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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The Imperfect Match

With several friends and a sibling graduating college this year, I’m left rather blown away by how fast the time goes. This May marks my three year anniversary of receiving my Bachelor’s degree and that sentence makes me feel even older than I actually am.

I’d actually known the college I wanted to go to since my sophomore year of high school and I was so excited when I got my acceptance letter. My decision was semi-controversial because a lot of people wondered why I didn’t attend the prestigious college nestled in the heart of my hometown and almost felt it an act of disloyalty.

The answer was because my now alma mater was a basically perfect fit for my personality as well as my academic needs. However, part of the answer was also because many of the elitist people I went to high school with would be attending the hometown college, and I was tired of having classes with them. I bear them no ill will, I just found everything they did remarkably homogenous and it exhausted me. They dressed the same, talked the same, thought the same, had the same political views, attended the same country club (literally), had the same hobbies, played the same sports, and no one was brave enough to break the mold because they were so proud of fitting into it in the first place.

And when I visited the campus, which is classically beautiful and full of southern charm, I stopped inside the bookstore and before my eyes was a giant Clinique counter like the kind that is usually reserved for the mall. And in that moment, I knew I’d made the right decision not to attend because while their academics are impressive and they take care of their own, ultimately their core values and mine do not match up. This was abundantly clear to me as I saw that giant make-up counter next to a sea of Vera Bradley everything. Because while Vera Bradley might be universal in campus bookstores, why prominently feature a giant make-up counter?

Granted, most people let these types of things go, but I’m not most people. To me it just cemented the unspoken ideals of the school, and unspoken values are just as important as the spoken values outlined by any organization because I would argue they play a greater role in determining the environment in which you will be participating. And the unspoken values of this school was the pursuit of worldly perfection. A school for the elite, not simply those who want to become that way but those who were born that way and have been bred to perpetuate it. The girls at that school would need their expensive, high-quality make-up because they are expected to play their part of the genteel lady who is educated and groomed for the ivy leagues and who never has so much as a hair out of place. Not everyone at the school fits that mold obviously but they as a university greatly prefer those who do.

And I am certain I don’t fit this mold. I was certainly not raised to, because my parents were not interested in whether or not I was a perfect and elite person who only spent time with other perfect and elite people. Their primary concern was that I should always strive to be a good person, especially good to other people no matter their circumstances. And I had no interest in stepping on the assembly line of this university so that I could walk out impressive and perfect in the sight of the world, because I was worried I would lose my center. That I would get so caught up in being the type of person they wanted I would forget who I was or worse start to believe that I truly was perfect and elite like them. It was a risk I was not willing to take. As I said, I went to high school with this type of person and in my opinion as they live in their refinement they lose the one of the finest gifts life has to offer: gratitude. Because the trap of that sort of pride is that every gift becomes an expectation, something that you grow accustomed to or feel you deserve and you lose the joy of receiving it. You become like those people who can go on a weeklong, five-star vacation and opt to make fun of the one bad meal they had rather than discuss the amazing views of the ocean they saw every day. I think that’s why Americans are so agnostic/atheistic, because when there is nothing to be thankful for it is more difficult to believe that there is someone to thank.

And with these observations in mind, I attended my alma mater and enjoyed most every day with my imperfect match.

Can’t We All Just Get Along?

So in the chaos of modernity where the first world is aware of both global, national, and local news almost instantly I admit it can be difficult to hold on to hope. And in light of that statement I respect those people who care about others beyond just themselves and I think it’s admirable when people want to change the world for the better.

However, that does not excuse the laughably bad, yet socially acceptable, notion espoused by the media, those in office, and echoed in college campuses across the country which proposes that the solution to our chaotic world and the violence that we see before us is to demonize dissent with the hopes of eventually eliminating it entirely. This sentiment is echoed in President Obama’s recent speech calling for an end to Catholic and Protestant private schools.  To use his own words:

“… If towns remain divided — if Catholics have their schools and buildings, and Protestants have theirs — if we can’t see ourselves in one another, if fear or resentment are allowed to harden, that encourages division… [and] discourages cooperation.”

Granted his speech was given in Ireland, where Catholic and Protestant divisions run deep, yet I see this school of thought gaining momentum everywhere. It is a response to a problem based on the following set of ideas:

  1. People who disagree don’t like each other
  2. People who don’t like each other don’t respect each other
  3. People who don’t respect each other can feel justified in hating each other
  4. If people feel justified in hating each other they can become violent
  5. If all people choose to become violent the world will become a very violent place

These observations are fairly true in my limited experience on this planet, but the problem is not the competing viewpoints it is the choice made by the individual. Our belief systems certainly influence our actions, but it absurd to propose the solution of imposing the same set of beliefs on everyone in order to get the same predictable actions and outcomes, especially if you believe in freedom.

In fact, if the President truly believes his own assertion that the problem is not individual (or even collective) behavior but instead the freedom of thought in the first place, then by this same logic we should also eliminate American political parties because their existence and emotionally-charged opposition hinders us from “seeing ourselves in one another” and the mutual resentment stirred up on both sides of the aisle “encourages division and…discourages cooperation.”

Furthermore this quote, while seemingly innocent, places religious freedom in very dangerous waters because he betrays his feelings that Catholic and Protestant schools that are allowed to exist separately from the state promote and foster the violence and hatred that are contributing factors to the hostile political, social, and economic environment we live in. He is essentially revealing that in his mind the existence of these schools threatens the “peace,” “tolerance,” and “equality” that are at the core of his administration and the goal of all “progressive” moderns who encompass the left. Look out Catholic and Protestant schools, because this logic is laden with bias and the conclusion he draws from his biased logic is false, but that has never stopped any politician with a mission and good campaign funding.

And before you think I hate Obama and all politicians, I do not. I merely disagree with the way they handle true diversity and differences in opinion. They may be in earnest when they say they want peace, but they are willing to compromise their (but mostly my) freedom in order to get it whereas I am not. Because I have experienced that type of “peace” and it’s a lie. The sort of “peace” they want is a tolerance full of concessions where no one speaks up or gets angry or gets their feathers ruffled, a compromise where all agree to subscribe to a new narrative that has no specific religion, race, creed or distinction of any kind, but is instead a secular social code rather like the manual used at the beginning of the Lego Movie. 

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A world that opts for conformity rather than diversity, an urbane and suburban existence where everyone shops at Whole Foods, watches Good Morning America, uses a condemn, exercises, has very few children (if any), overpays for coffee, dresses like a catalog, and doesn’t go to Church on Sunday. It’s the new American dream of peace by materialism, prosperity at the expense of humanity. It is an existence whose only concern is appearances and surface level status quos, rather than true human community based on mutual respect and love of neighbor. 

It’s like the “peace” of relatives who hate each other but put on a good show for the holidays, bragging that it was a good holiday not because it was truly good but simply because both sides of the family managed not to kill each other. This is how the politicians want us to relate to each other, forget a true dialogue, just everybody take it easy and smile for the photo.

And this is a problem because this false peace masquerades as a high ideal, something that we should all be striving for as a societal virtue when in fact it will destroy us. It is the John Lennon lyrics of imagining a world without religious wars, the lingering sadness in wake of all the violent shootings, the disenchanted American populace in light of the political acrimony between Republicans and Democrats, and the fear of global terrorism that wears on us and makes this lie of false peace seem appealing. The idea that if we all gave up everything about us that makes us unique or passionate (like religion or politics) and trusted the universal state to dictate our lives then things would be different, simpler, more peaceful. The ugly dissent that gets everybody all riled up will be gone, and there will be no more violence- and then we would be free to create a better world…Forget the means, think of the glorious ends of universal brotherhood, world peace, and prosperity for all. So tempting, isn’t it? Especially in situations like ours, that feel so desperate and disheartening.

There’s only one problem. It will never work. I’m not saying I don’t believe in those glorious things, I’m saying I merely don’t subscribe to the ideals of earthly paradise. I am a Catholic and I want the paradise of heaven, to finally be home with God where all those high ideals of genuine virtue become a living reality. Becuase the world is a fallen place. I’m not saying that to be bleak or because I’ve given up on it. But it is made up of imperfect people and giving the state authority to rid the world of dissent will not solve the problem, merely silence it, and that is not true peace. True peace begins in love, love of God and love of people. And the choice to do that cannot be mandated by any government, only put into practice by those who choose to believe it. And as much people get cynical these days when it comes to believing in people’s capacity for love, I think they are misguided. Because true love is hard, perhaps the hardest thing that humans can take it upon themselves to do, and I cannot condemn those brave enough to try because I am the type that would rather fail at something glorious than succeed at something meaningless.

And I would argue that this call to love is important because the absence of genuine Christian love is noticeable in our world today. Because it is not Christian love, but worldly love that separates, that loves by degrees and draws distinctions between “us” and “them.” It is the worldly love of the new atheism that is tainted with pride and is taught to love only when it sees a reflection of itself in the other. It is worldly love that only cares about its own feelings and the vanity of how things appear on the surface. This is the love that permeates our world and this is why the world is currently the way it is, not because of the failure of Christian love or the presence of Christian schools.

And it is high time that we remembered how to truly love each other once more, to re-ignite the spirit that unites us all as the true brothers and sisters that we are.