The Shepherd Who Didn’t Run

You may have picked up on the fact that I’m a little bit obsessed with Saints (and those on their way to being declared Saints). There’s something about getting to know one of God’s best friends that just makes me love him that much more. I have this image of life as an obstacle course (think American Ninja Warrior) and Saints as competitors who’ve finished the course and come back to coach you through. Here I need the witness of someone with low stamina, like me, there the advice of someone with a short temper. I keep a pantheon1 of Saints in my back pocket to encourage me by means of their own particular weaknesses.

coverSo when my beautiful friend Maria Ruiz Scaperlanda asked if I’d review her latest book, The Shepherd Who Didn’t Run, I jumped at the chance. Maria and I have been friends since I met her oldest son in college2 and I’ve long admired her work and her deep joy in the Lord. Plus, I can’t get enough of modern martyr stories. And this one did not disappoint. Impeccably researched and written with a clarity that allows Father Stanley to shine through, this first published biography of Father Stanley Rother is the perfect introduction to a simple man called to greatness.

Fr. Stanley Rother was a down-home Oklahoma farm boy who failed out of seminary because he was better at manual labor than book learning. But he persevered, taking John Vianney as a model, and was ordained and sent to rural Oklahoma to serve. It wasn’t long before he answered the call to missionary work, heading to Guatemala where he would overcome his difficulty with languages, mastering Spanish and Tz’utujil, and earn the love of his people by working side by side with them.

Fr Rother and little girlBut Latin America was a tumultuous place in the the 1980s and Fr. Stanley knew that the powers that be didn’t appreciate his solidarity with the people. It became clear that his life was on the line if he stayed where he was, but Fr. Stanley loved his people too much to abandon them. “At the first signs of danger, the shepherd can’t run,” he said time and again, echoing Jesus’ words in John 10.

Fr. Stanley did leave Guatemala for a few months when things were at their worst. Back in Oklahoma, everyone urged him not to go back to Guatemala. The book details his Gethsemane experience, interviewing friends and family members and excerpting from Fr. Stanley’s letters. But while he was clearly suffering, he was not conflicted. He had promised he would return and return he did, arriving back at his parish just in time for Easter. Three months later, he was found dead in his rectory. He had been tortured but had taken it in silence–he knew that crying out would endanger those around him.

This past summer, the Vatican declared Fr. Stanley a martyr, a step that speeds his canonization process considerably. For the people of Santiago Atitlán, however, no canonization is necessary. Despite his temper and his other human weaknesses, Fr. Stanley had been a powerful witness of God’s love among them. He had lived as a Saint and died as a Saint. And while they will rejoice when he is canonized, as I have no doubt he will be, nobody will be surprised at the Oklahoma farm boy turned Guatemalan martyr raised to the altars.

He has Jesus eyes.

Look at those eyes. Jesus eyes.

Fr. Stanley is a compelling figure, stern but animated by love of God and his people, but I must say that much about him didn’t resonate with me. After all, I’m basically the opposite of this taciturn country priest who was more comfortable with a spade than a textbook. So while I was quite impressed with how thorough the book was–imagine hearing from a Saint’s first grade teacher–Fr. Stanley was a little too ordinary for my liking. At first.

Until I realized that his ordinariness was exactly the point. The witness of his willing acceptance of torture and death is that much more beautiful because he’s a regular guy. He wasn’t a mystic, one foot already on the other side of the veil, or an activist, willing to sacrifice for the cause. He was a lover. And he knew that his people needed him. They needed to know that they mattered, to him and to the One he served. He made no secret of the fact that he didn’t want to die. But he wanted to live for his people more than he wanted to live, as he explained to his bishop: “My life is for my people. I am not scared.”

It’s this quiet determination that struck me. He went deliberately to his death because he loved those he would die for. Can I live with the same intentionality? Can I wash dishes and listen to sob stories and reply to emails with the same deliberate love? Can I be powerfully present in the ordinary? That’s what made Fr. Stanley able to live with extraordinary grace in the end: a determination to do the work of the day well.

If you’re from Oklahoma or you’re a farmer or you’ve struggled in school, Fr. Stanley’s your guy. If you wonder how to love the poor or face difficult mundane crosses, I think his witness will speak to you. If you live an ordinary life and long to be extraordinary, you’ll find that in Fr. Stanley. Grab a copy of this book, not just to support my friend Maria (who is amazing, so maybe for that reason, too) but because Fr. Stanley will remind you of the holiness of your everyday. He’ll show you how your life can transform the world around you. And he’ll probably be the first American-born man canonized, so it couldn’t hurt to join his fan club ahead of the rush.

 

141211_cdennis_MariaScaperlanda442-2If you want to keep up with Maria, you can follow her at her blog. I couldn’t find a picture of us together (though I have pictures of me with every one of her children and most of her grandchildren), so I’ll give you the official headshot instead. There, don’t you want to be her friend? Or at least buy her book? I thought so.

  1. If you’ll excuse the implied heresy. []
  2. In case you listen to the podcast, he’s the one who saved the Eucharist from Satanists and then passed all the credit on to other people. []
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A Year in the Word: Archives, Images, and MP3s

Throughout this year, I’m sharing reflections on powerful Scripture passages over at Aleteia. But I’m also hoping that you’ll be memorizing them along with me, and a few paragraphs on what they mean isn’t going to help with that. Cue multiple intelligences training! I don’t just read things and remember, I use songs and images to help. In fact, almost every passage of Scripture that I have memorized has a tune that I sing in my head while I recite it aloud. And derivative as they might be, they work! So I’m sharing those with you, images to set as your phone’s wallpaper and mp3s of verses that will get stuck in your head for days. Enjoy!

Intro Post

Week 1: God’s love

Zephaniah 3-171 Pt 5-6-7

Zephaniah 3:17 audio:

1 Peter 5:6-7 audio:

 

Week 2: Following God

Isaiah 6-81 John 3 16-18

Isaiah 6:8 audio:

1 John 3:16-18 audio:

 

Week 3: Don’t be a Pharisee

Joel 2 12-13Rev 2 3-4

Joel 2:12-13 audio:

Revelation 2:3-4 audio:

 

More to come–stay tuned!

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Favorite Verses from St Paul

Are y’all keeping up with my Year in the Word? The first week’s verses are up over at Aleteia and you can find images of them to set as your phone wallpaper on my Facebook page. But I mentioned that this is my second round of Scripture memorizing, and I thought some of you might want to know which are my A-list verses.I don’t necessarily prefer these to the ones I’m looking at this year, but they are some of my favorites. So in honor of St. Paul’s feast day, I thought I’d share some of my favorite Pauline verses. Paul’s one of my best friends–we basically have the same life, after all–so it only makes sense to give him a little feast day love.

He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”  I would rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me.  Therefore I am content with weaknesses, with insults, with hardships, persecutions, and constraints for the sake of Christ, for when I am weak then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)

More or less a list of the Scriptures I've got memorized, though I didn't list most of the apologetics type ones.

More or less a list of the Scriptures I’ve got memorized, though I didn’t list most of the apologetics type ones.

Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice! Your kindness should be known to all. The Lord is near. Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:4-7)

Who confers distinction on you?  What do you possess that you have not received?  And if you have received it, why are you boasting as if you did not receive it?  (1 Corinthians 4:7)

No trial has come to you but what is human.  God is faithful and will not let you be tried beyond your strength, but with the trial he will also provide a way out so that you may be able to bear it. (1 Corinthians 10:13)

I have great confidence in you.  I have great pride in you.  I am filled with encouragement.  I am overflowing with joy all the more because of our afflictions. (2 Corinthians 7:4)

I know what it is to be in need and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well-fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength. (Philippians 4:12-13)

I urge you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship.  Do not conform yourself to this age, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect. (Romans 12:1-2)

Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another, if one has a grievance against another; as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do. And over all these put on love, that is, the bond of perfection. And let the peace of Christ control your hearts, the peace into which you were also called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, as in all wisdom you teach and admonish one another, singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Colossians 3:12-17)

We hold these treasures in earthen vessels that the surpassing power may be of God and not from us.  We are afflicted in every way but not constrained, perplexed but not driven to despair, persecuted but not abandoned, struck down but not destroyed, always carrying about int he body the dying of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our body.  For we who live are constantly being given up to death for the sake of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh. (2 Corinthians 4:7-11)

Therefore we are not discouraged, rather though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.  For this momentary light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to what is seen but to what is unseen, for what is seen is transitory, but what is unseen is eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)

Rejoice in hope, endure in affliction, persevere in prayer. (Romans 12:12)

We know that all things work for good for those who love God and are called according to his purpose.  For those he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his son, so that he might be the firstborn of many brothers.  and those he predestined, he also called, and those he called he also justified, and those he justified he also glorified.  What then shall we say to this?  If God is for us, who can be against us?  he who did not spare his own son, but handed him over for us all, how will he not also give us everything else along with him?  Who will bring a charge against God’s chosen ones?  It is God who acquits us–who will condemn?  It is Christ Jesus who died, also was raised who also sits at the right of the throne of God who indeed intercedes for us.  What will separate us and the love of Christ?  Will anguish, distress, persecution or famine, nakedness, peril, or the sword?  As it is written, for your sake, we are being slain all the day.  We are looked upon as seep to be slaughtered.  No, in all these things we conquer overwhelmingly through him who loved us.  For I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to come between us and the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:28-39)

Conversion_on_the_Way_to_Damascus-Caravaggio_(c.1600-1)But whatever gains I had, these I have come to consider as a loss because of Christ.  More than this: I even consider everything as a loss because of the supreme good of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.  For his sake I have accepted the loss of all things, and I consider them so much rubbish that I may may gain Christ. (Philippians 3:7-8)

Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.  But to those who are called, Jew and Greek alike, Christ, the power of God and the wisdom of God.  For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. (1 Corinthians 1:22-25)

If I preach the Gospel, this is no reason for me to boast, for an obligation has been imposed upon me, and woe to me if I do not preach it. (1 Corinthians 9:16)

Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you whom you have from God and that you are not your own?  For you were purchased at a price.  Therefore, glorify God in your body. (1 Corinthians 6:19-20)

But God showed us his love: that while we were still in sin, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8)

For this reason I kneel before the Father,15from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named,that he may grant you in accord with the riches of his glory to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in the inner self, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the holy ones what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:14-19)

For to me, life is Christ and death is gain. (Philippians 1:21)

For to you has been granted for the sake of Christ not only to believe in him but also to suffer for him. (Philippians 1:29)

What about you? What are your favorites from Saint Paul?

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A Year in the Word–Memorize Scripture with Me!

Every time I read the Bible, I see more and more passages I wish I had memorized. This year, I’m doing something about it, and I want you to join me. I was going to pick 50 (short) passages for the 50 weeks left this year…but then I counted up how many I had picked from the Old Testament alone and realized it was going to have to be 50 from each Testament. Then I thought I should invite y’all to join me, so I’d need pretty graphics for them. Then I figured I might was well tell you why I picked each pair.

And before you know it, I found myself writing a weekly column over at Aleteia like I was a real grown-up writer or something! Mostly I’m excited because their reach is far greater than mine and I really think that this year God’s asking me to help Catholics fall in love with his word. So many of y’all are doing it by reading the Bible daily with me–now we’re going to memorize it too! Are you in? Please say you’re in, I really want you to do this with me!

Sneak preview--subject to change.

Sneak preview–subject to change.

I’ve always been rather slow when it comes to New Year’s Resolutions. Ask me on January 1st about my “new year new you” plan and you’ll get a blank stare. But a few weeks later something may just have developed. This year, all I’m feeling is a need to have my heart filled with God’s word. I’ve been thrilled to see how many of you are getting on board with the One Year Bible plan, but it’s not enough for us to skim the surface, reading for consumption rather than letting ourselves be consumed. We need to commit Scripture to memory so it ends up running through our veins, coloring our perspective, correcting and forming us.

In a world where all information seems to be a few swipes away, the idea of learning anything by heart is rather foreign. Why bother memorizing Scripture when I can just Google it? For one thing, because Googling “Bible verses when you’re sad” might not help much. For another, because it might not occur to you that you need a Bible verse, but if they’re already swirling about in your subconscious, they might surface just when you need them.

Read more at Aleteia!

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The Day You Were Adopted

This weekend, I stood beside a baptismal font and wept as my friends’ little boys were buried with Christ and raised to new life. Now, I’ve been to one or two (or twenty) baptisms. And I always get excited when I watch God’s beloved born again. But there was something different this time. Johnny and Lele are 5 years old but they’ve only been with their family for 6 months. So when we listened to the opening prayer for the feast of the Baptism of the Lord on the eve of their baptism, I don’t know that any 5-year-olds were ever more excited by a collect:

Almighty ever-living God, who, when Christ had been baptized in the River Jordan and as the Holy Spirit descended upon him, solemnly declared him your beloved Son, grant that your children by adoption, reborn of water and the Holy Spirit, may always be well pleasing to you.

Jesus was baptized, just like them! And God’s children are adopted, just like them!

Charlton baptismWhen the Gospel described the Father’s declaration, “This is my beloved son with whom I am well pleased,” Johnny’s face crinkled in joy as his mother whispered, “That’s you!” As dozens of friends and family members watched him in his pristine white suit, Lele leaned into his mom for security while Johnny bravely refused to hold his dad’s hand. And I stood there, having studied and taught and witnessed baptism time and time again, and understood better than I ever have.

Johnny and Lele adore their mommy and daddy. Nearly every night, Johnny wakes up and makes his way into their bed. He has no fear that they won’t want him, no insecurity. That’s his mom and dad—of course they want him. Lele snuggles into his dad when he’s taking a break from his wild game of marbles. Johnny calls for his mommy when he hurts himself. Dave and Janel aren’t their foster parents or second chance parents, they’re just their parents. It’s a complete and certain and unconditional relationship.

So when they heard that the Father was adopting them, they got it. God was going to be their daddy now. Not like their daddy. Their real, actual, no-holding-back, love-you-till-you-die (and then some) daddy. The Church isn’t like their family. It is their family. Jesus is their real big brother, their role model and best friend and family forever.

This is what happened to you on the day of your baptism. God the Father looked down from heaven, laughing for joy, and cried out, “That’s my boy!” or “That’s my girl!” And because he said it, it became true. You aren’t like his child, you are his child. He’s the one who cleans you up when you wet the bed, the one who holds you when you’re crying and you don’t know why, the one who yells too loud when you get fouled and even louder when you make the free throw. He’s not your stern father by some legal fiction, he’s your daddy who spent his life longing for you and came looking for you and did whatever it took to get you home with him.

This daddy of yours holds you close and whispers his love in your ear. He makes you mac and cheese and warns you sternly to eat it when you’re too distracted to take a bite. He loves you just like you’re really his child—because you are really his child.

Some of us take the love of our Father for granted. More of us don’t really believe it. We feel more like God’s our boss or our uncle or the owner of the factory that churned us out. But Johnny and Lele know different. They know that God picked them. He came looking for them. He made them his very own little boys and he loves them just like they were his from the womb. He’s their daddy forever, no matter what.

thats my babyNext time you bless yourself with holy water, remember that at your baptism, heaven was torn open. Your angel twinkled, your saint friends turned cartwheels, and your Daddy shouted, “That’s my baby! And I am so, so pleased.”

 

(Can I speak a moment to birth parents? You are a hero. You are the mother taking her baby to the font offering him the life he deserves, even if it means letting go of him as you hand him to the Father. You are a gift and a triumph of God’s mercy. Thank you for the sacrifice you made and continue to make every day. Thank you for teaching me what it means to love.)

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15 from 2015

It’s been a busy year, just like last year and the year before.

I took a lot of trains,

20150831_215812

headed to pilgrimages of one kind

The shrine at Knock, Ireland.

The shrine at Knock, Ireland.

Youth 2000 at Walsingham, England.

Youth 2000 in Walsingham, England.

and another.

20150309_160127

I went to a very important first communion,

2015-05-09 11.19.08

With Natalie in Chapel HIll, NC.

and became a godmother one more time.

With Teresa in Enid, OK.

With Teresa in Enid, OK.

I visited two oceans,

Irish coast, Atlantic ocean.

Atlantic Ocean (Ireland)

Pacific Ocean (California with girlfriends from high school)

Pacific Ocean (California with girlfriends from high school)

did Easter right,

At Notre Dame--there's nothing like it.

At Notre Dame–there’s nothing like it.

and laughed a whole lot.

Crosby, MN. It’s actually the best.

I visited a lot of friends,

saints

Matt Talbot (Dublin), Jean de Brebeuf and Gabriel Lalemant (Canada), Maria Goretti (Texas), Francis Xavier Seelos (New Orleans). Among others.

marveled at the faith of children,

Cecilia is a Dominican nun. John Paul is celebrating the Easter Vigil, complete with 7 readings.

Cecilia is a Dominican nun. John Paul is celebrating the Easter Vigil, complete with 7 readings.

and tried to share their passion for the Lord with the world.

With Katherine in Atlanta.

With Katherine in Atlanta.

I didn’t spend nearly enough time with this crowd

nieces and nephews

but spent a lot of time here (or the equivalent).

Somewhere near Houston.

Somewhere near Houston.

God is very good, friends. I really mean it when I say that none of this could happen without your prayerful support. I am absolutely indebted to you and more grateful than you can know.

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A New Year’s Resolution for Singles

When I was 17, I was desperate to be married. I figured I’d have to wait until I graduated from college, but I was, as I would have told you emphatically, ready to be married.

Hahahahahahahahahahahaha! Ha.

When I was 23, already the single friend in my very Catholic crowd, I was even more desperate to be married. I’d read The Good News about Sex and Marriage and seen It’s a Wonderful Life and I knew exactly what marriage was. I used to pray, telling God that I was ready but that I understood that my husband might not be yet.

Sigh.

I’m sure some people who get married at 17 are ready.1 And plenty of people who get married at 23 do just fine. I was probably as ready as most. But I wonder sometimes what my life would be if I had.

I’d have a passel of kids—4 or 5, if my friends are any indication. My life would be frantically busy, leaving little time for the Lord. I wouldn’t be consumed with zeal for souls—that was trained into me in my years as a spiritual mother. I wouldn’t have much sympathy for sin or stupid drama—I learned that from loving my spiritual children. And I wouldn’t pray. Not with any regularity, anyway. Not beyond the rote.2

Then again, maybe I would. Maybe I would have progressed much faster with a partner. But ten years ago, I had absolutely no concept of the need for silent prayer and evangelization. It was the convent and the classroom that taught me those. Getting married young is a beautiful thing and I hope to God that all of you who are married are growing every day in piety and virtue. But if you’re not yet married, consider this: maybe what you need to become the spouse you ought to be is these (interminable) years alone.

I’ve taken to thinking of single life as a sort of novitiate. When you’re in religious life, you start with several years of training. Newbies—novices—are pulled even further away from the world, given fewer responsibilities and more time for prayer. They do very little work and have extra chapel time. They’re thrown into prayer so that when they withdraw a little from the cloister to re-enter the world as active religious or vowed contemplatives with more responsibilities, they’re grounded.

What if that’s how we treated the single years? You have tons of free time. The world says to use it to have all the fun possible, or at least to work extra and build up your savings account. But what if you used that time as an opportunity for increased prayer? Most childless single people, if they’re being honest with themselves, could make a holy hour every day. If you live in a major city, you can almost certainly get to daily Mass. Your commute is perfect for spiritual podcasts. Your bedroom can be a little cell, a place of silence. You could even plug your phone in somewhere other than your bedside table and spend your first waking moments with a book of the lives of the Saints or some quiet time with the day’s Gospel reading.

If you sucked the marrow out of your single life by using it to become a man or woman of deep prayer, marriage wouldn’t end that. I know that marriage is hard and kids take up every free moment and all the busy ones, too. But a person doesn’t go from an hour a day of prayer to nothing. Maybe you cut the Office or drop daily Mass to once a week. Maybe you pray the Rosary in fits and starts throughout the day instead of first thing in the morning. But if you’ve spent years scheduling your life around prayer, you’re going to go into marriage planning to pray.

Cecilia prayingI used to say there was no way I could pray as much as I need if I got married. And while I’m under no illusions that it’s easy to find time when you’re married with kids, I know that–by God’s grace–we could make it work. I could drop the Office and the Chaplet. I could cut back on spiritual reading. If I really look at what I need, it’s possible. If I go into marriage saying, “I need daily Mass and a half hour of silence with Jesus every day,” we’ll plan around it. We’ll get a house near a church with decent Mass times. We’ll make sure my husband can be home to relieve me before they lock the church or we’ll get a key or we’ll find an adoration chapel or I’ll learn to get up early or something. People make these sacrifices for things that matter and if prayer is what matters in our marriage, we’ll make it happen.

It’s the same with apostolic zeal. You can’t spend 5 years trying with everything you have to love kids closer to Jesus or feed the poor or welcome the immigrant and then just cut that off. It’ll take a different form, sure, but it’ll still be an essential part of your life. I know because I’ve seen it in countless couples whose marriages are for the Church and the world. It can be done.

And relationships. If you spend years cultivating soul-friends, you’re not going to drop them because you’ve said “I do.” You’re going to have people who challenge you and encourage you, people you can invite into your family and people who will invite you into theirs. You’ll have community, not just friends, and marriages thrive on community.

What this means is a marriage that’s focused on prayer—both individually and as a couple—on service to the world, and on Christian fellowship. Which is, I think, exactly what marriage should be.

Bride groom excitedI see plenty of these things in couples that got married the day after college graduation. Evidently, they did their novitiate while I was having every possible conversation with every possible person on campus. Or maybe they needed to do their novitiate together. Or maybe they didn’t figure it out until later in their marriage and really struggled for a while. But I think many would agree that if they had lived their single life more intentionally for the Lord, it would have blessed their marriage dramatically.

So to you who are single, whether lamentably or intentionally, let me issue a challenge for the New Year: restructure your life around Jesus. Resolve to be all for him. Try making one resolution for each of three categories:

  1. Prayer. Be honest, you’ve got the time. Unless you’re a first year teacher, you could probably even swing a daily holy hour. You could certainly do more than what you’re doing now. Ask yourself what you would do if you were a saint and then do that.
  2. Service. Teach a catechism class. Sort donations for refugees. Invite people to Mass with you. Be a missionary. Be pro-life. Serve your Church. Do something.
  3. Community. I get that most of your old friends are married with kids–believe me, I get that–and often that means that your schedules and interests don’t line up the way they did. So find a Catholic young adult group. Or join a group that isn’t focused on your demographic. Figure out a way to have fellowship with friends whose lives are pinned down by board books and lullabies at 7pm. Find one good friend to meet up with for a serious talk every month. Being single can destroy you if your longing for love isn’t met by your community but community doesn’t generally just happen to people. Go out and find it.

Figure out what matters most and live for that. Schedule in prayer time. Find a way to serve the world. Seek friends who are living for Christ and be intentional in the way you spend time together. Set a base-line for your life that would make Pier Giorgio Frassati proud. Then if the Lord ends up calling you to marriage, you and your beloved can approach your life together with the knowledge that without prayer, service, and the love of a community, you will starve.

Maybe the reason you’re still single is that the Lord is holding out hope that you’ll be so much more than you are right now. Marriage was designed to make saints, but it’s not magic. Live a novitiate now, and you’ll have some raw materials to bring to the table.

  1. Somewhere. In some foreign country? []
  2. This is me. It’s probably not you. Self-reflection, not an accusation. []
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Nothing to Offer

Once upon a time there was a village that was just like every other village, but not in every way. Like everywhere else, there were wonderful people and also people who weren’t always wonderful. Like everywhere else, there were hard-working people and not-so-hard-working people. Like everywhere else there were school days and holidays and everyone wished there were fewer of the one and more of the other.

But unlike everywhere else, this little village had a great big king, king over all the other villages and towns and even cities, who came and walked in its streets. He wasn’t a usual sort of king, fancy and important on his faraway throne. No, this king knew his people. He could tell when Agata had let her bread rise longer than usual and when Polly’s tooth was hurting. He brought Frankie scraps to feed to his dog and always seemed to have a new color of paint for Angelo to try. Hardly a day went by that he couldn’t be seen playing dice with Matt or reading with Catherine.

And of course, the villagers loved their king—when they weren’t too busy for him, that is. Because even a king can become commonplace if he’s always around. So while most of the children could be seen running to him every time he strolled down the lane, many of the adults kept about their business, glancing up when he greeted them and murmuring a few words in appreciation of the gifts he’d brought them and their children. Most of them, it seems, took their king for granted.

But not all the time. Every year, as the ground began to freeze and the skies seemed to be gray more often than they were blue, the villagers’ thoughts would turn to their king. His birthday fell in the deep of winter and it was the custom in that place for each of the villagers to take him a gift, given straight into his own hands at the feast that celebrated his birth. It was a very solemn occasion, a time for best clothes and best manners with best gifts on display.

And there amid all the good and better and best was Cora. Cora lived in a small house at the edge of town, one of those homes that never had quite enough wood for the fire or potatoes for the pot. There was more yelling than was quite pleasant and it wouldn’t be fair to blame it all on the adults who lived there. Certainly they would have done well to speak more sweetly, but little Cora did quite a lot of yelling herself. Often she could be seen with her face, smudged with day-old dirt, screwed up in a scowl, walking down the lane kicking at stones and small children. Cora had a temper, and even her gentle king had felt her wrath when he’d crossed her path at the wrong time.

But Cora wasn’t all bad. And as the air turned chill and the first flakes began to fall from the heavy sky, Cora’s mind turned to the king’s birthday just like everyone else’s. The trouble was, she had nothing to give.

“Why don’t you write him a song?” asked little David, trying out a few notes on the flute the king had given him that spring.

“I don’t know how,” muttered Cora, wishing she could sing like David.

“I’m making him a painting,” Angelo said. “Why don’t you do something with the colored pencils he gave you?”

“I broke them when I couldn’t get my pictures to look right.”

When Cora walked past the well, Teresa was practicing her pirouettes. “I do think the king is going to love my dance. Probably best of all his gifts. Are you going to dance for him?”

But Cora had worn her dancing shoes to jump in mud puddles and they were quite ruined.

John was going to juggle, but whenever Cora tried she ended up throwing his balls into a ditch in frustration. Tom was writing a list of his favorite things about the king but Cora was sure her writing was too ugly. Clara was hard at work embroidering for the king but Cora’s just turned into a knotted mess.

“Just tell him how much you love him,” Cora’s grandmother suggested.

“That won’t be enough! I have nothing I can give him. Nothing at all! And everyone else will do something lovely and I’ll just stand there looking stupid. I hate this.”

As the days got shorter, the villagers spent more and more time perfecting their gifts. Bread was baked, wood whittled, and heads held high as projects turned out just as planned, until finally the day arrived. Children’s faces were scrubbed to shining before they were marched in their Sunday best to the palace. And when everyone was gathered, the ceremony began. One by one, the villagers walked forward to present their gifts to the king. Seated on his throne with his mother beside him, the king smiled with real pleasure as he saw the handiwork of his friends.

The village children stood tall and proud as they waited their turn—all but Cora, who shrank down in the crowd, hoping to be passed over. Finally, the king’s steward called out, “Are there any more gifts to be offered?” Silence, as Cora crossed all of her fingers and stared at the ground. Then:

“Cora. Dear heart, I don’t think you’ve had a chance yet.” It was the king’s mother, looking down at her with gentle, hopeful eyes. Cora couldn’t hide any more, so she dragged herself up to the front and pulled out a worn cardboard box.

“Here,” she muttered, and put it in the king’s hands before turning to walk away as quickly as she could.

“Well, wait a moment!” he laughed. “I want to see what’s inside.”

A sick feeling crept into Cora’s stomach as she turned to wait for what would surely be the worst moment of her life. The queen mother’s sudden gasp was all Cora needed to start her tears rolling, and the murmurs and snickers of the crowd only made it worse.

“Muddy dancing slippers? Whyever would he want those?”

“What is that charred mess? Is it a half-burned book?”

“Oh, dear, the stupid thing has given him an old dead flower. What was she thinking?”

Cora stood there alone, feeling as ugly and foolish as ever a child has felt, until she heard her king silence his people.

“Hush,” he said, as soft as it was stern. “Cora, love, come here.”

Slowly, sullenly, Cora stepped from the disdainful crowd, ready to be ridiculed by the king, too.

“Look at me, dearest.” Pulling her eyes away from their safe spot on her feet, she looked at her king and saw no anger in his eyes, not even amusement. There were tears there, though Cora couldn’t think why. “What is all this?”

“It’s everything. It’s the pieces of the bowl I broke and the book I threw in the fire when I couldn’t read all the words. I knew you wanted me to learn to dance but I couldn’t dance for you because I ruined my shoes playing in the mud, so I put those in, too. I would have given you back the ring you gave me but I traded it to Colette so she’d do my chores for me for a week.”

“And the rose?”

“I stole it.” Cora’s voice was so soft only the king and his mother could hear. “I stole it from your garden and I wanted to give it back.”

“Oh, Cora. Cora, it’s beautiful.”

“What? The rose?” Cora felt sure she must have heard wrong.

“All of it. It’s the most beautiful gift of them all. You see, everyone else gave me something lovely, and I was very pleased by the cakes and books and poems and such. But you gave me your heart. You had nothing to give and so you gave me your nothingness. I love it.”

Cora’s heart thrilled to hear the king’s words, but she couldn’t understand them. How could he like her gift of ugly brokenness? No, he was just being kind. Cora managed half a smile before disappearing back into the crowd. She pushed past her curious neighbors, all asking what the king had said and why she hadn’t found something better, until she found a door that led her outside. Cora pulled her shawl tight around her shoulders, sat against the wall, and wondered. “You gave me your heart,” he had said. What did he mean?

She was still thinking some time later, her teeth chattering and her fingers blue with cold, when she heard a familiar voice call her name. Looking up, she saw the king and wondered how he’d managed to sneak away from the crowds.

“Cora, come with me. I have something to show you.” He took her hand and led her through a gate she hadn’t noticed, down passageway after passageway, until they found themselves in a long hall.

“Look,” the king said, and led her to the far wall.

2014-10-22 16.40.00There, Cora saw her village, not as it was but as it should be, without ruts in the lanes or broken fence posts. The flowers were in bloom, the creek glistening, and the faces radiant. As Cora approached, she saw that the image was made of a thousand little things—scraps of fabric, bits of paper, stones, even—

“My bowl!” Cora cried. “Those pieces in the creek—the shiny blue bits. Those are from my broken bowl!”

“They are,” the king agreed.

“And there, that book lying open on the bench. That has pages from my burnt book!”

“It does.”

“But…why?”

“I make ugly things new. I make broken things beautiful. Everything you offer me, even the ugly and broken—especially the ugly and broken—can become something beautiful.”

“But everyone laughed. They said it was stupid!”

“They don’t know, Cora. They don’t know that my power is made perfect in weakness. They don’t understand that the most beautiful thing they can offer me is their hearts, even when it seems there’s nothing there to give.”

“But you haven’t used it all, have you? Where’s my rose?”

“I haven’t used that yet. Maybe one day I’ll show you where I put it. But you don’t need to know how I use it, do you? Isn’t it enough to know that I will?”

“I guess so. And my muddy shoes?”

“Ah, those are in the palace treasury.”

Cora’s heart sank again. She knew not everything could be made right. “The palace trash heap? I guess that’s only fair.”

“No, dearest, not the trash heap. The treasury! Those I will not use. I want to keep them. They are very dear to me because I know how much it cost you to give them. You will have new dancing shoes again—some day—but those shoes will stay here. And every time I see them I will be grateful once again that you gave them to me.”

“Even though they’re dirty and ugly?”

Because they’re dirty and ugly. I am, you know, in the business of making things new.”

After that day, Cora’s life was different. Except when it wasn’t. Some years she had a lovely gift to offer the king. Other years she brought a box of brokenness. And either way, the king smiled. Because, as it turned out, he didn’t want Cora’s gift. He wanted her heart. And Cora was glad to give it to him.

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From One Refugee to Another

The other day, I was scrolling through Facebook and stumbled across this reflection from a young man I met while hoboing, reprinted here with permission. I think Stephen’s thoughts are important in terms of both our response to refugees and our understanding of our relationship to this world. He’s not talking about the politics of how to vet refugees or help them to integrate into society, he’s talking about compassion. I’m convicted.

The statement about how America is a nation of refugees and immigrants and therefore it is fundamental that we should open our doors to the needy is important, as is the argument that Christians should extend charity to the needy regardless of whether they are our countryman or a foreigner because all people are our neighbors, but I want to point out a problem with both of these arguments for the Christian. Actually, a fundamental problem with these arguments from the perspective of any Abrahamic religion. Bear with me.

Both these arguments, “we are Americans/we are Christians: our country should be welcoming,” are fundamentally false because, for any follower of Abraham’s God, this is not our country.

IMG_20151208_154307A refugee is someone who has lost their native land and has been forced to wander, looking for a home. To be human is to be a refugee because this is not our true country. We are not citizens of this earth. Once we were, but those days have long been lost to us. Ever since we willingly gave the throne of this world to the Adversary we have been refugees in flight, desperately seeking a new country.

Now for Christians there is hope. We believe Jesus came into the world, laid siege to the bastion of Satan, and broke through. He has called us to a new home, our true Home, beyond this world. There we are seeking to be, not here.

So please, my brothers and sisters in Christ, remember this: when you consider helping a person in need you are not considering welcoming a refugee into your home. You cannot. You have no home. You are extending a hand to a fellow refugee as you both flee the same evil, and perhaps sharing with him the Way to safety. You and he are both in flight, and both hope against all hope that when you reach the walls of the True Country its Ruler will be merciful and open the gate.

Stephen Brown is a Christian, a husband, a father, and a med student, hopefully in that order.

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