The Struggle is Real

The following is a guest post from A.C. Wilson:

As a college student, I hear a lot of slang, funny phrases and strange trends. Everything from “on fleek” to “ratchet” or “the dab.” One of those phrases is “the struggle is real.”

You describe a long homework assignment to your roommate and they look at you with pity and a dash of humor and say “the struggle is real”

You run out of ice cream: “the struggle is real”

You trip and stumble at the bus stop: “the struggle is real”

A form of college casual empathy for mostly the mundane, everyday problems that we may encounter. There are memes about it. There’s a whole “struggle” movement.

Sometimes I wonder where this phrase came from. Why do we feel the need to identify which struggles are legitimate and which aren’t? Shouldn’t all struggles be “real” by definition of a struggle? Can there be fake struggles? Are we so jaded by so many complaints and “struggles” a day that it is necessary to identify the “real” ones? Perhaps it is part of our culture. Maybe we are so insecure that we need to validate what is acceptable to “struggle with” and what’s not?

More to the point, for those of you seeking the holy life: “The struggle” really is real. And God bless you for undertaking it because it is freaking difficult sometimes.

But why does God, who is all peace, allow this difficulty, this pain in the struggle?

I think it is for our good. If God just gave us all the virtues without the fight, then they wouldn’t be virtues anymore, because virtues take practice and perseverance. If He didn’t allow struggle, we wouldn’t know peace and if we did not know peace we would not know Him, at least not as fully and intimately as He desires. God wants the struggle for holiness to be “real,” otherwise there would be no glory in it.

The struggle gives God glory, and “The glory of God is man fully alive.” -St. Irenaeus.

According to St. Irenaeus, this fight, this struggle, is what makes us fully alive. We would be dead and despondent without the love of God always calling us forward, to stretch ourselves, to turn to Him in everything.

And yes, He is calling you. Yes YOU.

Before a whole host of objections and hesitations, I would beg you not to back down from the struggle. God loves you and calls you, wherever you are at on your journey, whatever your struggles are. He can take your everyday “struggle is real” moments, whether it is a call to change your life or having no way to cook bacon and transform them into real grace and true blessings. How? By uniting your everyday life to Christ, you can make a productive homework session a heavenly accomplishment. If you stub your toe and don’t immediately profane God’s name, that is an accomplishment. Truly, all of heaven cheers for your smallest accomplishments.

So he is calling you, you can be certain of this. But this knowledge requires abandoning yourself to God through habitual prayer and the sacraments as you fight to maintain His presence in you.

It is true God asks for everything and nothing less, but this does not mean He will take everything from you. It doesn’t mean that He will break off your engagement, end your career, or sever your ties to your family and friends. Saintliness doesn’t automatically mean a dramatic cutting off of everything familiar to you. Quite the opposite. Saintliness, or living the life God calls you to (your “vocation”), is about God entering into the everyday moments of your life, and your efforts to make a home for Him in your heart. From there, everything else will flow. You might have to leave things behind, you might not. Either way, it is for your betterment. If you have to break it off with your fiance and go into religious life, it will only be because God wants your particular love and affection purely for Himself. If you give up your job, it is because God wants to glorify you on a new path. If you live a life of isolation from your loved ones for God, He will provide for you all the closeness and intimacy you need. For any attachment we give up in this world, God will give us something greater from His very own tender heart. The less worldly “security” of money, power, etc, that we have, in the name of God, the more securely we are attached to his pierced heart, that beats for His children.

Be not afraid to trust. “The Lord is my Shepherd. There is nothing I lack.” (Psalm 23). If we really believed that, what could we do? How would the world be different?

So from one cliched expression to another, go fight the good fight, work on your prayer life, watch the graces flow, and know that I love you.

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He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands

So I spend a fair amount of time on social media partially for myself and partially to promote this blog and I follow a lot of Catholic media personalities and groups.

And while I am all for some awesome Catholic culture brimming with youth on fire with the New Evangelization, I confess I think there are some places where it looks a little too much like the mainstream culture. Shiny graphics, websites, talented speakers, large followings… This is a primarily good thing and a lot of work and talent goes into these pages, events, conferences, etc. However, it has one bad thing in common with the culture and that is that it’s hands off. While a post, a Tweet, or a link to a thought-provoking reflection could all have positive benefits, in my opinion it is missing the clincher, the thing that I really think would solidify its efforts to truly evangelize the common man: ordinary Catholic people.

I understand that the goal of evangelization is to have a broad reach but it should be more than a marketing campaign attempting to sell you an enthusiastic cultural Catholicism complete with people you can follow, pages you can like, and (most likely) a rosary of some kind. Marketing has its place, I do a lot of it at my job and in my personal life, but I’ve always viewed it with a healthy dose of skepticism when it comes to religion because it leaves you in danger of building a brand instead of a kingdom.

In fact, the most effective evangelization I’ve ever participated in was a downtown area with a large group of ordinary Catholic people of all different ages. There was some singing with basic instrumental accompaniment, some conversation, lots of laughter, and yes, some people were passing out rosaries. But there was something special that made us attractive to passersby and that was our camaraderie. Ordinary friendship infused with the love of God. And it was effective because people actually started opening up to us and wanted to be a part of what was happening.

It actually surprised me. I had braced myself for hostility and the very real possibility that we might be asked to leave because the area I was living in at the time was highly intellectual and extremely agnostic/atheistic. I honestly thought people might even protest our presence because the event was sponsored by the visiting Dominican brothers from their House of Studies in Washington D.C. and they were there in full habit. However, the longer I was there the more I realized that people are more hungry for love than they admit. Nothing fancy, not a cause, just simple, genuine love that expresses itself not in grand gestures but by listening, caring, and most of all just being there for the other person.

And I tell you what I met a lot of people that night. I invited one guy to sing with me and he actually accepted the invitation. Another guy had just lost his mother who had apparently prayed the rosary devoutly and he took one to help him with the grieving process because he had not been practicing his faith without her. It absolutely astounded me how much people wanted to share, and it struck me how few outlets there are for that in our modern world where life is so undervalued and lived in pieces instead of in full.

But before you think the night was quiet and solemn, I should confess that for our final song my sassy Dominican friend chose “He’s got the world in His Hands” and for each verse of, “He’s got _____, in His Hands”  he had us fill in the blank with a name of a person either in our group or that we had met, and eventually it extended to strangers, and then one guy called his girlfriend so we sang to his raised cell phone (I can’t imagine being on the receiving end of that call).

But those words the world throws around like “good vibes”, “togetherness”, and “peace” are a secularization of what is not secular. It is an incomplete imitation of a deeper reality that transcends the purely material world they operate in and it stems from a desire to experience what I experienced that night: a profound moment of discovering God in one’s neighbors, a recognition of their humanity that comes paradoxically because the stranger is not merely human but has the spark of the Divine. And once you catch that spark it becomes a flame and before you know it the Holy Spirit is alive in everyone present and hearts start to change as everyone remembers who they really are and where they really came from even if they can’t quite articulate it yet.

And it kills me that sometimes Christians get so overloaded with causes and movements and the stress of trying to make people cultural Christians that we forget the simplicity and power of Jesus, the One who had all the power of the world at His feet and chose to be a servant, to be there for people wherever they happened to be in life because He loved them. This happy servitude really rocks the very foundations of the world because it defies the worldly hallmarks of power, politics, domination, progress and everything that revolves around the self and instead chooses a life of love which revolves around others.

And when we saw this mystery unfold downtown that night and watched everything come together we believed like little children that He’s Got the Whole World in His hands because we saw the world transform into a playground and strangers transform into a family and the only thing that matched our awe was our joy.

And I can hardly imagine what the world would be like if this began to extend beyond my tiny downtown area. All I know is I’d very much like to see it.

 

I’m Not Sure I Want to Be Catholic

Don’t worry, I’m still as sure as ever that I want to be Catholic but I’m sad to say that it was not always so. I think there comes a time in the life of every religious person where they question whether or not they want to continue practicing their religion and this article is written for the person who finds himself or herself on that lonely boat.

I was complaining to my mother recently about the sort of things published by the various Catholic media groups I follow across various social media. In particular, I read a list of “8 things you should be doing daily as a Catholic” because I was curious what they were and if I was doing them. Unfortunately, the entire list can be summarized in 4 words “pray and be nice” with a recommendation that we do this on social media too.

Ugh. I hate lists like that and I was annoyed that I took the time to even read it.

You should pray and be nice as a Catholic. But I absolutely detest things that (whether intentionally or unintentionally) treat Catholicism as the whipped cream on the overpriced coffee of life. Before you judge me for being as stupid as my simple metaphor suggests, hear me out. So much of what I read encourages a light and “fluffy” Catholicism, one that is unobtrusive and undemanding, something to simply add on to your day. In other words, to treat Catholicism (or whatever your religion happens to be if you have one) as a nice addition, just a little sweet something extra,  to top off your own life and your own affairs. Blogs that remind us to throw in a prayer as we go about our daily business, to try and be nice if it’s not too inconvenient, and to post a peaceful psalm with a picture of a mountain or field on our Facebook page. The end. 

Granted not all the resources out there are like that, but I confess there seems to me to be a wave of Catholicism (especially on social media) that is so determined to maintain a broad appeal in the name of bringing people through the doors of the Church it’s as if they downplay the full force of the truth we believe for fear it would alienate a potential new members. Pinterest can post a quote telling me to “love all people” written in cursive over a sunflower, but I have always liked Catholicism which gives me the image of a crucifix to demonstrate exactly how God desires me to “love all people” in the same selfless and sacrificial way He loves me.

It is not that any of things suggested by the author of the blog I read were a bad means of discovering God in one’s daily life, it is when such external things are valued and emphasized over and at the expense of the interior life of the soul that I get crabby and complain to my mother. I do believe that faith without works is dead but to put the works before the faith is as silly as it is futile because to do that is to miss the essence of love.

There is something about the mysterious nature of love that makes the impossible seem possible, that makes us want to be better versions of who we are already. I do try to “pray and be nice” but not so that I can check it off my “acceptable Catholic living” to-do list. I pray because not only do I love God, I like God, and many a bad day has been made better by sharing it with God. In fact, much of my crabbiness turns to laughter in the presence of God because I have the faith that God loves me even in my crabbiness and even in the midst of my many failed attempts to be patient because He always understands and provides me with many more fresh moments in which to try again. (And again, and again, and again…I’ve been working on patience for quite some time now.)

Believing in God is one thing, but maintaining a relationship with God, especially in the modern world of the prevalent new atheism, can be a daunting task which no man or woman should be expected to go through alone. And when you are in the depths of doubt, when God feels so very far away, and you feel completely lost and alone and unworthy of the love that you nonetheless desire from the bottom of your soul, you don’t need some sunflower and some crappy cursive offering you some cliched and shallow inspiration that you probably already know and have doubtless heard before, you need the cross.

And when you water down the message of the cross to “pray and be nice” with a big old smiley face you either affirm the message to those who already believe it or pander to those who don’t yet believe in the hopes that they might, but you risk losing the most important demographic to any religion; the one Jesus Himself served during His life and died to save: the sinner. The sinner who struggles, the sinner who questions, the sinner who is tempted by the paths of the world that seem so much easier and so much more gratifying (in the short term), the sinner who falls away and isn’t sure how to come back.

And when I who know myself to be a sinner was stuck on the precipice of doubt and dangling precariously over complete despair, it wasn’t the sunshine-y garbage of the world that brought me back. It was instead was a firm conviction of the ever faithful and merciful love of God which I saw laid out on the cross.  A love that transcends all human understanding because it is the love that loves not for a reason but without a reason, a love that is perpetuated not by the merits of the beloved (you) but by the promise of the God Who loves and is incapable of breaking His own word. But in beginning to grasp after a love that was so far above me I found it, to my surprise, not only to be close at hand but ready and willing to enter into my soul once more if I was simply willing to grant Him my permission. So I did. And it is that beginning point of my “yes” to God which laid the groundwork for the construction of a soul that housed not one, but two. And it is to this development that I controversially attribute every good thing I have ever done because it is the motivation behind my every prayer and the inspiration for every attempt to be “nice” or, to use the term I prefer, holy.

And to those of you who find yourselves struggling, promise me you will be not afraid. Because even if you don’t feel it and can’t even bring yourself to believe it God is with you. He loves you so much He could never leave you, and He will make everything all right in its time. There is only one thing we as humans must never do, we must not quit. We must not stop our prayers or our pursuit of a relationship with God, and we must begin to do those things if we have never done them if we ever hope to find what we are truly seeking. And while I can’t answer how each of you specifically are meant to encounter the love of God, I can at least start by letting you know that I’m praying for you, I love you, and that I’m confident in you even if you are not.

Mother Angelica, one of my favorite spiritual guides, is often quoted as saying “we are all called to be Saints, don’t miss the opportunity.” And the darkness of doubt or even the temptation to despair is not a failure or a sign of weakness that you should hide away for fear that others might discover it, it is instead an opportunity to become little and depend on the merciful love of God to raise you back up again and transform you into the person you were always meant to be. Because while we may fail time and time again the love of God never fails or falters, and His mercy endures forever.