Candles in the Rain: On Community

A few months ago, in the midst of my whirlwind pilgrimage around France, I had the opportunity to visit Lourdes for the first time. We arrived in the early evening, settled into our hotel, and sat down for dinner. As soon as the dishes were cleared away, we were off again, headed to the main square for a candlelit procession. It had been raining off and on all day but my phone wouldn’t connect to the hotel’s wifi to tell me the forecast and the patch of sky I could see from the door was blue, so I decided to chance it, heading down to the outdoor ceremony with only a denim jacket to protect me from the elements.

Wrong choice.

I’m not usually one for extra ceremony in the best of circumstances, preferring silent time to pray as I like over litanies and processions, so I wasn’t exactly chomping at the bit for this rosary parade. But I’m always ready to try to have the full experience (and I wanted to set a good example to the young people) so I bought my 50-cent candle with its very flammable paper bobeche1 and off I went.

The procession started out as expected, with a chanted Latin credo I only knew one word in twenty of2 and hundreds of people walking slowly around the square behind a large statue of the Blessed Mother. Not long into the second decade (led in various different languages) it started to rain. I took a deep breath, offered it up, and kept going, shielding the flame on my taper candle more carefully. The rain got heavier, and my candle was out. So I lit it again off a friend. And once more off a stranger. I shared the light with various people around me, all the while wishing I’d brought my umbrella.

After 3 or 4 times relighting my candle, I gave up. If I’d been there alone, I would long since have gone back to the hotel, but I wasn’t going to leave my friends, so on I trudged, sopping paper dangling from my dripping candle, rain running down my face.

IMG_3902Eventually, someone with an extra umbrella offered it to me, as people around us did for any number of strangers. I invited a friend to share my umbrella, and we kept walking, finally arriving at the front of the square to finish the rosary in lashing rain. The pilgrims around me were cold and bedraggled, each holding an unlit candle.

Then out came the sun, as though she hadn’t abandoned us for nearly the whole ceremony. Tentatively we put away our umbrellas, but the sky promised to remain closed and the whole party seemed to breathe a sigh of relief as we prepared to dry out.

As soon as my umbrella was down, Jared, for whom I’d been holding the umbrella, was gone. I was ticked, thinking only (of course) of myself, of the sacrifices I’d made to hold the umbrella for him and he didn’t even have the courtesy to stand by me when he didn’t need me any more.3

And suddenly he was back, holding out a lit candle to relight mine.

I’d forgotten about candles. It had been impossible to keep mine lit, but evidently somebody, somewhere had managed it. And Jared had remembered why we were there when I’d forgotten anything but self-pity. He handed on the flame and I was off, lighting candles for friends and strangers.

Some sputtered out immediately. “Don’t worry about it,” one young woman said after the third failed attempt. “My wick’s too wet.”

“Then we’ll dry it out,” I said, holding my candle to hers for 2 or 3 minutes until the flame finally burned clean and strong.

“My wick broke off,” another friend said. “It can’t light. But it’s fine.”

“It’s not fine. I’ll melt the wax down until you have a wick again.” Another few minutes, holding my flame to her useless wax stick until it became a candle again.

I held my hand to block the wind for some and fished candles out of backpacks. On and on, the flame spreading, until once again we were a candlelit crowd. And the whole time, all I could think was what a parable it all was.

We’re given this light of faith at baptism, and maybe you cherish it. Maybe you protect it, turning to the community to rekindle it when the difficulties of the world extinguish it.

But it gets too hard. Again and again you light the candle. Again and again the flame is snuffed out until you can’t see anyone around you with a flame and it just seems futile. So you put away the candle and keep trudging through the dim light. Eventually you forget that there ever was a candle and you get used to the darkness.

Until someone walks up beside you and offers you a light. You remember again what this is about. Maybe you’re like me, forcing that flame on everyone around you. But maybe you’re too discouraged. “Don’t worry about it, it won’t work.”

Fortunately, you’ve got a friend who won’t settle for that. “You can’t carry this flame right now, but I can carry it for you. I can stand with you and love you and hold my faith up until God burns away the brokenness and rekindles the light of faith in you.”

This is why we need Christian community. Every one of us4 needs people to remind us of the faith that once drove us. We need to people to fight our battles for us, people to stand with us to protect our faith, and people who we can encourage and support.

IMG_3910

I tell you what, I felt like a hero that evening. I was saving the day left, right, and center with that flame. But I never would have had it if Jared hadn’t remembered what I’d forgotten. I’m blessed to spend a lot of my life lighting people’s candles, but it’s only possible because of the community that supports me, praying for me, holding an umbrella, offering me a light.

We need each other, you and I. We need friends and strangers to keep these flames lit. We need real community, not just handshakes before Mass starts. We need to know each other and love each other if we’re going to hold each other up.

I hope you’ve got people walking with you, helping you keep your candle lit. If you don’t, don’t settle for that. God wants you to live in community and community is possible. So pray for it and then go out and find it. Start a Bible study, join the Altar guild, meet your evangelical neighbors.

Community might not look like a whole bunch of people the same age, race, and marital status talking about things they already agree on—all the better! Get coffee with the little old ladies who pray the rosary every day before Mass. Offer to babysit for that mom your daughter’s age. Invite Father over for dinner. Serve the Church. Because, with rare exception, real Christian community doesn’t just happen. It’s sought and built and fought for. But it’s worth it.

  1. Apparently that’s the word for the cup thing that they put around candles at church to keep the wax from going everywhere. Who knew? []
  2. Don’t worry, I sang the few passages I knew triumphantly. Et ascendit in caelo!! []
  3. I get double cranky when I’m cold and wet. []
  4. Unless God has called you to be a hermit, which he almost certainly hasn’t. []
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Coaching Olympians (On Giving Advice You Have no Business Giving)

I’m amazed by Olympians. Their talent, focus, dedication, faith, and humanity—they’re incredible. But in many ways, I’m more amazed by their coaches. 65 years old and you’re telling the world’s greatest athletes what to do? That takes guts.

Take gymnastics. I mean, obviously Marta Karolyi is a legend. And I’m sure Simone Biles’s coach is brilliant. But I know for sure and for certain that they can’t do the things she does—never could. And yet she listens to them.

Watching Simone’s coaches got me thinking about my pathetic attempt to teach my nephew how to do a cartwheel. Now, I haven’t been able to do a cartwheel for years. I thought I could until about a decade ago, when I showed some of my students and was not-so-gently disabused of that notion. And now it’s worse. I tried to show John Paul what to do (with some caveats that his legs, unlike mine, should be straight) and ended up landing on my butt.

I can’t do a cartwheel. That doesn’t keep me from telling him how to.

John Paul is so satisfied with his cartwheel that he asked me to Instagram it. Now THAT’S confidence! #tc2crew

A video posted by Rosie Hill (@rosiehill425) on

It’s like this in a lot of areas in my life. People ask my advice on marriage, parenting, prayer, humility, evangelization, you name it. I’m no expert in any of those areas. When it comes to marriage and humility, I have no personal experience at all. And yet, I’ve always got advice.

I’m sure this is an obnoxious trait. But many of us have just the opposite problem: we refuse to advise our friends, even when asked, because we’re not experts. We watch people flounder, unwilling to throw them a line, because we don’t want to presume.

It seems the height of arrogance, giving someone advice on something you can’t yourself do. And yet, as every coach at the Olympics shows us, it isn’t, necessarily. Because wisdom comes from more than just personal experience. If you’re one who’s hesitant to put your oar in, read on for a little encouragement. If you refuse to listen to anyone who hasn’t been through exactly what you’re going through, you might also find this helpful.(If you’re like me and have oars out in every direction, might be best to close this window and move on.)

No, I can’t do a cartwheel, but I can come close.

I may never have done a cartwheel, but I can tell you a few things. I can tell you that you should lead with your dominant hand and foot. I can tell you to keep your legs straight. I can tell you not to land on your butt.

Kinda start like this but without the gun. Right?

Kinda start like this but without the gun. Right?

And even though my cartwheel isn’t good, I can tell you some of the things I’ve corrected to make it better. It’s the same with prayer. I’m terribly distracted at prayer. If you’re looking for advice from a mystic, keep looking. But my prayer is less pathetic than it used to be. So I can give you advice on posture and timing and what to focus on. I can tell you silence is more important than words, not because I usually manage to be silent but because I’ve had moments where I have.

When you give advice from your limited experience, acknowledge that it’s probably flawed. But also own the fact that you might have some pretty worthwhile things to say. Basic, perhaps, but helpful nonetheless.

No, I can’t do a cartwheel, but I’ve watched lots of other people.

I may not be able to do it myself, but I know that if you bend your arms, you’ll end up propped up on your head. I know that putting your legs together turns it into a roundoff. From watching other people do it right (and wrong), I have a sense of cartwheels.

married

Not the right time to give advice.

I’ve never been married, but I’ve been invited into lots and lots of homes and talked with lots and lots of married people. I’m sure you’re much the same way. You don’t have to have dated an abusive person to know when someone should get out. You don’t have to be married to an introvert to know that introverts need more space. Having loved people who’ve gone through these experiences can give you all kinds of insight.

In fact, sometimes people who have no personal experience are better equipped to give advice. I hear people say all the time that priests should be married because you can’t give marriage advice unless you’ve lived it. I’m sure that helps in some ways, but it also makes it much harder not to project your marriage’s issues onto every other.

Priests can stand outside their own experience and give you wisdom gleaned from walking with a hundred different couples. Just like you don’t necessarily need to be a recovering addict to counsel addicts, you don’t necessarily need to have lived something to understand someone else’s struggle.

No, I can’t do a cartwheel, but I’ve read some books.

Are there books about cartwheels? Probably.

I do like books.

I do like books.

But there are definitely books about prayer and relationships and starting your own business. It’s okay to share thoughts from what you’ve read, to quote a great Saint, or to lend out a copy of a favorite book.

Is it as helpful as sharing your life experience? Maybe not. But then again, maybe it is. Because your life experience is often based on one personality type interacting in one situation. But the words of an expert or the reflections of a Saint are usually filled with wisdom that ordinary people like us haven’t yet managed to amass.

No, I can’t do a cartwheel; let’s ask someone who can.

One perk of not being Simone Biles’s coach is that you actually have access to people who can do what you’re trying to coach. Maybe I can’t do a cartwheel, but I can call in just about any 12-year-old on the planet and ask their help.

You can pass your friends off to someone who knows better, sure. That’s really helpful. But you can also introduce them to Saints who had the same struggles. You can give them new intercessors and also new models of living. It’s all well and good for me to encourage an alcoholic to stay sober, but getting to know Matt Talbot is going to be a totally different experience for them. He suffered as they suffer and, by the grace of God, triumphed.

No, I can’t do a cartwheel. Try somebody else.

Sometimes, you just have to acknowledge your limitations. This is also part of being a good friend. Sometimes you just have to listen and love and weep and pray and keep your mouth shut. It’s awfully frustrating just to say, “Yeah. I know. That’s so hard. Oh, sweetie,” again and again, but sometimes that’s your job, either because you have no advice to give or because you can’t handle being the one who gives it.

Maybe send people to these two. They seem like they know a lot about life.

Maybe send people to these two. They seem like they know a lot about life.

There are Olympians who have the same coach for 15 years. Others move on to new coaches and that’s okay, too. It takes great humility for the coach of their childhood to let somebody else lead them to glory, but the great ones have it in them to move away and leave others in the limelight. Before you speak, pray: has God given you wisdom for this situation? Or is it time to step back? Sometimes the best you can do is acknowledge your inadequacy and pray that the right person comes along to speak truth.

 

Now I don’t mean to say, of course, that novices are experts or that couch potatoes should be Olympic coaches. I just think that we ought to consider that perhaps it’s worth listening to the stay-at-home mom telling you how to manage your employees, the scrawny guy with tips on weight lifting, and the animal expert who’s never owned a pet. Maybe they’ve got unexpected people skills, PhDs in kinesiology, or dear friends who are dog trainers. And if you’re one of the above, maybe it’s time to accept that you might have something worthwhile to say. Often it’s harder to speak than it is to remain silent, but it’s possible that God made you to shine from the sidelines. It’s certainly something to pray on.

And now, let the Olympics of listening graciously to unsolicited advice begin!

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3 Ways to Evangelize like an Olympian

I’m obsessed with the Olympics. 14 of my last 15 posts on my personal Facebook page have been about the Olympics. I’m currently camped out at my friend’s house in eastern Montana while she’s away on vacation, mostly so I can watch the Olympics undisturbed for 4 days.1 I’ve been looking into Olympic podcasts so I can listen to the tearjerking stories while I drive. With the refugee team and Simone Manuel blazing a trail and Simone Biles dominating like nobody before, it’s no wonder I’m hooked.

Michelle CarterBut there’s more to it than just national pride and feel-good moments. Again and again, as I sit on my butt eating popcorn for dinner, I watch these incredible athletes take the 30 seconds they’ll ever have on camera and use them to praise the Lord. Take Michelle Carter, gold medalist in shot put. Can you name one shot-putter ever? Can you even name Michelle Carter, the day after she won? This woman has this moment and only this moment, and she pointed to Jesus.

JohnsonDavid Boudia and Steele Johnson turn every interview into a proclamation of the Gospel. Simone Manuel gives a new dream to every little Black girl in America and gives glory to God. Every Brazilian athlete seems to be crossing himself. And night after night the name of Jesus Christ is spoken by anchors as we see his image above Rio de Janeiro. These, it seems, are God’s Olympics.

I’m not surprised to see how many athletes love the Lord–he’s rather marvelous, after all. What’s impressive to me is that they’ve clearly planned their remarks, to some degree, and their top priority is to speak the name of Jesus. This doesn’t happen by accident–it happens because lovers of God plan ahead and are intentional about giving God glory.

Simone ManuelListen to the way some of them are talking–it’s awkward. These aren’t people who just happen to be comfortable talking about God; they’ve made a deliberate choice, planned their witness, and carried it out, unrelated as it may be to the question they’re supposed to be answering. They’re not natural-born evangelists. They’re not all clever or eloquent or well-equipped to witness to the Lord, they’re just intentional.

So what? So you can be, too. One of the greatest obstacles I find Catholics face when trying to evangelize is that they have no idea how to start. They’re not necessarily afraid of talking about Jesus; perhaps they are and they’re just ready to fight through the fear. But however willing they are, they just have no idea where to start.

“Did you see the preview for the new Star Wars movie?”

“Um I REALLY LOVE JESUS!”

“…k.”

There are times when you really ought to sit somebody you love down to have a serious conversation about God and love and sin and mercy. But those aren’t daily occurrences. More often, it’s the little things, the quick asides or the personal stories or the mention of Mass, that gives someone who’s questioning an opportunity to ask.

But we’re not trained to recognize these opportunities, so they slide by and we spend hours and hours with people without once mentioning the Person we love most. So what can we do about it? Mimic the Olympians and be prepared. Here are a few ways to do that:

1. Change your language.

A simple first step is just to add your love of God into your constant conversation. When something good happens, respond, “Praise God!” instead of “Sweet!” When someone comments that something’s gone well for you, instead of saying, “I guess I’m lucky,” try, “God takes really good care of me.” When there’s yet another tragedy, go with, “God, help us,” or, “Lord, have mercy,” instead of profanity. When congratulated, “God is very good.” Little things like that build up into a culture of mentioning Jesus and make it clear that you’re a person of faith.

2. Prepare for specific questions.

When I meet new people, I’m ready. They’re going to ask, “Where are you from?” I’m going to answer, “Well, I’m originally from Washington, D.C. but now I’m a missionary so I live out of my car.” Ball’s in your court, friend. Want to talk about Jesus?

You probably don’t have such an obvious opening as that (unless you work for the Church or are studying theology or something). Most of the time people ask you ordinary questions and you give ordinary answers. But could you give deeper answers?

Option A:
“So, what do you do?”
“Oh, I’m a lawyer.”
Option B:
“So, what do you do?”
“Law’s my day job. But my heart’s in youth ministry/street evangelization/marriage prep retreats.”

Option A:
“How’d you guys end up in Tennessee?”
“I got a job at the college down the road and after I moved on from that job we ended up staying.”
Option B:
“How’d you guys end up in Tennessee?”
“I got a job at the college down the road. But when it was time to move on from that job, the Lord just made it really clear that he wanted us here.”

Option A:
“Got any travel plans this summer?”
“I’m not really sure yet. We’re thinking about….”
Option B:
“Got any travel plans this summer?”
“I’ve been praying about that. I’d really like to go visit this church in Wisconsin where they say the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared. Have you heard about it?” (Note: I didn’t say pilgrimage or shrine or apparition–don’t use insider lingo!)

This doesn’t mean you launch into a script and ignore the person you’re talking to. It just means that you consider in advance what everyday conversations are opportunities for you to share about what God has done in your life.

3. Don’t censor yourself.

Sometimes the easiest way to witness to the Gospel is just being real with the people around us. But we don’t want to make them uncomfortable, so we censor the Jesus part of our lives to avoid making a scene. But think about it: if somebody loves you, they want to hear about the important stuff in your life, even if they’re not interested in those things.

Think about it this way: this year, Leicester City Football Club beat impossible odds (5,000 to 1) to become Premier League Champions (basically win the Superbowl after going 0-8). If you’re a Leicester fan and you have a buddy who hates soccer/football, you’re not just going to pretend nothing happened. You’re not going to go on for 2 hours, but you’ll mention it, talk about it for a few minutes, and then respect his lack of interest by moving on. And if he’s any kind of a friend, he’ll be glad to hear you talk about something that excites you so much.

The love of God is more incredible than any athletic Cinderella story, more life-changing, more lasting. And yet we censor it out of our conversations. Maybe one step in evangelizing like an Olympian is just not to leave it out. When someone asks about your weekend, mention that you went to confession. Share one thing you heard in the homily. Talk about the conference you went to.

If you’re prepared for this, it can be more than just a throwaway line. When you encounter God in a powerful way, figure out a two sentence way to share it–and the love of God that inspired it.

“I went to confession on Saturday. It’s just amazing to know that God loves me enough to forgive me no matter what. Then I went to a concert and….”

“My trip abroad? It was amazing! There was this one little town where we saw the incorrupt body of a Saint. 150 years and it hasn’t decayed at all! And she was just some nobody but God even loves nobodies.”

“My favorite artist is Jimmy Needham. He’s got this great soulful feel to him and his lyrics just wreck me, they’re so full of the love of God.”

Now all of those could be things you say and then give your friend an opportunity to question or respond. Or you can gauge their comfort level and change the subject yourself. But don’t do them the disservice of ignoring the most important things in your life; that’s not friendship.

My approach to evangelization (believe it or not) tends to be less beat-down-the-door and more open-the-door-a-crack-and-step-back. All I’m trying to do is start a conversation. If you don’t want to have that conversation, cool, let’s talk about The Office. But I think most of us let countless opportunities slide past because we aren’t prepared.

If there’s one thing I learn from the Olympics, it’s that I’m a lazy slob who thinks she deserves a round of applause for standing up. But this year, I’m learning something else: all it takes to be a mouthpiece for the Spirit is a lot of openness and a little intentionality. So I’m going to challenge you all:

  1. Come up with one phrase to incorporate into your daily conversation that opens things up a little more to the Lord.
  2. Think of 2 everyday questions that you can answer by talking (even just a little) about Jesus.
  3. Each weekend, take a look back at the past week to see 3 areas where God was working. Figure out how (if the situation is right) you can briefly describe these experiences in a way that shares God’s love for people.
  4. Evangelize like an Olympian!!

Any other tips for simple ways to share the name of Jesus? Got other examples of questions and answers that can be opportunities for evangelization? Please share in the comments!

  1. Side note: quickest way to make me love you? Invite me to stay at your house while you’re gone, giving me my first vacation in 2 years. I’ll even water your plants! []
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Hiding in the Sacred Heart

If you’ve been keeping up on social media, you know that I spent the last two weeks on an insane pilgrimage around France, Spain, and Portugal. I went with an amazing group of young people who have no patience for shopping and leisurely sight-seeing. They wanted to visit Saints and a lot of them. So we did. (You can stalk our pilgrimage here if you want.)

Pilgrimage

Vincent de Paul, Louise de Marillac, Catherine Labouré, Thérèse, Louis and Zélie Martin, Louis de Montfort, Marie-Louise Trichet, Josefa Menendez, Bernadette, Margaret Mary Alacoque, Claude de la Colombière, John Vianney, Francis de Sales, Jane Frances de Chantal, John Francis Regis, Thomas Aquinas, Saturninus, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Elizabeth of Portugal, Lourdes, Fatima, Mont-St-Michel, and the Normandy Beaches. In 10 days.

I was really excited about this pilgrimage. I’d seen Thérèse before, but that was about it. And a lot of these are in really inaccessible places, so doing it on a tour bus is much easier than trying to go it alone. But it was day 5 that I really couldn’t wait for. Bernadette—the incorruptiest of the incorruptibles—and John Vianney, the only diocesan priest ever canonized. What a day!

Bernadette

Move along, folks. Nothing to see here.

And they really were amazing. Bernadette was incredible to see—as though she were just sleeping. Honestly, though, it was the sign near her body that struck me the most. Here lies a miracle of shocking proportions, a body dead 150 years that hasn’t decayed in the least, and the caretakers of the shrine seem almost blasé about it. “Yeah, yeah, she’s cool and all. But God himself is in the next chapel over. And that’s really the point of all this.”

John Vianney’s shrine was marvelous as well, not least because our incredible priest got to say Mass on the altar where John Vianney celebrated Mass, using his very chalice. What a grace!

But it was the afterthought of the day that got me: Margaret Mary and Claude de la Colombière.

You’d think that I’d already have been a Margaret Mary fan. After all, my name is Margaret.1 But I’d always thought of her as some nun Jesus appeared to. Like that’s not a big enough deal to warrant some attention??

"Come to me, all of you."

“Come to me, all of you.”

And you’d think that I’d already have been a Sacred Heart fan. The statue of the Sacred Heart is my favorite spot on Notre Dame’s campus. I don’t know how many hours I’ve spent sitting outside staring at it. Matthew 11:28-30 (a passage often connected with te Sacred Heart) was my favorite for years. And then there’s the fact that the whole point of the devotion to the Sacred Heart is the burning, passionate, desperate love of God, which is kind of my thing.

But most images of the Sacred Heart don’t really do it for me. There’s something wrong about Jesus’ face. So that’s never been a big devotion of mine.

Until Paray-le-Monial.

2016-05-20 12.15.53 copyAnd yeah, Margaret Mary’s real body was there, which was cool. And the art was much better than usual. Charles de Foucauld was unexpectedly represented in the apse of the chapel, which was exciting. But I don’t think it was any of that. I think that the Sacred Heart just wanted me to love him.

Here is the Heart of Christ, ripped from his chest for me. It’s marked by the cross, burning with love, and surrounded by the thorns of suffering. It’s rent open, broken for love of me. How can I not love him?

Underneath the relics was the charge Jesus gave to St Margaret Mary: I want you to to serve as an instrument to draw hearts to my love.

If there’s any better description of the mission God’s given me, I don’t know what it is.

2016-05-20 12.10.56

So I spent the next few days just soaking in the love of God. I sat and said to him, over and over, “I love you I love you I love you.” I sang him silly love songs–Michael Buble’s “Everything” for one–and basked in some marvelous consolations.

But mostly I did something odd: I crawled into the pierced heart of Jesus.

I often want to be held by the Lord, but I’m too visual. I can imagine dancing with Jesus, but being held is more intimate, and then I’m wondering if I can sit on Jesus’ lap or if that’s too forward. Same thing with the image of being held by the Father: it’s nice for a moment and then suddenly I’m overthinking it.

This one, somehow, I couldn’t overthink because it was just too weird. All I could do was crawl inside the heart of Jesus and know that I was absolutely surrounded, that everything that impacted me came through him first, that I was protected and cherished and held.

2016-05-20 12.49.27

Check out that throne of flames! This is no sallow-faced, pink-cheeked, shrinking-violet Jesus.

I put other people in there, too. I’ve spent years holding people up at the foot of the Cross or handing them to Mary so she can offer them to the Lord. This time around, I was done with middle men. So when I got ugly news from beautiful friends, I walked right up to the pierced heart of Christ and put my friends inside. When I couldn’t hold them or help them or even handle their pain, I put them in his heart and let him hold them.

Off and on, this is where I’ve been since. I’ve been praying the Novena to the Sacred Heart and the Litany to the Sacred Heart, learning what it means to burn with the love of God and be marked by the Cross. But above all, I’ve been hiding in his heart. I hope I stay there.

Sacre-Coeur

God has loved us with an everlasting love; therefore, when he was lifted up from the earth, in his mercy he drew us to his heart.

PS If you’ve got any favorite books on the Sacred Heart, hook me up!

  1. Yes, really. No, it’s really not Megan. At all. In any way. Please stop calling me that. []
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Heavy Blessings

Elizabeth spent her life barren in a society inclined to value women solely based on their childbearing abilities. Those of you who struggle with infertility can identify with the longing and the despair and the irrational guilt that must have plagued Elizabeth. More than the internal suffering, Elizabeth would also have been subjected to open scorn and derision from her neighbors and friends, seen as one cursed.1 So when, at long last, the angel appeared to Zechariah, when her belly began to swell, when she felt the quickening of life within her, Elizabeth must have been transfigured by joy. What an incredible gift: not only motherhood, but such motherhood. To bear the prophet of the most high—it was more than she could ever have dreamed.

Visitation 2But Elizabeth was old. Old enough that this conception was more than just providential but miraculous. So when God worked this miracle and John the Baptist was conceived, there was great rejoicing and also great pain.

Elizabeth’s joints were already stiff and sore; they must not have taken 40 extra pounds well.

Elizabeth’s ligaments didn’t stretch as well as they once had; her body must have screamed in pain.

I wonder how sick she got.

I wonder how early in her pregnancy she was no longer able to get out of bed at all.

I wonder just how awful it was, this incredible blessing.

Because Elizabeth’s pregnancy was a blessing, but it was a heavy blessing. She rejoiced, she gave thanks, she loved her baby. But it was really, really, really hard.

I wonder what your heavy blessing is right now. The situation you’re in that you’re able to thank God for but that still weighs on you as a cross. The unexpected pregnancy or the much-needed promotion that requires far more hours. The roommate you adore who sucks you dry emotionally. The special needs child. The big old house in need of a thousand repairs. The summer break with your kids that might drive you crazy. The amazing community that leaves you little time for sleep. The mentally ill spouse. Some things in your life might be purely awful, but many are good things that are really, really hard.

The temptation is to get caught up in the difficulty of it, to focus on the aches and exhaustion and fear of what happens when an old body gives birth. But the more we focus on all that’s ugly the more we forget the shattering beauty of what’s weighing us down. We start to define our blessings by the ways they inconvenience us instead of seeing them as gifts. We need the clarity of Elizabeth, stepping back from all the heaviness to rejoice in the goodness.

VisitationWe also need to be real and to acknowledge the struggle that it takes to accept God’s gifts. It seems so ungrateful to look at something beautiful God’s given us and complain about the attendant pain or worry or sleeplessness. But for all Elizabeth may have rejoiced in her suffering, I bet you anything she acknowledged it. I bet she asked for help. I bet she wept tears of relief when Mary showed up to help. There’s nothing unvirtuous in being honest about your struggles. And I think that when we’re honest, we open the pressure valve a little and the resentment dissipates.

When you spend your life trying to be okay with a difficult situation, eventually it becomes too much. “It’s good, it’s a blessing, everything’s fine, I should be grateful” explodes into anger and self-pity. But looking at your marriage or job or friend or child or health and calling it a heavy blessing gives glory to God while acknowledging your weakness and that is exactly what Christians are called to do.

My friend, you’re not a superhero. Neither was Elizabeth. Just like her, you’re an ordinary person with some awfully heavy blessings. It’s okay to be really grateful and really tired. And if you need a patron saint of those heavy blessings, Mary’s got a cousin who might be willing to help you out.

  1. Lk 1:24 []
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Fourth Hoboversary: What’s Changed?

Saturday marked four years–and nearly one million blog views–since I started hoboing. It does sometimes seem that this episodic novel I’m living is monotonous in its constant change, but a look back at where I was four years ago makes me think things are rather more different than I’d realized.

Something else I wasn't expecting to be part of my hobo life.

I wasn’t this expecting to be part of my hobo life.

Four years ago, I quit my job, packed everything into my car, and started driving. I figured I’d be couchsurfing until July, then God would give me a place to live. Four years later, there’s no end in sight. I figured I might hit 20 or so states before I settled down. 49 states and 18 countries later, not so much. I called it a sabbatical, thinking I’d stay someplace quiet and have lots of free time to write a book. Quiet? Free time? Ha.

It became clear within the first 8 months or so that this was going to be a longer and wider-reaching ministry than I’d expected. You lovely people have read and shared my blog, invited me to speak, told your friends, connected me to people abroad, and all around kept me busy. And as this whole crazy thing has unfolded, I’ve found myself praying more and sleeping less, reading more and blogging less, falling asleep in chapels more and beating myself up about it less.

Also wasn't planning on employing a puppy evangelist.

Also wasn’t planning on employing a puppy evangelist.

Then I liked very little better than talking about myself. Now it’s all I can do not to sigh dramatically when someone asks me a question I’ve answered a thousand times.1 Then I was such an extrovert I couldn’t stay awake driving unless I was talking to someone on the phone. Now I’m thrilled when my host offers to leave me alone for the evening–and I detest talking on the phone.2 Then I was convinced I was going to be a consecrated virgin. Now I’m thinking God might be intending marriage for me.

I can feel the strain this life has put on my body; I might still be able to drive 15 hours in a day, but my back is no longer pleased about it.3 Fortunately my soul’s holding up better than my shoulders. I lamented last year that this life isn’t making me a saint, and while I’m certainly no saint, I can see areas where the Lord is rubbing off my rough spots using internet trolls, thoughtless hosts, and talks that go over like a lead balloon.

Didn't anticipate how often pieces of my car would fall off.

Didn’t anticipate how often pieces of my car would fall off.

There’s quite a lot that’s hard—though mostly not the things you’d expect—and quite a lot that’s lovely. There are days when I think I can’t possibly do this any longer and days when I can’t imagine anything else. Most days are both.

But the biggest shift has been in how I preach. For the first year or so that I was a hobo, person after person asked me what my topic was. I’d prayed about narrowing my focus and I really felt that I couldn’t, that I wanted to speak on all things Catholic.

“Everything,” I’d say, “but at heart I’m an apologist.” I was fascinated by the differences between Protestantism and Catholicism–still am–and was pretty convinced that training Catholics in how not to be Protestant would teach them to be Saints.

I'm not at all surprised by how many books I have.

I’m not at all surprised by how many books I still have.

What I didn’t realize was how very many Catholics weren’t ready to be Saints. Or Catholics. Or even Christians. I didn’t know how many people go through the motions without knowing Jesus. I had no idea that people would bother showing up to Mass–even to daily Mass–when they didn’t love him.

I was trying to feed meat to children who needed milk. And while I’m sure those were good enough talks, I was skipping the foundation of loving God and trying to build the turrets and crenellations. I won’t worry about who I missed, I’ll just trust that God was working even then.

But then I read Forming Intentional Disciples (which is amazing and you simply must read it) and realized that what people need more than anything is to hear the simple Gospel proclaimed in compelling ways. And I shifted my focus.

Had no idea I'd be spending two months in Europe each year.

Had no idea I’d be spending two months in Europe each year.

Oh, I still speak on confession or purgatory or Church history, but I’ve really only got one talk: “God loves you like crazy.” I just frame it in different topics. Basically every talk I give now is the kerygma (a proclamation of the Gospel). When I talk with individuals, I try to work it in. When I get excited about defending some point of doctrine, I remind myself the whole point is to convince people that God loves them and encourage them to live like that’s true.

So these days, you’re more likely to hear me say this than anything else: you are loved beyond imagining by a God who died to know you. It’s incredibly basic and the most important thing you’ll ever hear. Which is why I try to slide it in to every talk I give, even to people who already believe it. Because it’s the greatest good news the world has ever seen and it changes everything.

So it’s the same mission that it was, just longer. And busier. And more exhausting. And more focused on the one thing that matters: the love of God. All in all, a good four years. Please pray for me!

  1. Amazing that it took me three years of talking about myself nearly nonstop to get tired of the subject. []
  2. I still love people, it’s just such a treat to be alone! []
  3. My back is no longer pleased about most anything and I’ve decided getting a massage every few months is not overly indulgent. []
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Experiencing the Spirit

I’ve always loved the Holy Spirit rather more than most, I think. For years, I told people he was my favorite person of the Trinity, if it’s not blasphemy to pick favorites among the coequal, coeternal persons in the triune Godhead. When your gifts are as churchy as mine, it’s easy to have powerful experiences of the Holy Spirit. And I certainly have, whether it’s through speaking or giving counsel or just following God’s prompting to visit a random town in Ohio or fly out of Norfolk for no good reason.

I describe him as a power running through my veins, like adrenaline or alcohol or caffeine. He heightens my experience of the world and makes me more alive.

2016-04-06 19.03.13But last week in a powerful homily Father asked us to imagine the Holy Spirit not just within but behind us, catching us up and pushing us along, and the Lord gave me the most beautiful image. I’m sure I can’t describe it adequately, but I think I have to try.

The Spirit is a wind that you can see and feel, a wind that has a personality you can understand, though he speaks only mutely. He communicates by the things he catches up and shows you, the places he draws you, and the way he moves you. When he first begins to blow around you he may be gentle and enticing, but at a certain point he sweeps you off your feet, spinning you around before gently setting you back down. When he takes control, you can choose how to respond. You can fight, clinging to lamp posts and trying to keep charge of your life. And more often than not, he’ll back off and let you continue trudging along through your dreary life, oblivious to the joy and wonder he’s trying to open to you.

But you’ll find that when you fight him you often end up hurting yourself. The less you trust, the more you clench your fists around your own plans and ideas, the more you find your shoulder wrenched, your nails broken, your neck aching from whiplash. When you give in, though, surrendering to the movement you don’t understand, there’s an unexpected comfort and even a whimsy. You might be spun into the air laughing for joy or gently cradled for a moment of rest. The wind is at times warm and comforting, at times a bracing chill to wake you. He’s got emotions, too, that you can sense from how he’s moving but that you also inhale, finding yourself filled with power or clarity or peace amid turmoil. It’s different depending on what he’s doing–he’s nothing if not unpredictable.

Watch this brilliant video for some sense of what I mean, only with more of a personality and taking you into the air as well as around on your feet:1

I’ve been sitting with this image of the Spirit all week, allowing myself to be caught up in his dance and filled with his power. Sometimes I see myself reaching out to grab something that isn’t for me and left tumbling, falling, falling before suddenly he catches me again and puts me back where I belong.

flameIt’s somehow both thrilling and peaceful, a gentle ride on Aslan’s breath or an hour in a tornado. It’s more a relationship with a person than just the motivation and inspiration I’ve felt before. I’m not sure if I’ve described it well enough, but maybe you can pray with this image during the octave of Pentecost, asking the Spirit to show you who he is and how he works. Find someplace still (before the Blessed Sacrament is always best) and picture yourself being caught up and carried about by the Holy Spirit. Maybe it’s terrifying or out of control or just as it should be. Maybe you’re fighting it and the Spirit won’t leave you behind or maybe he leaves you be to try again later. Maybe there’s something specific you grasp that causes you to be pulled out of God’s will. Maybe it’s all too speculative. But this is where my spirit’s been all week and it’s been absolutely lovely to be getting to know the Spirit as a real person, not just a force. Give it a shot and let us know what you think!

  1. There’s some other animated piece, I think, that accomplishes what I’m imagining, but I can’t quite think what. It’s a little bit Toothless the dragon and maybe something from Peter Pan? And a lot of the Genie from Aladdin. And other bits that make it much more personal than this, but this is a start. []
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When Being an Easter People Is a Bad Thing

Easter candle liliesHappy Easter, friends! We are an Easter people over here–all 50 days of it. So along with my feasting (and there has been plenty of feasting) all during the Easter season I’ve been trying to use the stories from Acts as much as I can. After all, Acts is our Easter book, right? We read from it every day of Easter. So let’s be all about the Apostles and the amazing work they did, especially during this Easter season!

Until last week when I realized: almost none of the Acts of the Apostles takes place during Easter.1 Because during Easter, the Apostles weren’t out doing anything. For forty days they were being taught by Jesus, learning to forgive sins and feeling their hearts burn within them as he opened the Scriptures to them. And then he ascended. And maybe they felt empowered by the great commission or maybe they felt afraid and alone or maybe they wondered if this wasn’t another 3-day psych-out. But whatever they were feeling, here’s what they did:

They kept to themselves.

“They were continually in the temple praising God,”2 which is great. They “devoted themselves with one accord to prayer, together with some women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.”3 They were in fellowship and in prayer amongst themselves, but they weren’t going out. They weren’t preaching Christ crucified or offering his mercy to the nations.

They had an excuse: they hadn’t yet received the Holy Spirit.

What’s our excuse?

We received the Holy Spirit at baptism and his presence was strengthened in confirmation. We claim his name over our lives every time we cross ourselves. We’ve been called and filled and sent out.

But most of us are still locked in the upper room.

We’ve met the risen Christ and many of us have been transformed. Like Peter our sins have been forgiven, like Mary Magdalene our broken hearts healed, like Thomas our doubts satisfied. We’ve been made new. And now we’re sitting around doing nothing about it.

Oh, we might be in the temple day in and day out. We might be meeting in fellowship and even praying together. But we’re not reaching out to the world.

I wonder what happens when the Spirit comes down as tongues of fire and we refuse even to open the windows, let alone go out into the streets. My hunch is that it doesn’t look pretty and doesn’t end well.

That’s where we’ve been as a Church for far too long. In the West, at least, we’ve been focusing inward, trying (halfheartedly, in most cases) to take care of our own. But when a missionary Church locks itself in an upper room, nobody gets fed.

This year on the Vigil of Pentecost, people all over the world are praying in a special way for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit. They’re praying that the power of God will be released in their lives, that they’ll live in the freedom of the Spirit. I think one of the most powerful ways that we’ll experience this is by giving God permission to touch hearts through us. If we decide that we’re going to unlock the door and walk out into the streets, proclaiming Christ and living the book of Acts, we’ll be transformed just as much as those we meet. We’ll move past Easter (still filled with Alleluias) and live in Pentecost as though it were Ordinary.

This Pentecost, the Spirit is coming down. Let’s open our lives to him and go out to set the world ablaze.

Pentecost

  1. That we know of anyway. Certainly not during the first Easter season. []
  2. Luke 24:53 []
  3. Acts 1:14, though they weren’t really his brothers []
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The Day After the Annunciation

Yesterday the world stopped spinning.
The whole earth trembled.
Heaven came down to earth
as the Word was made flesh
in my womb.
Mine.
Though I am no queen,
no prophetess,
no Judith or Esther or Deborah.
Here in this nowhere town
dwells the creator of all the world.

I cannot say if there were trumpets,
though I heard them,
nor if choirs of angels sang God’s glory.
I only know my heart thrilled,
my spirit soared,
my soul sang
as the angel of the Lord called me God’s own
and asked me to bear his Son.

But that was yesterday.

Today the angel is gone,
and so too the astonishing peace,
the silence in my heart so loud it fairly shook.
Today I am not wandering
like one in a dream,
a secret smile touching my lips
as my hand returns again and again to rest
over the spot where Life himself has chosen to live.

Joy still, yes, and wonder.
Who am I that my Lord should come to me?
Still my heart is full and still my head spins with the glory of it all.
But today I have to think:
what next?

St. Anne and the Young Mary, by Maria Pureza Escano.

St. Anne and the Young Mary, by Maria Pureza Escano.

Perhaps I imagined it,
fell asleep in the warm afternoon sun
and turned the words of the prophet
into my fate.
Perhaps it was a dream,
a temptation,
a trick of the light.
And yet there has never been anything so real
as that shocking moment of peace,
that clarity of confusion.
Nobody could hear what I heard
and see what I saw
and not believe.

But they did not see.
Nor did they hear.
And today I must wake from this dream I am living
and act.

What will he say, when I tell him this thing that has never been told before?
Will he rage against what cannot be believed,
call me out for a liar and call my neighbors out with stones?
He would have that right.
But no.
My Joseph so gentle could never.
He will not shout, will not condemn.
But still he may not believe.

And the sorrow in his eyes would break my heart
if it did not beat for another Heart than his.
He may turn from me,
divorce me,
and leave me alone with this Child who will save him, too.
I am not afraid,
exactly.
My life is not my own.
And He who has chosen me will take me where I need to be.
Though that may be death or disgrace,
though a sword may pierce my heart,
I know he will be with me.

But
but
but I cannot help but hope
that the love of this good man will be stronger than his doubt,
that my parents will believe,
that I and my son will be safe.
As I walk from the radiance of the angel’s presence
into the darkness of the unknown,
God-with-me guides my steps,
though we may walk through the valley of the shadow of death.
And while my flesh may fear
my heart will choose to trust.

Even when I cannot see him
I will be faithful:
the handmaid of the Lord.

After the Annunciation

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