Water in the Desert 

Recently I have been reading some great articles written in response to the “Benedict option” one from Bishop Baron and another from R.R. Reno over at First Things.

In summary, the “Benedict Option” is the idea that Christian communities should withdrawal from mainstream culture and focus on strengthening both individual and faith community relationships with Jesus Christ. I am incredibly oversimplifying the matter for the purposes of this article because the links provided above do a nice job detailing more what it is and how it’s written in response to recent cultural trends if you’re curious.

On a personal and entertainingly ironic level, I have been reading “Evangelizing Catholics” for my young adult group where author Dr. Scott Hahn outlines a response of engaging with the culture through the New Evangelization by witnessing the gospel first in families (the “domestic Church”) and then throughout the world. 

Both call for a similar growth in faith and spirituality lived out through a relationship with Christ in prayer and sacraments, and also in the Christian community. Dr. Hahn particularly mentions the important (and countercultural)  witness of Christian hope and I couldn’t agree more heartily.

However, in reading Christian responses to cultural things I think there may be some confusion to the idea of what constitutes Christian hope. 

If you were to peruse articles discussing the grounds of Christian hope from outside of the faith, you might mistakenly glean that Christian hope is based on winning the cultural war, attracting more converts than other religions, or attaining influence in political and social spheres. You might think this because so many of these articles addressing Christian cultural relevance, evangelization, and public policy express a sense of foreboding and no-holds-barred panic as they sit over statistics and wring their hands about the future.

That’s more or less to be expected, people being people, but what gets under my skin are the dry rebuttals offered by the Christians who address this panic head on. Those authors who list isolated statistics in support of their point (like a decline in some measure of immoral behavior) or argue against demoralizing statistics that counter their point (polls that show millennial church membership is lower than ever).

This strikes me as a colossal waste of valuable time because I would argue, as I’m about to, that Christian hope has not ever nor should it ever be remotely based on anything temporal or related to temporal affairs.

This is because the Christian life is not based on the temporal sands of time with it’s ever changing socio-political structures, it is based on our firm belief of our eternal soul being saved by Jesus Christ who died for our sins and our anticipation of a life of union with the Trinitarian God (Father, Son & Holy Spirit) in Heaven.

St. Peter states this succinctly and eloquently in his first epistle:

Blessed be God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who in his great mercy gave us a new birth to living hope throught the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you who by the power of God are safeguarded through faith… Although you have not seen him you love him; even though you do not see him now yet believe in him, you rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy as you attain the goal of your faith, the salvation of your soul. (1 Pet 3-9)

The ultimate goal of the Christian life is the salvation of your soul. This is something that cannot be taken away by losing the culture war, by a decline in religious affiliation (millennial or other demographic), by unfavorable public policy or by persecution of any kind.

Do these things deserve attention? Sure, but to focus on these second things at the expense of the first thing (eternal salvation) would be a tragedy.  Conversely, by focusing on salvation as your goal you gain not only the satisfaction of every desire (eternal union with God) but you might knock out a few of those worrisome second things by your witness to and pursuit of the perfect love you experience in God beginning in time and lasting down through eternity.

Now, there may be those who find themselves wondering how on earth this belief sustains me. In this culture of instant gratification, how can I stand to detach from things that are good in the here and now (whether that good be an indulgence like chocolate or a greater good like political support for a worthy cause) for the promise of eternal life that “may or may not” make me happy one day in a very distant future after I’m dead?

The answer to that question could probably be an article of its own, but for the sake of brevity, I’ll say it is because for me there is no uncertainty surrounding the idea of eternal life with God. I am fully convinced from a combination of Catholic Church teaching and my own life experience that God is the only person who can fully satisfy the desires of my heart. There is absolutely no temporal thing that could fill the void in my soul that was intentionally made to receive the love of God. I know this to be true quite profoundly because in a very foolish pride I once tried to go out on my own and fill that void with temporal things rather than have a relationship with God which, as I’m sure my wiser readers can imagine, aside from being a bad idea in general made said void so much worse.

Yes, much like St. Augustine my heart was very restless until it rested in God but learning how to rest in God was a journey in and of itself (a journey that was aided by/if not entirely the result of Marian consecration via book #9 of my “Top Ten Life Changing Reads“). It was from this weakness and from this seeking that I stumbled onto the merciful love of God and from being absolutely immersed in that love I knew with perfect clarity that the love I had spent so long searching for could be found only in God and nowhere else. Much like a thirsty person traveling through the desert, once I stumbled upon the water of life everything else hailed by the world as so material and so satisfying felt like a mirage because I had experienced the true oasis. After that, it was easier to say no to the world because I knew it’s (once very convincing) promise of satisfaction to be an empty promise, a promise that had instead been perfectly satisfied in God and I felt like I was home at last.

Needless to say, this flies in the face of the prevalent cultural and moral relativism which (falsely) states that there is no truth, no one thing is better or worse than the other, and that the only things we humans can do is pursue what makes us individually happy with occasional consensus over things that are seen as “bad” but which are predictably inconsistent and constantly changing. In this view, our mirage from the previous metaphor would be presented as equally satisfying as the oasis and what you wanted to choose was up to you and was really none of my business. If I like the water I drink the water, if you like the mirage you sit comfortably in the mirage. No one way is hailed as right, no one way is hailed as wrong.

It doesn’t sound problematic at first and perhaps even comes across as open minded. The issue only arises is if you truly believe in your heart that one way is better than the other. That one way leads to life in Christ and the other to spiritual death. That one way leads to joy the other only to a pain and emptiness. In other words, the water of life is the only thing that can truly satisfy whereas the mirage leads to death. The truth in this instance is not relative but inescapable, that each and every person needs water to live and every mirage inevitably comes to end leaving you with nothing but a barren desert. This holds true for the spiritual life as well.

My Christian hope is my hope of eternal salvation won for me by Christ Jesus, the fruits of which flower even now while I’m still an earthly pilgrim. However, to ignore the eternal salvation of my neighbor, to transform the monastic idea of St. Benedict into a “Benedict option” that says in effect “let the heathens perish in their desert” while Christians shift their focus to strengthing their own oasis feels not only uncharitable but a grossly irresponsible response to the truth and the love which God has so charitably shared with an insignificant sinner like me as well as my fellow Christians.

You are not obligated to agree with anything I ever write on this blog or be moved by any of the corny metaphors I employ to illustrate my point better. You have a free will that is a gift of God, inseparable from the human existence, and which I would in no way violate through coercion or fear tactics. However I cannot sit comfortably in my own little oasis, be content with just my own relationship with God, because love by its nature is meant to be shared and I have been blessed with such a profound experience of the ever faithful and merciful love of God that I will not cease to invite you to share in it and experience it for yourself for as long as I live because not only do I hope to live forever with God in heaven, I’d like to see you there too.

A Christmas Carol

So as we are in the midst of the Christmas season (Christmas begins rather than ends on December 25th!) I wanted to share something I remembered recently before it was no longer topical. And since today is also, in fact, my birthday I’m thinking you can humor me.

The past few months have been really busy for me and things were moving at such a steady and uncompromising pace that I felt like I barely had time to get in the spirit of Christmas. Work especially had been really crazy. And I began to notice that the things that used to make me feel very full of Christmas spirit, like ornaments on the tree, setting up the Nativity, and even hearing the Advent scriptures weren’t really hitting me like they have in the past. I don’t know if I was simply going through the motions and not giving these things my full attention but I felt like something was missing interiorly in my preparations and I did not know what it was.

Fortunately, one night when I got home from work my family had been watching A Christmas Carol with George C. Scott, and I finished my dinner right around the time the ghost of Christmas future showed up and sat down to watch.

I saw a scene of pleading, of a man who realized the horrors of who he had been and what he had done (and not done) and who desperately wanted to try again. He begged to be given a second chance. What was the point of seeing the light, he reasoned, if he was not given the chance to put the new truths he had discovered into action?

It’s a great scene. He gets the second chance he asks for and as he realizes that he is not dead but alive the lines that come out of his mouth are amazing. He runs around the room and he doesn’t waste a second in sharing his joy, his gratitude, his love, and even his money with everyone he sees. When his old acquaintances see him they are amazed because they know they are seeing a thoroughly changed man.

At last, in watching this movie just days before Christmas, I knew what I had been missing. I finally caught the significance of the coming of Jesus that I had been trying to capture in my preparations for Christmas but which had been alluding me, and the sudden clarity hit me like a truck.

The birth of Jesus is significant because it is the beginning of salvation. It brings the love of God into the world which makes a conversion of heart possible. It means sincere repentance can be met with mercy, forgiveness, and second chances rather than what we deserve. But perhaps most of all it’s the love that makes us one, because when I saw Scrooge running around ready to live an entirely new life than the one he had been living I remembered my own conversion and the subsequent euphoria of realizing that it’s never too late for Love to prevail. And I confess, ironically, that the only thing that makes me happier than experiencing that Love for myself is watching others experience it too.

Wishing you a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! 

Unsolicited Life Advice For My Brother Graduating College

While I could never choose a favorite sibling I have to confess I have different soft spots for each of the ones I have. One particular soft spot I have for my older younger brother, the brother who is older than everybody else but younger than me as I am the firstborn, is the fact that he is technically the sibling that made me a big sister for the first time.

And for the sake of tradition I thought I would celebrate his graduation from college with an old staple from our childhood: some bossy but well-intentioned, usually unsolicited and often uninvited life advice from a sister who has three years of extra wisdom to impart:

Dear Brother,

Graduating anything always triggers pictures of adulthood, reminding you of what you’re leaving behind and leaving you feeling unprepared no matter how much you prepare. But don’t be afraid.

I think the great mystery of life is that the fundamentals about you don’t really change, you keep a lot of the same personality, feelings, and perceptions that you have always had, but your experiences broaden, your confidence grows, and pretty soon you’re surprised that without ever meaning to you’ve actually grown up.

And as you take this next step forward you’re going to be given a lot of advice on how to lead “successful” life.

This advice is well meaning, but nothing can ruin a life quite like worldly notions of “success.” What I mean by that is all too often success in is measured the wrong way and becomes synonymous with things like an impressive career, prosperity, and having what your friends have in every aspect of life from the material things to personal relationships, as if attaining these things were the only way to create a worthwhile legacy and impact the world for the better.

Yet I would recommend entirely rejecting that outlook because that is the one that leaves people living in fear, stressfully trying to control every detail from their diet to their career path and competitively comparing their progress to their neighbors. And I would wish better for you because, contrary to what I would have had you believe during your formative years, I actually love you a lot and there is some big sister part of me that’s always looking out for you, even though I know you can take care of yourself. Your happiness is important to me because the only misery I want in your life is the misery caused by my own self.   

Therefore, I will admit that from my brief experience with adulthood thus far there is one thing I wish someone had told me as I was graduating: “don’t forget to have an adventure.”

By that, I do not mean to suggest that you should spend all your money on a trip to Europe. I simply mean that as you enter the workforce and begin to think about things like health insurance and a 401K, there is so much focus placed on getting ahead and securing the next step on the road to “success” that it can be very tempting to forget to enjoy the step that you’re on. In other words, you forget that even though you’re not technically a kid anymore, life is still the same giant adventure it always has been. You just have to take the time to look for it, since your to-do list will be longer than ever before.

But the incredible thing about life is that you live. No matter what happens somehow you survive everything that gets thrown your way, even the things that at first seem impossible. So worrying is basically useless and the time you would have spent worrying is better spent developing trust and gratitude, the two fundamental things every adventurer needs.

This is the attitude that truly determines success because not only does it lead to greater happiness, it also gives one the courage required to reject the temptation to measure happiness in terms of self-indulgence and end the lie that life worth is nothing if it does not contain a list of impressive accomplishments. It will give you the wisdom to realize the true paradox that an impact is made not through great achievement, but in those tiny little moments that at first seem insignificant but later turn out to be the moments that make life worthwhile. Mundane moments where you are given an opportunity laugh and be silly as you go about your daily routine. To appreciate everything you have as it comes to you. To share your unique essence with the world as you spread the love of God you’ve experienced in your everyday encounters with your neighbors. The ability to live life not as a competition but as the gift that it is, both to your own self and to the countless others you will meet. Because ultimately I know you will be successful for the same reason I love you, not because of the amazing things you do at present or will do in the future, but simply because of who you are. The wonderfully thoughtful and witty young man I have so enjoyed getting to know.

Congratulations on your graduation from college. This is a big day and we’re really proud of you.

Love,

Ellen