The Child

When I was a teacher on my first ever teaching assignment (on payroll and not as a student teacher) I had an obstinate little child whose name was a derivative of the name Eve, an irony which I appreciated since I was teaching at a Catholic school.  This little child, but four years old,  gave me a run for my money. She was the one who whined, who constantly broke the rules, who already had a reputation among the other teachers as a handful, and who never listened to a word I said. Definitely not the ideal student for a first-year teacher trying to impress. However, Eve was my favorite student.

Eve came to me at a time in my life where I was growing in my relationship with God, fighting to believe in His unconditional love for me. I was meditating heavily, per the advice of the confessor I had left behind in Charlottesville, on the story of the prodigal son. I used to go to a fairly secluded beach about five minutes from the school where I worked and walk aimlessly along the shore. It was an interesting experience because I realized when I tried to place myself in the shoes of the prodigal walking back home I couldn’t make it all the way back. Too ashamed of who I had been and what I had done, full of doubt at a loving reception, I could not approach the center of intimate family life. I could not approach the table even for the promise of the feast.

I believe it was because of this that God gave me Eve. Eve reminded me of myself in the context of my relationship with God. Obstinate, disobedient, but also frustrated because no matter how hard she tried she just couldn’t be as good as the other kids. Eve would often act up, disobeyed the classroom rules (often including my direct instruction) and exhausted my patience. It is really hard to have a child look into your eyes and do the exact thing you are telling them not to do. Not only does it undermine your authority, I knew as the adult that these rules were ultimately for her good and were designed to help her flourish in the classroom. I could only imagine what it must be like to be God since salvation is even more important than learning your colors and alphabet, but also because when you truly care about someone and want what is best for them it cuts to the quick when they don’t trust you.

My daily experiences in the classroom changed my reflections on those evenings where I’d meander down the shore of the beach. I eventually stopped focusing on myself as the prodigal on a tough journey home and tried to focus on the Father in the story. It framed everything in a whole new light. I saw a Father who never stops seeking His child. I saw a Father who runs out to meet the son even when it would have made him look ridiculous to his household. I saw a Father who was generosity itself. Most of all I saw a Father whose love was constant and truly unconditional. And the growing trust slowly changed the scene. First I imagined the Father running to meet me. Then I was able to meet the Father outside of the house and offer an awkward apology. Eventually, I made it back to the table and to my surprise  I was not seated as a headstrong woman in my early 20s but as a very little girl marked with the insignia of the family (given from the Father to the son in the parable) because I too had been dead and now I was alive again.

With this interior change, I found a new patience to draw from when it came to dealing with Eve. As time passed we found a way to make it work in group lessons, you could even say we bonded, and she started to exhibit a curious new behavior. Even though she was behaving better during lessons she would shrink into private tantrums more often when she couldn’t do something, particularly when I was present. I asked my more experienced coworker to weigh in and she explained, “She worries that when she fails you’ll be mad at her.”

My coworker’s words struck me because I realized that God had placed me on the other side of the very scenario I had been struggling with, casting me in the role not of the one who needed to trust but of the one who desired to be trusted. While I was fairly surprised that I’d reached a point in the school year where Eve would seek my good opinion, I understood completely. Now that Eve wanted to be a part of my class she was having trouble trusting me to love her as her teacher, thinking I would prefer the best rather than a student like her who struggled.

I instinctively knew I needed to speak to Eve to help build that trust so one day in after school care I tried to give her a sort of secularized version of what God had been saying to me and it came out as follows, “you know I am so proud of you Eve. I have seen how hard you have been working and how hard you try. And I just want you to know that whether you succeed or fail I will always be glad to have you in my classroom.” In that moment I believe Eve realized what I admitted to you all earlier, that she was my favorite student, because she deserved love the least yet needed it the most. And with the smile she gave, I thoroughly understood God’s enduring love for me because for the first time in my life I understood the core of Divine mercy.

To this day I am convinced that the story of the prodigal is not a story of the son, but the story of a Father because only after trusting the merciful Heart of the Father can you become the child.

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Wishing everyone a Blessed Feast of the Epiphany and a Happy Birthday to my Granddad!

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Knowledge is Power?

So as a former educator I am very familiar with the slogan “knowledge is power.”

It’s certainly a popular notion. If you’re going to vote and be part of a democratic society then you should be informed and educated. However, there is less consensus recently on what people should be informed and educated about. But to me knowledge is a tricky thing. Important? Certainly. But I have met many knowledgeable people in my day, and a great many of them still lack wisdom. And without wisdom what is the point of knowledge? You just know a lot of isolated facts that have no larger meaning, that reveal nothing to you about the mystery of life.

Because to me there are two ways to walk the path of understanding. The first is with humility, where you start seeking knowledge and discover things that result in you gaining wisdom. The second is with pride, where you start seeking knowledge that results in you gaining a superiority complex from what you discovered.

I like to write because it helps me walk the path to understanding, and I hope you know which way I’m striving after, because if you don’t then not only have I failed you, I’ve failed myself.

You Will Never Wash My Feet

As a loveable screw-up, I have a special fondness for St. Peter because he is my constant reminder that God loves not just the worthy but the ordinary. People like me and people like Peter who have high ideals and good intentions but are weak and often fall short of them. And what I love about Catholicism is that the thing that redeems those shortcomings is both the love of Jesus and the grace of repentance, which gives us the faith, hope, and love necessary to try again until we finally stumble into the gates of Heaven.

More to the point, it is St. Peter who gives this post its unusual title. I was talking to a very close friend of mine the other day who is very religious and currently very anxious about the future since this upcoming school year will be her senior year of college. She reminds me exactly of myself during that time of life, wondering what she ought to do and what God wants her to do, struggling with that age-old question: what is the best way to be happy?

I could hear the influence of the general collegiate atmosphere in her voice. The anxiety that demands a plan to attain the ideals of a perfect romantic relationship, lots of friends, and a successful career in order to lead a life full of purpose, meaning, and influence. Throw in my friend’s anxiety of also wanting it to be pleasing to God and it’s easy to see how one could be too overwhelmed to choose anything at all. Being the basically ancient age of 25, I tried to offer her the wisdom that got me through that turbulent time by asking, “how much of yourself do you truly share with God?”

When I was younger and more proudly independent than I am now I had a very similar attitude to God that St. Peter had when he faced the prospect of Jesus the Master humbling Himself to wash his own dirty feet. In the face of Jesus’s offer Peter responds, “You will never wash my feet” (John 13:8). It’s such an endearingly human response and it was precisely my attitude the first time I imagined what it would be like to actually receive that offer from Jesus. While I had a relationship with God as a (younger) young adult I admit I held back. I would let God share with me moments of questioning, moments of peace, and moments of success but I would never let Him “wash my feet” if you will. I would place a barrier between the most broken pieces of myself and God, limiting my thinking to surmise that since those were the parts of myself I had trouble loving it would be a real risk offering them to God and expecting Him to love them in the face of His many perfections.

But this is precisely the attitude that has to be overcome if one is ever to have the true peace and true joy that marks an intimate relationship with God because, as you will find out if you finish reading the scripture passage with the washing of the feet, this is precisely the part of yourself that God has to love and serve and heal if you are to make it to Heaven. Jesus literally responds to Peter,  “Unless I wash you, you can’t share life with Me” (John 13:8).  

As we experience the love behind this humble service we are healed of our human eyes that only love when we see something or someone loveable and we are slowly able to love more like God does. This, I would argue, is a much more effective testament to His glory than preaching with fire, having millions of followers or attaining political or social influence. Those flashy things mimic the glory of the world, they glorify the self or glorify the cause. Yet God is so much bigger than that, so much grander and far-reaching than that. God is infinite and God is love, which means that truly learning to love not only changes the world you live in now but resonates down through eternity.

And if you find yourself scratching your head wondering how this relates to my friend fear not I am about to explain. Before she or anyone else learns their purpose or accomplishes great things for God they will have to learn to humble themselves and accept God’s tender care in the midst of their misery, trusting that His love is enough. To let go of the sweeping perfectionism the world teaches them to hide behind and practice offering themselves to God in each moment no matter what condition they happen to be in, even those moments where they feel utterly repulsive and would opt to be alone.

The world has a way of wanting to steal the present moment which, wherever you are and whatever you happen to be doing, is your direct encounter with the living God where this love is made manifest. Instead, it offers empty distractions, entertainment, and the temptation to always live in unknown projections of the future. However, learning to reject that fear and go beyond the distractions in order to live in the present moment with God truly gives you the peace of never having to worry about the future because you come to realize that no matter what happens you will always have God and God is all you ever really needed.