The Wrong Questions

We are a faithless people, aren’t we? We know to say “God is good” and follow it with “all the time” but the moment something goes wrong, we’re questioning him: “Why would God let this happen to me?” “What good could possibly come of this?” “How am I ever going to get through?” “When will God step in and save me?”

silhouette churchThey’re totally natural, those questions. And in a sense, they’re good because they do, at some level, presuppose that God has a purpose. But they’re the wrong questions. When we’re lost or suffering or alone, the question is not “Why?” or “How?” or “When?” The question is “Who?”

Who is this God we worship? If he’s a puppetmaster or a strategist, messing with our lives with no regard for our hearts, it makes sense to doubt him. But if he’s the God who is love, the God who calls Israel his darling,1 the God who was stripped naked, beaten to a pulp, and nailed to a cross to suffocate to death on the off chance that you’d love him back, we have to change our attitude. Because if that’s who God is, then your first thought in times of trouble ought to be, “The God who loves me is at work in this.”

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to see where God is in your pain or wondering when you’ll be released. The problem is when you’re seeking those answers because you don’t really trust that God is who he said he is: the Lord and Lover of souls.2

stream in French countrysideWhen people are suffering, I don’t often have answers. I can begin to see the ripples, the way their pain is working to make them holier and happier—ultimately. But in the moment of anguish, it doesn’t feel like enough. And so I find myself, again and again, saying, “I don’t know. I don’t know what God’s doing, but I know who he is. I know that he’s for you. I know that he loves you more than you could possibly imagine. I know that there’s nothing he wouldn’t do for you. And so if he’s not stepping in to save you, I have to trust not in what I can see and understand but in who I know him to be. He is yours and you are his. There is nothing to fear.”

It’s the difference between Job and Jonah, the difference between a man whose response to difficulty is trust in God and a man whose response to prosperity is despair. Job loses everything and cries out, “Though he slay me, still will I trust in him.”3 And when he finally calls out to God, God doesn’t tell him what he’s doing. He doesn’t explain why he’s allowed Job to suffer. He simply says, “Remember who I am. Remember that I am wise and powerful, that I am sovereign creator.” Having known Christ, we can add, “Remember that I am for you. Remember that I am love.” And Job is content in knowing who God is, despite the miserable failure of his life.

Jonah, on the other hand, is called by God to be a prophet, an honor and a dignity sought by many in Israel. But Jonah doesn’t know why God would send him to the hated Ninevites and so he runs from God. In the belly of the fish, he relents, only to lament God’s will once again when his preaching is successful. He longs for death, a drama queen to the end. God reminds him that he loves the Ninevites, that he loves even their cattle, but Job is unsatisfied. He so caught up in his idea of how things ought to work, so caught up in the why and the how, that he’s forgotten the who.

Belgium sunriseYou will never understand God, whose ways are as far about your ways as the heavens above the earth.4 “What you understand is not God.”5 And holding him accountable to your plan dictated by your finite understanding of things is just ignorant. God would not be God, after all, if he were God the way you would be God if you were God.6 Read that again. He is God and you are not. And while there’s nothing wrong with asking, “Where is God in this?” or “What good thing is God doing?”, any questions you ask have to be rooted in the answer to the one question that matters: who is God?

Nietzsche claimed, “He who knows the why of his life can bear with almost any how.7 It certainly does help to have a sense of the why of your life but the more important question is the who. As you struggle through whatever situation is trying your soul right now, take this question to prayer. Who is God? What has he done in the past to reveal his power, his mercy, his love? What has he done in salvation history and what has he done in your life? Get to know the God of consolations instead of looking merely for the consolations of God. There is peace.

2014-10-22 17.28.35

  1. Is 44:2 []
  2. Wis 11:26 []
  3. Job 13:15 []
  4. Is 55:9 []
  5. St. Augustine []
  6. Thanks to Msgr. Edward Dillon for that marvelous line that’s brought me through many a confusing situation. []
  7. With thanks to Fr. Stephen Billington for the quotation and the response. []
Posted in Beauty | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

I Talk a Big Game

Remember when I told you how I’m so good at trusting God now? Ha. Just like 2 years ago, I trust him plenty in the big things. The day-to-day gets a little dicier. Let me tell you what happened the very day I wrote that post about trusting God in Turkey.

Boiled pigs' blood that takes like floury charcoal. Glad I tried it, but next time I think I'll pass.

Boiled pigs’ blood that takes like floury charcoal. Glad I tried it, but next time I think I’ll pass.

The day started off a little rough with black pudding, which is (unsurprisingly) not my new favorite food. After Mass, I headed to the train station to get on my way to lovely Oxford. I waited in a long line at the ticket counter only to discover that I could have saved 30 pounds on my train ticket if I’d bought it the night before, as I was considering doing. 30 pounds! I stewed over the money for a while (as I am wont to do) but really had a rough time getting over it. I’ve got the money to spare, I just hated that being stupid cost me 50 bucks. Pride.

Nursing wounded pride, I caught my train to Oxford, where I was planning to head straight to Littlemore to see the home of Blessed John Henry Newman, a great favorite of mine. But, of course, I have no data plan over here. So I asked how to catch the 16 bus and tried to follow the directions I was given through the winding streets of Oxford. With no map and no sense of where I was going, it took me a frustrating hour to find the stop. By the time I got there, I had only an hour before Newman’s home closed for the day and a 20 minute bus ride still to take.

Rushing unaware past beautiful and historic things the whole time. Like this church, where Newman preached his last sermon as an Anglican before draping his master's hood across the altar as a sign that he was renouncing his preaching authority in the Church of England. Quite a flair for the dramatic, that one.

Rushing unaware past beautiful and historic things the whole time. Like this church, where Newman preached his last sermon as an Anglican before draping his master’s hood across the altar as a sign that he was renouncing his preaching authority in the Church of England. Quite a flair for the dramatic, that one.

So I got in what I thought was a “queue.” My bus pulled up and I waited patiently as the line inched forward, pleased with myself for doing the proper British thing. Until my bus pulled away. At which point I discovered that people getting on that bus got out of the line to board the bus while the others moved forward to wait for a different bus. I had missed my bus even though I was standing there! I was furious and near tears. The next bus wasn’t due for half an hour. By the time I got to Littlemore, I’d only have ten minutes!

But I’ve loved Newman for years, so I stayed in line, trying very hard not to hate my stupid self. When my bus finally came, 30 agonizing minutes later, the old lady in front of me told the driver she was getting off at Catholic Church, Littlemore. Generally, I try to take care of myself, but after the afternoon I’d had, I wasn’t above asking for help. I had to endure some awkward racist comments1 but she pointed the way and I was off for a few minutes with Newman!

Except the door was locked.

Me with a bust of John Henry Newman. At his house. In the room where he was received into the Church. Across from the desk where he wrote his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine.

Me with a bust of John Henry Newman. At his house. In the room where he was received into the Church. Across from the desk where he wrote his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine.

But Ivy hadn’t left me yet. She and her friend Ruby were waiting at the corner to see if I’d gotten where I needed to go. And when it was clear I hadn’t, Ruby took me around to every door—even behind gates I would never have opened—until someone answered. Turns out the place had been closed all day. But since Ruby knew the community running it, I got a private tour of Newman’s library (the room where he was received into the Church) and bedroom and chapel. How marvelous!

If I hadn’t been lost, if I hadn’t missed my bus, if I hadn’t been so frustrated that I caved and asked for help, I never would have gotten in. Every single stupid, frustrating thing of my day was leading toward this. Everything I was so upset about, angry and lamenting my terrible life, was making such a beautiful afternoon possible.

God isn’t just in the big things. He’s in the small things, too. Maybe God isn’t protecting you from riot police. Maybe he’s just getting you a little lost or making you miss your bus. Or maybe he’s putting Ruby on the bus you’ll be on. Somehow he’s working, in big things and small. Especially in small.

It’s easy to tell the stories of how all the bad things were leading to a good thing that ties up all the loose ends and makes for a pleasant resolution. I tell those because I know the happy endings. But there are other upsetting stories whose happy endings I don’t know. The traffic jam that kept you out of a car accident. The broken bulb that sent you to the store where you walked by an old man and reminded him to call his daughter. The bad grade that made you stop at the library where you checked out a book that was then at the top of the pile where someone who needed it could see it.

One day, we’ll know all the happy endings. One day, we’ll know the only happy ending that matters. Until then, I’ll keep trying to trust the Author that the plot twists are working to resolve something, in my storyline or another.

Oh, and by the end of the day, strangers had given me 30 pounds. They probably would have anyway, but I wouldn’t have seen the hand of God in it so well if it hadn’t been exactly the amount whose loss I was lamenting. Glory be to the God of small things.

With the lamp post that inspired the Chronicles of Narnia. I almost died.

With the lamp post that inspired the Chronicles of Narnia. I almost died.

  1. When a Muslim lady got on the bus: “There’s too many foreigners here now.” “Well, I’m a foreigner.” “Oh, no you’re not dear. I mean those Muslims.” “I love her scarf. Isn’t that pretty?” I mean, how do you correct the racist remarks of an old British lady who’s doing you a favor? I just changed the subject. []
Posted in Beauty | Tagged , , , | 10 Comments

God’s Triumph over Turkey

I’m a planner. I’ve always been one to plan out my day, to plan out a trip, to plan out my life.1 And if you’ve been following this ridiculous life of mine for any length of time, you’ve probably figured out that God doesn’t like this controlling tendency of mine. He’s spent years teaching me to trust him, to let him be God. He’s changed my five year plan more times than I can remember, pulled the rug out from under me when it comes to daily plans, and established me in a life where I regularly wake up in the morning unsure what state I’ll be in when I go to bed. And I’ve been learning to roll with it. After all, he keeps providing for me, so at a certain point it seems a little silly not to trust him.

Last Tuesday, he gave me a pretty intense opportunity to trust. On my way to Manchester to begin my evangelizing tour of Europe, I was stopping through Istanbul. Turkish Airlines has this great deal where they’ll give you a long layover in Istanbul and a free hotel room while you’re there. I was thrilled by the opportunity to see one of the world’s great cities, albeit briefly, so I jumped at the chance. I booked the ticket and waited for information on the hotel. When I got none, I called the airline. “Oh, when you get to Istanbul they’ll give you a room.” “Can you check my itinerary and see if I qualify?” “Oh, yes, you’ll be fine.”

Well, I didn’t love the idea of going to a country where I know nobody and can’t speak a word of the language without even an idea of where I would sleep, but I figured it would all work out. After all, they’d told me I’d have a room, right?

You can see where this is going.

A blurry picture of me setting out in DC. I'm really proud of fitting 6 weeks worth of winter clothes into a carry-on suitcase.

A blurry picture of me setting out in DC. I’m really proud of fitting 6 weeks worth of winter clothes into a carry-on suitcase.

After a long (and very pleasant) flight in from DC, I rushed through the Istanbul airport, making it through customs and immigration, finding someone to direct me further, and finally stumbling across the Hotel Desk to be told that I couldn’t have a room. Turns out my flight out of Istanbul left too late for me to take advantage of the offer.

I gave the desk clerk a very disappointed look (which I’m sure he was entirely unaffected by) and walked off to freak out. Yes, I have enough money for a hotel room but I have no internet, so I’m sure to be cheated. And if I spend all that time finding a hotel, I won’t make it to Mass.

Then I stopped.

Last Tuesday was the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary. The feast of the miraculous triumph of Christendom over the Turk. Here I was, in trouble in Turkey on Our Lady of the Rosary. What on earth did I have to worry about?

I’ll go to Mass, I thought. That’s really what matters. And God will take care of me from there. Don’t be too impressed–I had several occasions in Israel where I had nowhere to stay so I went to the church to see about Mass times and found a hostel or a friend from the US or a guest house. It stood to reason that the same thing would happen here.

Peaceful enough to stop and take some selfies with Turkish flags in the background.

Peaceful enough to stop and take some selfies with Turkish flags in the background.

I was astonishingly peaceful. Really, I kept remarking on how powerful the peace of the Spirit is and how far God has brought me. I’m not spontaneous and easy-going by nature, but I felt such a reassurance that God who is sovereign over death, who was sovereign over Lepanto, who is sovereign over creation and salvation and everything in between was also sovereign over my travel plans.

What’s the worst that can happen? I asked myself. This confusion isn’t going to get me sent to hell, which is the only thing that should ever really frighten me. And while I’d rather not be assaulted or have to spend the night on a park bench, I probably wont and I trust that God will be sovereign in whatever happens. Forget the hotel question, I’m going to Mass.

I got on the bus into the city center and got off, following the directions a friend from Turkey had emailed me. I’d spent the evening before trying to download maps I could use offline but to no avail. Standing at the bus stop, confused by the directions I had, I pulled out my phone out of habit and discovered that I had access to nothing—no data, no wireless, no cell signal, not even the correct time—except a map of the area with GPS telling me exactly where I was and a star I’d put on the map telling me where to go. So I went to Mass.

Once I got here, I knew I was okay. Nothing makes any church feel like home like not having a home of your own.

Once I got here, I knew I was okay. Nothing makes any church feel like home like not having a home of your own.

When I got to church, the young gentleman next to me introduced himself and asked how long I was in town. Before I’d been in the chapel 5 minutes, I had an advocate who’d promised to help me find someplace to stay. After Mass (which was in Turkish, so I’m now at 12 languages I’ve been to Mass in) another young man approached to say he worked at a hotel and he could help me, too. But I felt like God wanted me to ask the Church for help. So I approached a Sister and asked her in rusty French if there was a Christian guesthouse or Benedictine monastery nearby. She lived at the hospital, she said, and couldn’t do anything. Father was put off that I hadn’t asked earlier, not understanding that I was only in town for 20 hours. But I explained a little better and dropped the name of a friar I thought we both knew and before I knew it he was on the phone with a community of Italian sisters. “Follow me,” he said, dismissing my guardians.

As I rushed after Father, he explained that there were protests in the streets outside the church. “They may throw gas bombs,” he said. “Can you run?”

Protests. Police in riot gear with gas masks hanging around their necks. Angry-looking Turks shouting something I couldn’t understand.2 But it was the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary. What was there to be afraid of?

We pushed through crowds, our path occasionally blocked by heavily-armed cops. We scurried across a wide divide between a menacing mob and determined riot police. Finally, we turned onto an empty street and Father slowed down, turning to me. “We’re safe now.”

Of course we are, I thought. We always were.

Look! Something pretty! Taken from the window of the bus.

Look! Something pretty! Taken from the window of the bus.

There followed an introduction to the sisters who had offered to open their home at the last minute and an hour of awkward conversation where I made the best use I could of my college Italian. “Why are you Catholic?” one of them asked me, and I gave my testimony in a language I kind of spoke a decade ago. As always, I felt bad to be imposing on them. As expected, they were happy to help. Finally, I got a good night’s sleep and headed back to the airport in the morning, having seen none of the great sights but also having avoided being caught in a riot or stuck sleeping outdoors. All in all, far worse than I expected my visit to Istanbul to be, but also far better.

For all my life is lived in the hands of Providence, I’m not great at trusting God. Sure, I know he’s going to take care of me ultimately, but I get mad when he doesn’t do it the way I want. I’m anxious when faced with the unknown not because I’m afraid but because I’m obsessed with having my way, with things going perfectly. And God just keeps showing me that my way isn’t perfect. If I’d had a hotel to go back to, I still would have gone to Mass at St. Anthony’s. But then I would have had to navigate an angry mob and a foreign police force on high alert on my own. After dark. Without any idea where I was going. Thanks, I’ll take the uncertainty of having no hotel over that.

Here’s the thing: I’m nothing special. Sure, I may have more opportunities to see God stepping in dramatically, but he doesn’t do it any more for me than he does for you.3 Maybe he’s not going to have a chance to give you a place to stay in Istanbul, but he’s working in your life. He’s leading you to new relationships or away from dangerous situations. He’s offering you peace in turmoil and liberation from bondage. I’m not saying everything that happens to you will be pleasant if you trust God. This is not the Osteen Gospel of “Love God and he’ll give you a BMW.” All I’m saying is that if you try every day to trust God there’s peace even in the midst of disaster. There’s an ability to live in the knowledge of who God is even when you don’t know what he’s doing. It gives you hope when the world would tell you to despair and joy when there seems no cause. I’m not good at it yet but last week God gave me a taste of what it means to trust him. And that time things worked out. Maybe one day I’ll be strong enough to trust him and then find things going disastrously wrong. Even then, my head knows the truth, whatever my heart may say: “Though he slay me, still will I trust in him.”4

At least the trip wasn't a total loss....

At least the trip wasn’t a total loss….

  1. Ask me how many kids I’m supposed to have by now…. []
  2. The only Turkish I know is “Thank you” and they certainly weren’t saying that. []
  3. Although I am fairly imprudent, so I may need more rescuing than most. []
  4. Job 13:15 []
Posted in Beauty | Tagged , | 7 Comments

Breaking My Idols

I found a scrap of paper in my bag a while back1 with thoughts I know I’ve felt but don’t remember writing down. I’m sure it came in prayer, a time of prayer when I was stronger than I am now, readier to beg for suffering and less weary of the plodding pain of the everyday. I put it aside with the intention to finish it someday. And maybe I will. But tonight, I think I’m going to offer it to you half thought out, simply a plea for God to break down the idols I’ve made of him and be God in my life.

I don’t need a nice God, a safe God, one who leaves me comfortable in my complacency. I need a God who knocks down the walls with a trumpet blast and leaves me to be ravaged by grace.

I don’t need a God made in my image and likeness but a God who breaks me and molds me into his.

I won’t give my life to a God who exists to approve my plans and validate my will but a God who leads by fire and cloud and sends a great fish to swallow me if he must.

I want the God of the whale’s belly, of despair and broken pride, who opens the sea and shuts the lions’ mouths, who floods the world to send a rainbow.

I don’t want a nice shepherd but a good shepherd, one who knocks me upside the head and drags me from danger.

And though he slay me, still will I trust in him.2

Stop settling for a plaster God and start worshiping the God who breaks hearts and makes them new. Knock down your idols of comfort and security and let God be God. Let him move and speak and shake you. Give him permission to ruin your life. I promise he will rebuild it into something more joyful and glorious than you could ever have imagined.

If you are plagued by mediocrity, ask God for something better. But be warned: if you offer him your life, he just might take it.

2014-09-16 07.59.22

  1. Perk of being rather a hoarder. []
  2. Job 13:15 []
Posted in Beauty | Tagged , , | 8 Comments

Naked without Shame

I find in my life, and particularly in my ministry, that God is very careful to preserve a balance of praise and correction. Because my heart is rather more tender than I would wish, this balance is often very heavy on the consolation with detractors sprinkled in only when I can handle it. But even without outside admonition, I find myself regularly overwhelmed by my own failings. As proud as I am—and I am shockingly proud—one angry face in a crowd of fifty can convince me that I’m really rather useless and I ought to stop preaching because I’m never going to be good enough.

But then, because our good God is particularly fond of me, I’m surrounded again by praise and gratitude and I try again to remind myself that only God matters. And over the years, the mercurial swings between pride and self-loathing have evened out a bit. I rarely think I’m the best thing that ever happened and only slightly more often think I’m worthless. God just keeps working on my heart to teach me humility.

It’s gotten me thinking lately. To borrow a phrase from Genesis—and a central idea from the Theology of the Body—I think humility is being naked without shame. It’s standing naked, completely aware of all your faults and failings, and feeling no self-loathing, only gratitude to a God who uses even your weakness for his glory. It seems to me, looking at this virtue from a great distance, that the truly humble soul has no illusions about his poverty but rejoices in it. Even our sinfulness, I think, might prompt guilt and sorrow and a desire to repent, but not despair.

2014-08-23 18.18.30In the same way, the humble soul sees herself naked before the eyes of God and marvels at her glory. She sees not just her flaws but her beauty, the way she images God in his wisdom or humor or simplicity. But just as Adam and Eve did, she knows herself to be a creature and any joy in her goodness becomes praise of her Creator.

The more I’m conformed to Christ,1 the more I’m able to look at myself and see myself as I truly am without misery. My acceptance of my whole self has mirrored my acceptance of my body. I’m sure there’s less to be pleased with now than there was back when I used to be “fat” and “ugly” but more and more I look in the mirror and see beauty. In the same way, my sins stand in starker relief now than when I first came to know the Lord, but I’m less often driven to despair. I’m more myself than I used to be, which often means louder and more intense, but somehow he’s made me more gentle, both with the souls I serve and with myself.

I’m beginning to see myself as he sees me, naked but without shame. I’ve got a long way to go, emotional perfectionist that I am, but I think now I at least know what I’m aiming for. Rather than ignoring or belittling my gifts, I spend time with the Lord letting him tell me how he loves those things about me, praising him for his mercy in letting me be of use to him. Rather than replaying moments of failure over and over, I try to offer them to the Lord and thank him for humbling me.

It’ll take a whole lot of purgatory to make me a truly humble person, but I’m beginning to be okay with that. All I can do is show up, offer myself into the hands of our merciful Lord, and ask for his grace. If the person I am is what he’s chosen to make of my efforts, I’ll praise him and keep fighting, naked without shame.

sunset cross on mountains

  1. God, I hope I’m being conformed to Christ. []
Posted in Beauty | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Resting in Beauty

My (excessively long) name. Out of airplane pretzels. Now that's a labor of love.

My (excessively long) name. Out of airplane pretzels. Now that’s a labor of love.

Several years ago, I took a group of high school juniors to New York City. Or, rather, Mike Verlander took them and I went along as a putative adult. It was a remarkable group of kids, the kind who thought nothing of asking me, “Do you know your vocation?” as we were walking down some Manhattan street. When you combine that kind of kids with the majesty of a well-planned trip to the Big Apple, magical things happen.

One of the highlights of the trip for me came when we met up at the Met. I had just extricated myself from a very edifying subway conversation about purgatory1 and was feeling rather glum about not having been able to finish my catechesis when Saeedah came up to me and said, “I’m going around with you. I want you to tell me everything.”

Domenico Tintoretto: The Penitent Magdalene. I could give a whole retreat conference on this one.

Domenico Tintoretto: The Penitent Magdalene. I could give a whole retreat conference on this one.

Now, I’m no art expert. But put me in a gallery of Renaissance paintings, and I’m amazing. The majority are scenes from the Bible or paintings of Saints and I’m a beast at that stuff. It’s actually one of my favorite ways to evangelize: take someone to a museum and then just tell them all the stories of the paintings. So I was in. We looked at Medieval reliquaries and liturgical vessels (a special exhibit) before we got to the Renaissance. I talked and talked and talked. I stared in wonder at the beauty of these pieces, took notes about which to look up later, and marveled at the emotion still brimming in eyes painted centuries before. After two hours, I was tired. There was only one thing I wanted.

“Do you mind if we find impressionism?”

Off we went in search of Monet and Degas and Renoir. When we found them, I collapsed on a bench and just breathed.

Very text-heavy and rather technical, but I was an odd 7-year-old.

Very text-heavy and rather technical, but I was an odd 7-year-old.

Impressionism is home to me. I grew up surrounded by impressionist paintings. My favorite coloring book was an impressionist coloring book. My favorite book was about a little girl going to Giverny. I’ve been there myself–twice. I don’t much like the Louvre because it has no impressionists. I honestly think my healthy (ish) body image is partly due to Christ and partly due to the paintings of healthy, curved nudes that were all around me when I was a child. Put me in front of water lilies or pink-cheeked ballerinas and the tension will drain right out of me. So yes, I am partial.

My point, though, is not that impressionism gives rest to the soul but that beauty does. Truth inspires passion in us, fills us with zeal, and sends us joyful back to fight the good fight. Goodness reminds us of our better nature, encourages us to be made new, and sends us out to be the change. But beauty? Beauty wraps her arms around us and says, “Do not go. Just be. It is good that we are here. Just be.”

That’s how it feels to me. Perhaps because I can’t create physical beauty. I can speak truth and I can do good2 but I can only love beauty.

I’m in Arizona right now and I am surrounded by beauty. There aren’t many impressionist paintings3 but I can’t stop looking at the sky and the mountains and the flowers and just slowing down for a moment to revel. I’ve learned that I have to allot time to stop and take pictures when I’m out this way because the beauty of it all is too much for me. And thank God for that.

I’ve caught myself too many times this summer thinking “What an ugly world this is.” With ISIS and Gaza and the border and Ferguson and suicide and poverty, I’m just overwhelmed. And life is uncertain and loneliness rampant and failure a constant and maybe it’s just all too much.

And God says, “Breathe, love.”

2014-08-23 18.40.48Don’t you see what I’ve done for you?

2014-08-24 10.29.28I’ve painted the fields.

2014-08-23 18.33.51And the rocks.

2014-08-23 19.03.41And the skies.

2014-08-22 16.08.39I’ve put beauty on the side of the road.

2014-07-18 14.46.41On the city streets.

2014-08-16 15.42.42Above you.

2014-08-22 13.38.08Behind you.

Yes, my love, there is ugliness in this world. There is falsehood and evil and you must fight. But not today. Today, be still. Rest in my love. Rest in knowing that I have made this world and made it good. Rest and trust that you are good and beautiful and loved. I have painted you a picture. Your job is not to fix it or share it or analyze it. Your job is to love it. And to love me. Breathe. Just be.

2014-08-23 18.18.30

This is why our Church has always sought beauty: because beauty draws our heart towards Beauty. This is why the asymmetrical brown brick monstrosities that dominated liturgical architecture for decades are worse than just ugly. This is why our music has to be more than catchy. Beauty doesn’t just remind us of God. God is Beauty. And beauty is a sharing in divinity.

So pray and preach and serve. Sacrifice for persecuted minorities in Iraq and all over the world. Evangelize. Love well. But sometime this week, take half an hour to love beauty. Find your favorite section at an art museum or climb a mountain or read some Hopkins or bring up a Rachmaninov station on Pandora or Youtube Swan Lake or find a lovely board on Pinterest if you must. Let yourself steep in beauty. Breathe. And remember the goodness of God.

The Grand Canyon's a good place to start.

The Grand Canyon’s a good place to start.

(All the above pictures are mine. You’re welcome to use them and anything on my flickr page. And I just got into Instagram, so I’ll be sharing beauty there as well.)

  1. People near me on the subway were talking about what Catholics think about purgatory. It was clear that they both knew that they didn’t know much, so I introduced myself. “Excuse me. I’m sorry to interrupt, but I’m a Catholic theology teacher. Could I help?” They were very appreciative and it was one of the most satisfying moments of my life. Until two stops later when I had to get off and go be responsible. []
  2. No, I don’t mean well. []
  3. Though there are a few. I’m staying with The Evangelista, after all. []
Posted in Beauty | Tagged , | 6 Comments

How to Pray with Kids

Stacking his awesome Saint blocks is a quiet activity, but it's not quite the same thing as praying.

Stacking his awesome Saint blocks is a quiet activity, but it’s not quite the same thing as praying.

Praying with kids is not easy. No matter how often you threaten them, they still slouch and make funny faces and take off their pants during your family rosary. And somehow they don’t look forward to half an hour of being glared and hissed at: “God is LOVE! Now pray, dammit, or I’ll smack you in the face!” They’re distracted and distracting and most of us give up on our dreams of family prayer time early in our family life because they just won’t sit down and shut up. So we settle for a rushed Hail Mary as we tuck them in and hope that somehow they miraculously learn to talk to God–something many of us seem to have missed in our catechesis as well.

Now, I’m all for family rosaries and memorized prayers, but we run into trouble when that’s the extent of how we pray with our kids. They also need to learn how to talk to God and whether you’re comfortable praying out loud or not, you’re going to have to model extemporaneous prayer for them. Let me give you a window into what it looks like when I pray with little ones, using the ACTS pattern, a model that I’ve found helpful for kids as young as 2. It’s different every night, of course, but if you’re at a loss as to how to lead your kids in anything other than “Now I lay me down to sleep,” this might be something to try.1

Jenna's kid. Jena's picture. Jenna's generosity in letting me use it.

Jenna‘s kid. Jenna’s picture. Jenna’s generosity in letting me use it.

Adoration: Start off by telling God how great he is. Sure, he already knows, but when we love someone, we want to praise him. And when we teach children to praise, we teach them to appreciate as well.

Me: Can you tell God how great he is?

Kid: God, you’re so great.

Me: What’s so great about God? (pause) What did God do that was so great?

Kid: He made all the children!2

Me: Very good! And can you tell him he’s great?

Kid: God, you’re so great because you made all the children.

Me: Nice work. What else?

Kid: Um…God, you’re so great because you were born in Bethlehem and you turned water into wine. God, you’re so great because you died to save me! God, you’re so great because you made me beautiful.3

Me: Good.4 My turn. God, you are so good to us. You love us even when we don’t deserve it. You forgive us no matter what. Please help us to love and forgive each other.

children kneeling before statue of MaryYou’ll notice that I take what they’re doing and elevate it a little while keeping the language simple. It’s hard for kids to think about God’s more abstract qualities, for example, so I try to focus my prayer on mercy and wisdom. I also don’t force myself to stick with adoration but let it slide a little bit into petition. I think this helps kids learn that prayer doesn’t have to be so scripted.

Contrition: This part of your prayer time can serve as a little examination of conscience for you and your kids. It’s an incredibly important exercise in the Christian life and getting them started early with the idea of a daily examination is a great gift. It also teaches us to humble ourselves before the Lord and recognize our weakness in the presence of his greatness.

Me: Now can you tell God you’re sorry for something bad you did today?

Kid: God, I’m sorry I did something bad.

Me: What did you do that was bad?

Kid: I told a lie.

Me: Okay, tell God you’re sorry for that.

Kid: God, I’m sorry for telling a lie. And I’m sorry for roaring at my brother and not eating my dinner and throwing my truck and not listening to mommy.5

Me: God, I’m sorry that I lost my temper when we were at the playground today. I want to be gentle and patient. Please help me to be more like you.

I don’t know that there’s anything more powerful to a child than watching her parents submitting in contrition and humility. It shows them that you’re human and also that messing up doesn’t make you bad. And it reminds them that God is mercy. That might be a memory that they badly need down the road.

Thanksgiving: Kids are great at this. They’ll thank God for things for days if you let them. This is one type of prayer where I think adults have less to teach and more to learn. Let them roll with it and see where it goes.

Me: What’s something wonderful that happened to you today that you want to thank God for?

Kid: Thank you God that I didn’t eat spicy cheese and that Elizabeth took the diaper off the baby doll.

Me:…okay. What else are you thankful for?

Kid: What else?

Me: Just thank God for anything you like. People or things that happened or your favorite things. God gave you all those things!

Kid: Thank you God for we wish we had a kitty cat.

Me: Okay. What are some things you already have or have done that you can thank God for?

Kid: Thank you God for hot dogs and my friends at school and my Mom and Aslan and bug spray! And thank you God that I didn’t fall off the jungle gym. And thank you for my sister and my other sister and for Peg plus Cat because I love that show.

Me: And thank you God for giving us a family that loves us and for teaching us to love you. Thank you for my prayer time earlier and please forgive me for getting so distracted. Thank you for all the ways you show us your love, especially good weather and delicious food.

Listen to the little things they’re thankful for and try to be as grateful as your kids.

Natalie prayingSupplication:6 Here’s where they get to ask God for things. I usually start with specific things, working toward the abstract and ending with “God blesses.” It’s good for them to know that God blesses us in many ways and that it’s okay to ask him for silly little things but it’s also important to ask for big things.

Me: And now what do you want to ask God for?

Kid: What?

Me: Well, what’s something you’d like to do tomorrow?

Kid: God, may I please have some grapes tomorrow?

Me: Good. Is there anything you want God to help you be?

Kid: God, please help me be…a seminarian, a deacon, and a priest!7

Me: That’s a great thing to pray for. Would you like to ask God to help you be kind and patient, too?

Kid: Yes, kind and patient and really good at soccer.

Me: And do you want to pray for anyone else?

Kid: Dear God, please bless all unborn babies with diligence.8 And please bless Mom and Dad and my brothers and sisters and all my cousins and Father Sullivan and….

Me: Father, please help me to be obedient to you, to open my heart to you and let you lead me. Please help everybody who is suffering because they love you and bless everyone who is lonely tonight.

Praying with FelicityThis can also be a time to tell your kids about people who are suffering and pray together for them. I can be pretty bad at intercessory prayer, but when I ask little kids to pray for someone, they remember for months and just keep on praying. You may forget to pray for persecuted minorities in Iraq, but you’d better believe your little boy is going to want to pray for the children on the mountain who are surrounded by bad guys. It’s just another way that family makes us holy: keeping us in prayer for things we’d let our cushy lives push out of our consciousness.

Formal prayer: At this point, I ask kids to pick a favorite memorized prayer and we recite that together. Then we go into a litany of Saints where they call out all their favorites and we chorus, “Pray for us.” Finally we end with the Sign of the Cross.

 

It’s not quick, this approach, nor is it always the most reverent way to pray. There are lots of interruptions and reminders to stay on track. I often have to stop to define words or correct kids who see prayer time as an opportunity to be silly. But it’s simple and honest, a genuine conversation with God that’s open to the Spirit but guided by parameters. I think it teaches kids to talk to God like he’s a person–which he is.9 I think it also gives them a sense that prayer is more than just asking for things. It might not fit into your bedtime routine every night, especially if you have several kids. But at least on Sundays, make the time to be vulnerable and pray extemporaneously with your kids. If you’re anything like me, it’ll be good for your prayer life, too.

  1. Every weird thing in here has actually come out of the mouth of a child I was praying with. If nothing else, try this for the great stories you’ll end up with. []
  2. Probably 75% of kids I pray with are most excited that God made children. []
  3. This last one was my niece the other night. I’m so excited that she still thinks she’s beautiful, I won’t even call her on pride masquerading as prayer. []
  4. Clearly I’m not of the school of thought that objects to praising kids. []
  5. Some kids really get into this. It’s awesome. But no fair punishing a kid for a minor infraction that you found out about during prayer. []
  6. If you’re teaching them the acronym ACTS, supplication might throw them for a loop. Try Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Someone or Something. Really, though, the acronym is more for you. []
  7. This was my nephew. My heart exploded. []
  8. Also my nephew. Not sure what he was going for there. []
  9. Well, 3 persons. []
Posted in Beauty | Tagged , | 10 Comments

The Gift of Loneliness

2014-07-15 12.59.42I remember, some ten years ago, falling on my knees at Notre Dame’s grotto, disconsolate. I had plenty of friends, I thought, but I was so alone. Nobody really knew me, nobody understood. I turned my heart to heaven and begged the Lord for one friend.

“I just need one person who really loves me!” I cried out, and I got the distinct feeling that he answered: It’s me.

“No, I know. But I just need someone who’s going to be on my side.” Yup. Me.

“Right, but I’m just so alone. I don’t even need someone who’ll give me advice, just someone who’ll listen.” I’m listening.

“No, but somebody who really knows me, who gets me.” Yes.

“And who loves me anyway.” Right.

“Jesus, I get that you love me, but I just need a friend!” Yes. You need me. And that’s all you need.

I quit my temper tantrum eventually and started to listen. I started to see how he had been loving me so well for so long but how he had recently started to wean me off the friendships that I’d turned into idols. He’d broken down the walls of popularity I’d built around my heart, forced me to take my troubles to him instead of to half a dozen people who’d agree with whatever conclusions I’d already come to. I’d just finished one of the hardest years of my life and I’d come out more alone than I’d felt in years. Because all the love in my life had been separating me from him.

I spent the next year learning what it meant to be loved by God. I learned to process my wild emotions in prayer instead of on Instant Messenger. I wept in prayer instead of in Starbucks and let him define me. After years of following the Lord, I began to love him with an intimacy I’d never imagined. And I found that I wasn’t lonely anymore.

The kind of friends who are always up for a little prayer time.

The kind of friends who are always up for a little prayer time. Even on the way to a wedding.

And then he gave me friends. Incredible friends, the kind who ruin you for relationships with less amazing people. And I was mostly happy, but not always. Those friends married and started families while I was still alone. And the loneliness returned, causing me to question whether I was worthy of love. But I ran to the Lord and he reminded me who I am in him.

I moved into the real world and tried to find friends outside the beautiful community of Notre Dame. Turns out, it’s not that easy. While I loved my kids more than I could have imagined, I didn’t have much of a community. But God shook the complacency of my heart and I began to fall in love with him.

I entered a convent and left to find myself surrounded by people who couldn’t understand the heartbreak of giving your life away and then having it given back. I was shaken and confused and nobody sensed that, nobody got it. So I turned again to the God who listens and understands and loves me the more for my brokenness.

Not all of them. Some of them look at me like this. And it's all worth it.

Not all of them. Some of them look at me like this. And it’s all worth it.

I moved again, built relationships again, and found that as much as I loved my kids they were always going to ignore and betray and reject me. So I turned to the Lord again, handed him my bleeding heart again, and asked him how I could keep doing this, how I could keep standing alone and loving people who would spit in my face for my troubles. And he showed me his bloody, bruised, thorn-pierced image and reminded me that this is exactly what love is.

Again and again, the Lord leads me into loneliness—or perhaps I run there on my own—so that I’ll turn to him again, find myself in him again, let him be my rock again. And I’m so grateful.

Since I started hoboing, I’ve been asked again and again, “Aren’t you lonely?”

“No.” I’ve glibly responded. “I spend time with the Lord every day, and he’s the most important person in my life. Besides, I get to see all kinds of wonderful people in my travels.” It’s true, of course. I see my best friends more than I ever did when I had to live in one place all the time, 600 or 1000 or 3000 miles away. And the only thing that keeps me sane is my time with Jesus, when I sit before the Blessed Sacrament and am known and loved.

But lately, I’ve been a little lonely. Not having a community will do that to you, I suppose. But I think it’s more than that. I think it’s a gift: God making me ache for something more so that I’ll draw deeper into him. And I hope you feel it too.

I hope you’re lonely. Regardless of how much your spouse loves you or how many friends you have who understand and encourage and challenge you, I hope you’re lonely. I hope that none of your relationships leave you satisfied. Because they aren’t made to satisfy. The only relationship that will ever satisfy you is your relationship with God. Any time you find yourself convinced that somebody else completes you, take a step back. It’s idolatry. And it’s a lie. People will sin. They’ll misunderstand. They’ll expect less of you than what you’re capable of. Your husband, your daughter, your spiritual director, your best friend: they’re not enough. And while it’s a grace that we may feel satisfied for a time, the loneliness will always return to remind us that the only one who will complete us is the Lover of our souls.

Remember this when you’re lonely: you will find what you long for only in the one who created you, the one who died for you, the one who knows you through and through and loves you just the same. Let that loneliness drive you to the foot of the Cross, where Love was poured out for you. You are not alone. You are loved beyond imagining. And the loneliness that reminds you of your need for that love is a gift.

Posted in Beauty | Tagged , , | 16 Comments

In the Face of Suffering, We Live in Hope

When it comes to miracles, I’m kind of a skeptic. By which I mean that if you’ve got half a dozen atheist doctors who swear your healing was a miracle, I’ll consider it. But one marvelous thing about our Church is that it’s skeptical the same way. So when the Church declares something a miracle, you’d better believe there’s no other explanation. As an apologist, I find these miracles encouraging. But as a human being, they break my heart.

Judith 9:11-12, one of the most impassioned pleas I've ever read.

Judith 9:11-12, one of the most impassioned pleas I’ve ever read.

It’s not the miracles that break my heart, I suppose. It’s the many, many others that don’t happen. The stillborn babies who stay dead. The kids in car accidents who never recover. The people who got on that plane, the girls stolen from their school, the children sent away as refugees. In a world where innocents are being slaughtered in Gaza and Syria and Ukraine and Iraq and Chicago, how can we claim that our healing or safety or raffle ticket was foreordained? Are we really so arrogant as to believe that God cares more about us than he does about the thousands, the millions he doesn’t save?

This is what miracles seem to imply. If God saves some, he chooses not to save others. It’s an ugly idea, one we’re generally more comfortable ignoring as we pacify ourselves with platitudes about how “everything happens for a reason” and “God will provide.” Tell that to the mother fleeing Mosul rather than convert at the point of the sword. Tell that to the father sending his 9-year-old thousands of miles to the north, trekking through the most dangerous areas on the planet alone in the hopes that there will be safety at the other end. Tell that to the woman who lost her husband on that flight, to the little boy whose sisters still haven’t been brought back. Tell it to the victims of rape and torture who cried out to a silent God. It’s not enough.

It’s not enough because it’s not true. God is not your fairy godmother. He’s not your personal assistant or your oncologist. He doesn’t send angels to surround you to make sure you’re happy all the time. God doesn’t care at all if you’re happy all the time. Because he’s not your babysitter. He’s your Father. And fathers love their children too much to give them everything they want.

Our problem is that we’ve confused providence with luck. We see good things happening to people and assume the universe is on their side. Bad things, of course, mean the opposite. There’s no rhyme or reason to it all beyond a vague feeling that God prefers some people to others or has “a special plan” for them, which never seems to involve much more than occasional volunteering for a few years after their miracle. And the millions left to languish? Well, let’s not think about them.

I refuse to worship that god. The god who plays favorites, who saves some while abandoning others, is no god worthy of the name. He’s certainly not the God who died on the Cross, the God who desires that all men be saved.1 He’s a petty magician, an idol for the privileged who want to validate their comfortable lives in the face of the suffering masses.

What delivers me from the Baal of Miracles? Perspective.

If this life were all there was, it would be impossible to love God. Even acknowledging how much suffering is entirely the result of sin, there is too much pain to believe in a good God. How can a good God allow cancer and tsunamis and famines on top of rape and genocide and brainwashing? How can we say that God is love? How can we cry that he is good when there is so much evidence to the contrary?

Because the meaning of this life is not this life.

We can’t understand what God is doing any more than an infant can understand what his mother is doing–less so. We see the now, or even the 50 years from now. We see the splash. God sees the ripples. And not just the ripples on our lives but the ripples on the lives of those we love and those we hate and those we’ve never bothered to notice. God sees the ripples on eternity. God knows which miraculous cure will bring conversion and which painful death will draw hearts to him. He doesn’t give you cancer because you need to learn how to be a better person, but if he lets you suffer through it, he is working. This is the God who took the greatest evil of all time, the torture and deicide of Good Friday, and turned it into the greatest good for the human race. There is nothing he cannot turn to good.2

This is what gives me hope. Not that God might work a miracle for me but that he is working miracles, daily miracles. This is providence, that for me in my comfortable life and for those suffering and abandoned, for every last person on this planet God is working miracles. He is holding them close and drawing them closer, even when they seem most alone. Because he knows what they need. This is the Christian answer to the problem of evil: God knows better than I. And he is working.

Lamentations 3:21-24

So what can I say to the mothers with empty arms, the broken victims of abuse and neglect, the refugees and hospice patients and orphans and addicts?

“I don’t know. I’m sorry. I don’t know what God is doing, but I know that he is doing something. I don’t know what good will come of this, but I know that good will come. I know this the way I know how to breathe or which way is down: not because I can prove or explain it but because everything in my life cries out this truth. You are loved in your suffering. God weeps with you, hanging on the Cross for you. I’m so sorry. I don’t know what he’s doing. But I know who he is. He is good. He is love. He is for you. And there will come a day when all is made clear, when you’re welcomed into the embrace of the God who has been waiting for you since before there was time and you see just how all things worked for good. But until then, I will stand with you in the unknowing. Together we will hope and love and suffer. And we will trust in a God who is so much bigger than our pain.”

Miracles seem arbitrary and unfair because our vision is so short. But we worship an eternal God who did not spare his own Son but handed him over for us all.3 There is nothing he will not do for us. Ours is to trust that when we lie broken amidst the rubble of our lives, even then he is working. Even then we are protected. Even then we are loved by a Father who wills our greatest good, though it may be a long time coming. Wait in hope, my friends. My God will not disappoint.

My favorite prayer, by Dag Hammarskjold

My favorite prayer, by Dag Hammarskjold

  1. I Tim 2:4 []
  2. Rom 8:28 []
  3. Rom 8:32 []
Posted in Goodness | Tagged , , , | 11 Comments

A Fly on the Wall

I got to spend a few weeks in June around my sister‘s awesome kids. I thought y’all might enjoy some of the theological conversations we had. And before you ask why they’re so awesome, here’s the best I can tell: the adults they know talk frequently and very enthusiastically about holy things–to them and to each other–and they’ve picked up on it.

Playing the Annunciation. Because what else would you do?

Playing the Annunciation. Because what else would you do?

Cecilia (3 1/2): How can you be a saint and a nun?
Me: Oh, lots of Saints were nuns. St. Therese, St. Teresa, St. Catherine Laboure, St. Claire…. To be a saint, you just have to love God and try your best to do what he wants you to do.
John Paul (almost 5): And I like St. Cecilia.
Cecilia: Saint Cecilia? Am I a saint already?!?
Me: Not yet, honey.
Cecilia: Why not?
Me: Well, because you’re not dead yet.
Cecilia: And why not?
Me: I guess because God has work he still wants you to do.
Cecilia: And if I die when I’m a child, I can still be a saint.
John Paul: Like Blessed Imelda!

How to get your kids excited about Saints: read them lots of Saint books, get them Saint costumes to play dress-up in, and suggest with wild excitement that we pretend to be Saints. You should see how excited they are when I ask if they want to play the martyrdom of St. Ignatius of Antioch.

Cecilia (rather upset that Jesus has ascended): Why doesn’t Jesus come back down from heaven?
Me: I don’t know, Cecilia. Do you wish he would?
Cecilia: YES!
Me: Well there’s a great prayer for that. Maranatha. It means, “Come, Lord Jesus!”
Cecilia and John Paul: MARANATHA!!

I’m with them. Come back, dear Jesus, and heal our broken world!

All dressed up for the ordination.

All dressed up for the ordination.

John Paul, an hour in to a 3 hour ordination: It’s the prayer of ordination! (a few minutes later) AND NOW THEY ARE PRIESTS!! My turn!
(tries to push past me toward the aisle)
Me: No, buddy, you can’t be a priest yet.
John Paul, beginning to cry: Why not?
Me: Because you’re not old enough.
John Paul: I AM old enough!
Me: How about when we get home I’ll show you in the Code of Canon Law? Would that make you feel better? In Latin and English?
John Paul, sniffling: Yeah.

It runs in the family. I was once so upset after a football game that the only thing that could cheer me up was stopping at the library to read through a commentary on the Code.

Look at the awe in his face!

Look at how excited he is for his blessing!

Me, during the same ordination: John Paul, the bishop is getting Fr. Chris’s blessing. And after Mass, you will be able to get Fr. Chris’s blessing! And then you will hold out your hands and he will put his hands in them and you will kiss them.
John Paul: Why?
Me: Because they aren’t his hands anymore. They’re Jesus’ hands.
John Paul: Jesus’ hands!! Why are they Jesus’ hands?
Me: Because they were consecrated to celebrate the Sacraments. To say Mass and give absolution and anoint people.
John Paul: And to consecrate the Eucharist.
(later, holding Fr. Chris’ hands) *Gasp* These are Jesus’ hands! (Kisses them reverently)

Many new priests don’t expect you to kiss their hands, but I think it’s one of the most beautiful traditions in our Church. In any other circumstances, it would be wildly inappropriate for me to kiss a priest, but here I’m humbling myself in reverence to the God who works through his priests.

John Paul (reading the back of my shirt): I’m a Catholic. Ask me a question!
Me (playing along and asking him one of the most common): Okay, why do you have to go to Mass every Sunday?
John Paul (clearly distraught): Oh! Because I love Jesus!

It really is that simple. Maybe I should stop with commandments and canon law and go with this: we go to Mass because we love him and we’re trying to love him better.

Lady Victory standing on a corpse saying: Thus always to tyrants! Virginia is so BA.

Lady Victory standing on a corpse saying: “Thus always to tyrants!” Virginia is so BA.

Me, explaining the intense Virginia flag and, thus, what a tyrant is: A tyrant is someone who takes away your freedom. And the greatest tyrant is Satan because he tricks you into becoming a slave to sin.
Cecilia (disdainfully): Um, Satan has no power now.
Me: Why not?
Cecilia (a little condescendingly): Because Jesus died to save us from our sins!

I had to think about this one. I think she’s wrong that he has no power, but the nature of the power he has is different. Before the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Christ, he had power by the very nature of things. Now he only has the power that we give him by our sin. I think. Is it ridiculous that her theological conclusions have given me so much to think about?

Posted in Truth | Tagged , , | 2 Comments