The Middle

Does anyone ever get the feeling that they are at an important crossroads in their life yet continue to feel desperately unprepared to move forward?

Asking for a friend…

Lately, I’m getting that special feeling that only introverted over-thinkers can truly sympathize with, that feeling of needing a vacation from yourself because you are driving yourself insane.  It’s a feeling that often follows or even accompanies a struggle.

Fortunately, it is also a feeling once shared by St. Paul which makes me feel better since I like him a lot:

I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate... I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. (Romans 7:15-19) 

I am actually not blogging to write about the particular struggle because I already have.

Rather I’m writing to vent my particular frustration with my own limits. I know I can’t do holiness, certainly not the level that I want and strive for. I know that may sound odd considering the attitudes I’ve expressed in the past regarding holiness, so for the sake of explaining away any perceived inconsistency I’ll briefly add:

I believe that the end for which every person is born is eternal life with God in Heaven and that all are called to be holy even now in time because we have to be holy in order to be in Heaven (good and evil can’t coexist so to be with perfect good all my imperfections have to be left at the door). However, I also believe that this transformation is brought about primarily by the gift of God’s merciful love and the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross which forgives sin rather than our own efforts. I think even wanting to make the effort is a grace.

I know that’s pretty lofty but that’s what makes religion fun and much less confining than a purely material world view.

However lately in spiritual life I’m moving away from things that are difficult for me to things which I already know are impossible to do on my own. I’m having a Carrie Underwood moment where I really need Jesus to take the wheel if I want to keep going (I do) but I’m very afraid to let go. And that fear comes from a sincere lack of trust in God which makes me feel ungrateful. In spite of all that God has done for me my faith feels very small and inadequate compared to the faith I know I need to move ahead. 

Yet I’m past the zone where I can do anything about it. If I want greater faith I have to ask God for it and then wait patiently for Him to answer my prayer, which includes me saying yes to the graces He offers in the moment rather than respond how I would on a natural level. This is hard to do especially when the natural response is so close at hand and so much easier for me.

It’s an important part of the middle of the journey, but I think it’s far from my favorite because I am very undisciplined in sticking with the middle. I look back to the exciting beginning of my life in Christ, I look forward to a future in Heaven, but I struggle to want what I’m getting in the middle which is a steady stream of trials with no immediate end in sight. Yet these trials are so important because they make me the person God is calling me to be, they make me more like Jesus. And I hope it goes without saying why I’d like to be more like Jesus… I’m sure anyone who has a relationship with Him understands what I mean, and if you don’t I’d highly recommend beginning.

Because even though from this post it may sound difficult it is so incredibly worth it. Even though I whine every step of the way in my soul and resist with the stubbornness that is my hallmark, I already know I am going to keep walking….chalk it up to the mystery of love. I also know that the only way I am going to part from these trials is to stop bristling against them and embrace them as the things that are going to rid me of what I’d very much like to be rid of: my pride, my fears, my temper, and my impatience to name a few.

Though I confess it is funny that even though I sometimes tend to hate my weaknesses and lose patience with them as they manifest themselves in myriad surprising ways. However it almost seems like God, rather than wanting me to overcome them with my own strength (my default response) wants me to trust Him to the impossible for me. This is perhaps the hardest thing of all. In order to do it I have to rely not only on God’s grace but I have to remember what I all to often forget the very simple truth that God loves me very much.

And I wrote this post to help me remember that truth as I’m in the middle of the middle, in the hopes that someone else in the middle would remember it too.

 

The Surrender

I confess I have a love-hate relationship with my desk at work. It’s very modern: thin, sleek and totally white (think “just had my teeth whitened” white). You can very much tell that it, like all our other office furniture, comes from Ikea.

The advantage is that it really brightens up my tiny office.

The disadvantage is it shows every speck of dirt and for a neat freak like me this is sometimes challenging.

And I realized the weird paradox that some days when I notice that the cleaning crew has neglected to actually clean (this happens a bit we are in the process of replacing them) I wish that my desk was black or gray or wood or some other darker, more standard looking office desk so that I could be blissfully unaware of the dirt because there is only so much I can do with a Clorox wipe (I am totally that person) and now that it’s older, purchased very near my start date almost two years ago,  it almost never looks totally clean to me.

As I’ve been in the midst of the season of Easter I was hoping to coast off the discipline of Lent into Easter joy. However, I’m finding that the same feeling of dogged perseverance as if I stumbled over rather than walked across the finish line continues, namely because my quest for holiness continues. Rather than coast in Easter joy, I’ve been fighting off the temptation of feeling like a lousy return on everything Jesus died to give me (completely overlooking His selflessness which demands no return in the process).

And with a wry and weary smile this afternoon as I was scrubbing the stains off my desk I realized that in a way I’m a lot like my desk because those sins and weaknesses that cling to my soul the way the smudges and other marks cling to my desk don’t blend in. It is clear that when the messiness of life happens both the desk and my soul ought to be restored to their original glory rather than conform to the imperfect state of uncleanliness simply by virtue of how they each were designed to be bright.

In my ongoing quest for holiness, I’ve gotten to the point where I feel like the light of God’s love is so deep within that it’s actually casting out all my weaknesses and making me new. It’s not that this love is transforming me into an unrecognizable person but rather that the more I accept God’s love the more I feel like myself and the more I experience a greater freedom to love the way I desire to love. As hard as this stretching process can be, as much as it sometimes feels like I’m fighting against my own habits and personality, as much as in my impatience I get tempted to rely on my willpower rather than God’s grace I feel like the greatest growth in the spiritual life, at least for me, comes not just from success but in learning how to successfully fail.

Because it is from failing so frequently that I must practice how to gracefully surrender (which is the antithesis of my natural personality in case that wasn’t clear).

I have to surrender my sin and weakness to the mercy and love of God which is humbling, I have to surrender what I can’t control to God’s providence which is hope, I have to surrender my own understanding which is faith, I have to surrender my aspirations and my past in order to live in the present moment which is communion with God.

As much as I sometimes want the challenges that necessitate this surrender to go away, I realize without them there wouldn’t be the same opportunity to surrender to God in order to know His love better, to decrease that He might increase, that I’m trying to embrace it which I admit feels like the strangest, most counter-cultural thing I’ve ever done (and I’m a pretty strange person).

So just like you can tell that my desk comes from Ikea I hope you see from my life, even if it’s just from the struggles and my failures and my poorly titled blog posts about them, that my home is in Heaven and that’s where I hope to return someday.

Until then pray for me!

 

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.