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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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!

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.