The Triumph

Not only do I love Mother Angelica, I really really like her too. She passed away semi-recently and how I wish I could have met her, it will have to wait until heaven now.

Mother Angelica is the foundress of EWTN, a Catholic TV network but more importantly (to me) she was the first spiritual mother/guide I ever had. I found her as a questioning 19-year-old by reading a book that is the first on my “Top Ten Life Changing Reads” List, Mother Angelica’s Little Book of Life Lessons and Everyday Spirituality. 

I recently picked up this classic yet again (I have reread it too many times to count) and it is still as great as it ever was. That is my personal test of a great book. If you pick it up and like reading it again even better than you did the first time, then it’s a keeper and deserves the coveted spot on the shelf (never enough shelf space in my room so I mean coveted in a fairly literal sense).

The reason I say it is great is because it is short, easy to read, but packs a punch to the point where a paragraph can turn your whole world and mind inside out. Mother Angelica was a holy lady who dedicated her life to helping others grow in holiness too and one of the best things she does is make it seem so possible for absolutely everyone. It’s enough to give hope even to a sinner like me and that’s how you know it’s deeply rooted in the gospel and not just the empty sayings and “feel-good” euphemisms that plague our age.

And it was reading one of her gems that inspired me to write this particular blog post because it hit me in an especially profound way and I hoped that maybe someone else would find it useful.

She was talking about discouragement and in the context discussing Christ’s crucifixion she wrote the following:

He died with no valleys in his soul, no crevices where resentment, and hatred, or anger, or self-pity could hide and warp and disfigure the soul.

This impressed me because, first of all, doesn’t contemplating that just make you want to love Jesus?

Second of all, each of those temptations she listed I find easy.  I wish I didn’t but being a person who struggles against a proud nature I find that those crevices come to me rather naturally.

However, I confess I often forget that each vice has a corresponding virtue. For example, resentment and hatred can be defeated by forgiveness. Anger can be overcome by mercy. Self-pity can be conquered by humility and trust in God.

This knowledge is important because it is this truth that reminds me that I see the world the wrong way. Whenever I am put through trials I tend to see it first as a trial and sometimes (particularly when there are many trials at once) I want a respite from the myriad imperfections that I notice the trials are bringing out in me.

And while it would be easy to sit back and throw my fist at the heavens and ask “why God?” the answer struck me very clearly. It’s because I want to be holy which is just another way of saying I want to love not as humans do but as God does. I don’t want those valleys and crevices to remain in my soul. And so God in His love and His sense of humor gives me lots of opportunities not just to avoid sin by managing to hold my temper or not judge, but also to put into practice it’s opposite virtues like kindness and compassion.

But it’s funny to think that up in Heaven we won’t be glorified for the things on earth we were good at and did well, but instead glorifying God through the things we did poorly and asked Him to do for us in His love. And it makes me sad that those who aren’t “religious” or who feel stuck in a rut sometimes have that fear of approaching God because I’m convinced that in His eyes the greater the struggle the greater the triumph of merciful love.

 

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Unorthodox Orthodoxy

As many of you know, several of my best posts are based on my responses to things people say to me, either in person or in some online forum. This is one such instance.

As usual, it began innocently enough with a woman commenting that many people who use the Catholic handle (like this blog for example) do not deserve the title because they are not truly worthy of all the title entails. The definition of orthodox, just to put us all on the same page, is: “conforming to what is generally or traditionally accepted as right or true; established and approved.” So for Catholics this is primarily Church approved Canon and Doctrine.

I’m open to critique, because if I were perfect I’d be ready for heaven and since that day is not yet here I’m sure there’s still much room for improvement. Perhaps one such imperfection is my sass because this woman struck a particular nerve with me through her condescension and I just gave in to my urge to say something. It just really bothers me when people tell others they are not worthy of something because it subtly implies that they are worthy of it (or at least in their “humble” efforts to be worthy they are better than those who don’t try at all/fail in their eyes). So I responded to this woman, “on the other hand many are too proud of their orthodoxy.” This woman proceeded to correct my response by replying, “orthodoxy precludes pride” which, unfortunately for her, completely proved my point (perhaps unintentionally, but still).

I honestly wish that her claim were more true. Because doctrinally, what she said is sound. Practicing Catholics do accept an orthodoxy that rejects pride in all forms, but I have met so many who practice orthodoxy, it seems, not for the love of God but for the love of men, for status in their Catholic and/or intellectual circles.  And this is a tragedy.

Because I’ve met two types of orthodox people in my day. The first kind is usually the model of humility that is fostered by a deep prayer life. They would be the last to mention their holiness and there is usually no need to because it goes without saying. The second is the type that is always eager to showcase their knowledge of their faith and quick to judge others who do not meet their standards of what a good, orthodox faith entails. Call it Club Pharisee, because these people tend to move in groups and be somewhat proud of their exclusivity. 

And this is an extremely sore point  for me with my faith, not just with Catholicism but with Christians in general, and it played no small role in prompting me to write both The Religion Crisis and The Finest Thing I’ve Ever Known. Because true Christianity, true orthodoxy, is not an exclusive club, it is a way of life and judging others has no place in it. If you must judge anything let it be the action, not the person, because if you walked a mile in their shoes you might have done the same, if not more. The grace of God to walk the difficult path of heavenly perfection and keep true to orthodox doctrine is a generous gift, not an accomplishment. And when you presume to judge others based on your opinions of whether or not they are as orthodox or well informed as your own self you take credit for God’s work in you in a most abominable way. And I honestly think that if you kept this up you would lose God’s grace just as much as if you were caught in sin,  because you become, as Jesus said, a “whitewashed sepulcher” a good looking grave, because while it may seem like you uphold the law there is no love in your heart, because nothing drives out love faster than pride. I know this from experience.

And the whole point of orthodoxy for me is not to have it as a checklist that I measure my worth by. It is instead a key to figuring out how to have more of God in my soul because having God in my soul is the only thing that has ever satisfied my annoyingly restless heart. Because my God is love, perfect love. And if you manage to have perfect orthodoxy without also having love what is the point? It’s just a barren branch without any fruit on it because it’s still just you, and the point of religion is to have God in you. 

And it frustrates me when I see this in the Christian ranks. I moved to Pittsburgh from a lovable but extremely elitist town in Virginia where I saw people being seduced by this temptation everywhere. The temptation to strive for knowledge and the accolades that come from having it while forgetting that the purpose of all knowledge is to enlighten us to the truth, a truth that came to life through love Himself.

Because the truth of the gospel, the rich mysteries of the Church, were not made as a merely mental exercise, a truth to be discovered by and shared among only the worthy. The truth of the gospel was meant to be lived and shared indiscriminately due to the very nature of what it is you’re receiving. The gospel is a tremendous gift meant to give us true joy and lasting love, a life with deeper roots, higher thoughts, wider hearts, and bigger smiles because through it we encounter God in our lives, and there is nothing more we need.

And I get tired of churches looking the same as the world. The same cliques, the same judgments, the same excuses, the same buffet tables. I want churches to look different. Because saints always look different from their times and we are all called to be saints.(After all, saints are just born sinners with the audacity to declare that they will not die that way.) I’m not saying that we should abandon all doctrine and declare free love. I’m a firm believer in absolute truth which I believe is revealed through the Catholic Church and its doctrine. We don’t have to agree on that, in fact a fair amount of people who read this blog probably don’t. But in a world where everyone likes to sit comfortably and discuss what’s wrong with other people, I wish they would focus instead on doing two simple things: 1) receiving the love of God 2) sharing the love of God. Because while these things are straightforward they are not always easy. And by letting God love us, we become the change we wish to see in the world, because heaven comes alive in us and, hopefully, when others see it they remember who they are and want to have it too. 

Because a friend of mine who happened to catch my exchange with this woman told me “she (the commentator) wouldn’t like me very much” because he also uses a Catholic handle and figured that he too would not be orthodox or worthy enough. And this almost perfectly sums up how many millennials feel about the Christian religion. Just a meeting of Club Pharisee with a lot of boring doctrines that exclude people and can’t compete with the exciting modern world of today with the falsely welcoming embrace of the hazy universalism that is non-judgmental spirituality. And this is a shame because from my own study (which I admittedly wish I had more time for) I can confirm that God does not feel that way about a single one of His children. God is love and love is never about being worthy. Love is a gift, a free gift from a free choice, and Club Pharisee is a bad representation of what I believe is in God’s heart. But how would you know that if you weren’t raised in faith like me? And how would you know that if your only experiences with the Church went like that?… But try and be better than me and have patience with members of Club Pharisee, because it’s a very human fault and they’re learning as they go just as you are.

But I guess if I could change one thing it would be a counter to all the perfectionism of the world and the haughtiness of Club Pharisee. And my way of doing that would be to admit to you that I chose the Catholic handle not because this blog is about Catholicism, has millions of footnotes leading you to Catholic doctrine, or even because I’m worthy of the title. I choose this handle because I am Catholic, it is so much a part of me that it colors how I experience the world, and I am as Catholic listening to my new Pentatonix album (amazing) as I am when I’m sitting at mass (also amazing). To admit that I think the love of God is so profoundly beautiful that you can experience whether you are a champ at kneeling or whether you slouch like I do. To admit that truly following Christ is hard and that it won’t always win you friends or a big fancy house in the suburbs (no matter what Joel Osteen says) but that you can do it anyway by His grace and the people He places in your life at just the right time. To admit even that I am far from a perfect person and that often I find myself in awe of God’s patience with me as I struggle to overcome the same flaws over and over again.

But most of all to admit that, while I hope you’ve enjoyed my blog, there is only one thing I ever wanted it to be: honest. And part of that truth is that I love you tremendously, even if we’ve never met. Because I know God loves you tremendously too in both your strengths and in your weaknesses. And if you believe nothing else I ever write believe that, because reflecting on that simple truth can change your life. It certainly changed mine.

So here’s to love and humility, even if it means a slightly unorthodox orthodoxy.

My Least Favorite Virtue

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This week I have been struggling with crankiness. Crankiness is unique because there can be many sources that vary by degree and it leaves you super vulnerable to my least favorite emotion: anger. Anger is bad. It comes from pride and a desire to have your way. There is such thing as righteous anger but that’s not what I’m dealing with in this instance and I think you all can tell that by the backstory that’s unfolded so far. No the type of anger I’m talking about is the one where you take out your crankiness and frustrations on others, sometimes innocent bystanders but more often on the people you spend the most time with, aka the people you love.

And I hate that. I feel so bad when I do that. And the anger just feeds because it is easier to get mad at myself than it is to accept mercy for my human weakness.

And it all goes back to my least favorite virtue, awarded that title solely because it’s the one I struggle with the most: patience.

Because patience simply means giving God time to do his work in you and in your life, which sometimes involves suffering as you learn to love yourself like God loves you, patiently.

Because doesn’t that blow your mind a little bit, how God loves you perfectly every moment? How He never waivers whether you are sinning or shining, struggling or doing your victory dance? How He just wills to be there for it all because in His love He could never abandon you? That He is so patient he never gives up on you, even when you are the absolute worst version of yourself?

It makes me sad when people don’t believe that, when they choose not to receive this love that is so freely offered. Because I think in this day and age, or maybe perhaps always on earth, we all have this insecurity or fear about our own capacity for sin. We try and focus on the positive side of man but have trouble grappling with its  other half, the destructive and evil capacity of man. In short, the sin of man. It’s like we try to tell everyone to be healthy and happy on the outside and ignore the internal immortal soul. We’re told not to keep an eye on our desires to make sure they are holy but instead that they must be holy because they came from us and we are awesome.

And I’m here to say that there is nothing awesome about us, in the true sense of the word meaning awe inspiring. But we do have tremendous worth because we are so loved, and this love redeems us from the evil and destructive nature of sin that exists in all of us. In fact that’s weirdly what binds us together, our struggle to love and a sharing of the love we receive. And I get tired of the superficiality of this day and age. Where we pretend we are perfect and shift our focus from the things that are eternal to the things that last ten seconds (culture). Where we are taught to believe in ourselves and find ourselves and that God is a myth. But I tell you what, if all I’ve found by the end of my life’s journey is myself I will despair. Because it’s love I’ve been after, and I’m not capable of the type of love I seek by myself. I know it.

And these are the types of things that tempt me to be really cranky. (And I work in people oriented fields so its not ideal when on the inside I feel like a big ball of crankiness.) But I’m praying for the grace of my least favorite virtue for myself, for my neighbors, and for the world at large. And I hope you’ll pray for that too.

And if you’re not the type that prays well… there’s a first time for everything. Why not make today your day?