2, Ch. 13
It can be hard to find a good spiritual director. I’ve had the guidance of a number over the years, and only one felt like a perfect fit for me, and he I only enjoyed the companionship of over the course of a three-day retreat. Jesus has not left me orphaned, though. When I was a teenager, I prayed that if He would not send me a spiritual director, then would He please send me the books I need when I need them and guide me thus. I have often noticed Him answering this prayer, and this was surely yet another instance.
I need to continue striving, but I need to refocus. I need to assess my life objectively, and I need to do things the way God wants me to do them rather than the way I want to do them, for my will’s discernment is still often clouded by “misguided self-interest.” In the past few months, it’s become clear that I need to make time to be alone, something that used to be easy but with three children is a challenge. I’ve started taking Saturday mornings to myself while my husband minds the kids, and it’s been a wonderful time to recollect myself and look objectively at my life and try to bring some intelligent order to it. I suspect my next sabbatical should be devoted to my spiritual plan of life.
I have known many Easters: happy Easters, lonely Easters, Easters of immense joy, Easters clouded by depression, and one Easter when my soul felt dead within me as my Good Friday hadn’t played itself out yet. Some Easters I’ve felt prepared for; others have almost caught me by surprise. I remember my first “cloudy” Easter: the weather truly was dismal, and I was surprised — and almost a little distressed — that I did not feel happier. But the work that the Lord has been accomplishing in me over the years has been largely that of impressing upon me that life isn’t about me. Whether I feel happy or sad or nothing at all does not change the fact that Christ has risen from the dead. And whether I’ve kept a good Lent or not does not determine whether God will grace me with joyful feelings on a day of high celebration, nor does it preclude a last minute conversion of heart. Those years that even Easter feels arid I can remember the years that felt lush, and I can offer the darkness to Him, for I am determined to believe that He is Lord of All, including Death.
This Easter is neither here nor there. I’m experiencing typical parent exhaustion and though I kept Lent respectably enough, I could not enter into the mysteries as deeply as I have in other years. This seems fairly typical of my experience so far as a mother: unable to spend the kind of time I spent in prayer as a single person, I feel much more like I’m walking blindly and in faith. I’m forced to trust more that God is working in me whether I’m aware of it or not, and there is almost no way I could deceive myself into thinking that I’m earning heaven by my pious deeds. No, if I earn heaven, as I hope, it will be purely through Christ’s merciful assessment of my poor attempts to be faithful and obedient to my vocation. Whereas I might have fallen into Pharisaical delusion had I entered religious life, family life has by its very demands impoverished my spirit. Thanks be to God!
May your Easter, be it happy or sad or otherwise, be blessed. Christ is risen!
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.
On December 31st, the Ghost of Facebook Past revealed to me that over the past decade that I’d been on Facebook, two recurring New Year’s resolutions have been to cut back on anxiety and to cut back on Facebook. Now, one charming aspect of having a relatively poor memory is that I frequently experience surprise; I suppose I could find it humiliating, and occasionally I do, but more often than not it’s refreshing, perhaps especially because in other areas of my life I exhaust myself with my tenacity. So on New Year’s Eve, as I was warming up to rise to the traditional invitation to change my life for the better, much to my surprise and horror and amusement, I discovered the same old resolutions hanging up from years past like wives in Bluebeard’s closet.
Moreover, unlike those noble folks who resolve, say, to exercise more in the new year and spend New Year’s Day jogging, the Ghost returned to me on January 1st to reveal that I had failed in my resolutions on the very first day.
OK. Assessing the situation, I can see that neither my own strength of will (or lack thereof), nor my pleading with the Lord to pour out His grace on me, nor even my determined resolutions made quasi-public for the sake of accountability are getting me anywhere. It’s time to fight my demons with a new tactic:
As the Catholic Church tends to focus more on the Sacraments and rote prayers, I haven’t had a great deal of experience with the spiritual practice of praise beyond the Glory Be and the Praise and Worship songs that were sung at the youth retreats I sought out since I was a teenager, and that my soul felt some attraction to but my intellect and musical taste often recoiled from. Indeed, it is largely thanks to those retreats led by NET Canada that I was taught to have a conversational relationship with God, something my soul thirsted for. I knew about praise but I didn’t really practise it. Probably the closest I came to it was in Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, when Jesus sits on the altar in the form of the Eucharist and we just sit in silence, gazing at each other in love (this is really quite impossible to describe to someone who hasn’t experienced it; the first time I encountered Adoration it seemed very strange indeed).
Recently my husband and I moved to a new home only steps away from a parish run by the Companions of the Cross, a congregation of priests whose charism is charisma: they are the charismatic branch of Catholicism and place a strong emphasis on healing and praise. When we first arrived at the parish we marvelled at the almost jarring marriage of the sort of enthusiasm in music and preaching that we associate with our Protestant brethren with the incredibly beautiful solemnity of the altar attended by incense and Gregorian chant that we associate with pre-Vatican II Catholicism. We quickly fell in love with our new faith home, however.
Driven by the desperation severe physical pain can bring (yay, gallbladder!), I attended a healing service our church offered in the fall. There I had an experience unlike any in my life hitherto, replete with speaking and singing in tongues, but I was also given my first real lesson in praising God.
Now, for all that I’ve benefitted from the laid-back culture of my upbringing on the West Coast, I’m a somewhat uptight individual. Catholicism’s structure suits me. I thrive on rules and obedience comes easy, relatively speaking. I also embarrass easily. Raising my hands up to the Lord in the sight of others, daring to sing whatever harmonies might come to my head without a score and at the risk of hitting a wrong note, letting tears fall in public, and just letting myself relax my grip in general are all the sort of actions that my pride is constantly patrolling to keep in check. And I think a lot of my anxiety stems from this need to feel like I’m in control. So waddya know, the Lord seems to have led me to a parish that offers me what I would call an Ignatian antidote, namely, to combat an error, practise its opposite (this is not wisdom that was confined to Ignatius by any means, but it was in an Ignatian environment that I first studied it objectively).
The antidote to my anxiety, I believe, is praise. It is also, I suspect, the antidote to much of my pride. Score! Two great hurdles in my life to be combatted with one and the same resolution!
What is praise?
I want to differentiate between praise and other holy activities such as petition and thanksgiving. It’s good to ask God for what we need and to thank Him for all He’s given us and all we trust He will give us. However, praise is different. It is, essentially, using our words to express our delight in someone and our admiration for him.
Upon reflection, I do this a lot in my life — I praise my husband and children constantly. Aren’t you wonderful! How are you so handsome/cute? You are so good! You are so loving! You are so precious! How kind you are! How thoughtful! You are the best husband/*name-of-child* in the whole world! I am so blessed to have you in my life! It’s a habit I learned from my mother, and it does a lot to build relationships up. Moreover, if I force myself to praise someone when our relationship is suffering, it does a lot to strengthen and renew the relationship. It recognizes the inherent and essential goodness of the other.
How often, though, do I praise God? You are wonderful! You are merciful! You are all kindness! The source of all happiness! I adore you! I bless you! I praise you! And so forth.
My mother-in-law, when I shared with her the events of the healing service, shared with me a story from one of her Christian encounters: that a man who was resolved to praise God in everything was at a fancy dinner and spilled a drink across the white linens and even on the hostess’ dress. In response, he praised God for allowing the humiliating episode to happen. The hostess at first was, understandably, a little put out, but in the end his witness to the love of God attracted to her convert to Christ, too.
This story inspires me: first, the man’s first response to disaster is praise; second, he makes his praise public. My response would have been to let the event affect me negatively, and I certainly would not have first praised God openly. While I’m not ready to introduce the latter into my life, it’s high time I embraced the former. When minor disasters strike in my life, my response is to panic, cower, run, rage, despair — anything but calmly accept, trusting that God is in control. When I look at my current state objectively, I see that I’m rejecting a lot of opportunity to grow in the love of God and others, simply by my failure to praise Him in all things.
This year, then, in the attempt to give greater glory to God and to overcome those obstacles that hold me back from becoming the person He made me to be, I intend to practise praising Him in all things, but especially in those moments that I’m tempted to despair or grow despondent, or when I feel a surge of anxiety.
I will recount the steadfast love of the Lord, the praises of the Lord, according to all that the Lord has granted us, and the great goodness to the house of Israel which he has granted them according to his mercy, according to the abundance of his steadfast love. – Isaiah 63:7
“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 SisterstheSaints: 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.