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.

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Are You Ready for Me?

Here is our much-anticipated piece by Guest Author Sr. Christina:

I have way too much fun sometimes when I work as a personal care aide!

A prime example lies in a little ritual dialog I hold every night I work with one of our female residents.  It is my responsibility to dry her support stockings after she has washed them; she does not have the needed hand strength to wring them out properly.  Without assistance, they remain wet even into the morning.

By herself, she does remove and wash the socks.  When I come to her door, before entering, I call out her name, rolling it off my tongue with a little twang we have developed.  She replies, “Yeeeeeessssss.”

Next, I inquire: “Are you ready for me?,” to which she responds, “Yes, I’m ready for you.”  We have way too much fun with our little conversation in an accent resembling I don’t know what.  We love to tease each other.

I come in, dry her stockings, visit briefly, and go on my way, glad that she was ready for me and had her stockings washed (one less thing I have to do).  [There have been a few times that she didn’t get them washed, but I can deal with that]

Although we’re in the middle of the Lenten season, this little reflection on the words “Are you ready for me” reminds me of Advent and our spiritual reflections at that time.

This routine question could, in a way, be posed to each of us on a daily basis.  In our daily life, our interactions, is Jesus perhaps asking each of us: “Are you ready for me?”

Is the way I live, the way I treat others, reflective of one who is ready to meet Him?  Or better yet, is it reflective of a soul aware of meeting Him daily in each person encountered?

I want to be aware, especially when called upon to serve someone I may not care to help, that Jesus is asking me to be ready for Him and to serve Him in each person.

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.