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.
In 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.
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.”
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.
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.”
Don’t you see what I’ve done for you?
I’ve painted the fields.
And the rocks.
And the skies.
I’ve put beauty on the side of the road.
On the city streets.
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.
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.
(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.)
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. [↩]
Well, friends, it’s been two years as a hobo. Two years since I last put my clothes in a drawer. Two years of taking a deep breath before answering the questions “Where are you from?” or “What do you do?” Two years of planning a year from now with no idea where I’m going tomorrow. Two years, 49 states,1 two foreign countries,2 60,000 miles on my car. I’ve stayed in 42 states, spoken in 31 (50 dioceses), and been to Mass in 42 (90 dioceses), including 25 cathedrals. Like my first hobo year, this last has been eventful–almost frantically so at times.
In two years, I’ve ministered to thousands of God’s people, ages 1-97. I’ve played with hundreds of children, reunited with long-lost family members, and made friends of countless strangers. I’ve answered the same questions more times than I can count and been privileged to share my heart with many people who are struggling. I’ve talked Jesus on street corners, in airplanes, in Dairy Queen, at gas stations, in Catholic churches, in Protestant churches, on the boardwalk, in a country club, on the sharing rug, on the auditorium stage, via email/Twitter/Facebook, around the dinner table, in the middle of the night, in a party barn at an SEC frat house, at retreat centers, in parking lots, in grocery stores, and most everywhere else you can imagine. I’ve been ridiculed and accused and praised and welcomed and ignored–all about par for the course if you’re a missionary (which you are).
So what have I learned? Aside from what I’ve been sharing with you along the way, that is. What truths has the Lord been speaking to my heart over these past two years? Dozens, surely, but two in particular keep resurfacing.
1. I am enough…
I never realized it, but I’ve always thought of friendship as a sort of zero sum game. I’m happy to be the one who’s always giving, but I’m terrified of being needy. I’ve always assumed that people were just friends with me because they were being generous, so I’ve needed to earn their love.3 So I dispense wisdom or collaborate in ministry or just listen well and then I’ve done my part and they won’t mind being friends with me. I hope it’s not news to you that this isn’t love.
When I first started as a hobo, God made me entirely needy. I had nothing to offer. I wasn’t speaking anywhere, wasn’t serving the Church in any visible way. People weren’t inviting me to their homes to stay while I ministered to their community; I was inviting myself. And when I got there, to the homes of dear friends, I felt the need to earn my keep. I washed dishes and babysat, but more than that I just sat around feeling guilty, convinced that I was imposing on the generous nature of my virtuous friends and that they were secretly resenting me for it. It’s a terrible thing to think about the people you love, but it’s more a judgment on what I tend to think of myself than on what I believe about them. Staying uninvited with people who didn’t need me made me terribly anxious.
But every time I moved on, they asked me to stay. Every single time. At every home, I heard, “Don’t go. We’ll move the kids into a room together so you can have the girls’ room. Just stay another week. No, move in! We have room. We want you here.” Everyone wanted me–not because of what I was doing for them, but simply because of who I was.
And God spoke so loudly to my heart, “You are enough. You don’t have to do anything. You are enough.” I think I’ll spend the rest of my life learning this, but God keeps showing me4 that all my anxiety and self-loathing are the product of lies. I am beautiful. I am enough.
2. …because he is everything.
I’m not enough because of who I am, but because of who he is in me. He gives me direction, leads people to open their homes and their hearts to me. He speaks in me and through me. Anything worthwhile I’ve ever said was either the Holy Spirit in me or me quoting someone else he’s spoken to. It’s not me. He helps me to love the unlovable, to ache with those whose suffering was entirely avoidable. He gives me patience and joy and empathy and wisdom. And when I mess up, it’s because I’m not letting him be God.
The talks I’ve given so often that they end up being almost identical always go over pretty well. But the ones where I start talking about things I’ve never thought about before, the ones where the Holy Spirit really takes control, those are the ones that leave people changed. There was the day I went into a day-long retreat with three lines of notes and afterwards had to reassure the participants that I hadn’t gotten confidential information about them to focus my talks around. There was the flight where I got moved to the front of the plane, then had to switch seats again, then felt compelled to start a conversation with the couple beside me5 only to discover that they had fallen away from the faith and were longing for someone to draw them back. There was the time I felt I had to wear my “I’m a Catholic, ask me a question” shirt to daily Mass and was approached by a Protestant from Northern Ireland for a 3-hour conversation. The young man on the quad who God led me to give some cash to. The guy who talked to me and prayed over me because I happened to have pulled over in front of his house to make a phone call. Providence.
People tend to write me off, to think that the way I live is something out of the ordinary and irrelevant to their lives. “It’s amazing how you let God have control of your life,” they tell me, as though they’re not called to the same thing. “Oh, he’s in charge of all of our lives,” I sometimes respond. “The only difference is that I know it.”
Sure, I’m more obviously dependent on God for daily needs, but he’s providing for you as directly as he’s providing for me. The message I’ve been getting these past two years–the repeated assurance from the Almighty: “I’ve got this”–isn’t just for me. He’s not finding me places to stay and leading me to generous mechanics and sending me to Europe simply because he’s particularly fond of me6 but to remind me that he is God. He knows the hairs on my head, he watches the sparrow, he cares about how many Levites were under the age of 5 at the time of the census, and he provides exceedingly and abundantly, more than all we can ask or imagine.7
He’s got this. He’s working through your diagnosis or your breakup or your failure or your bankruptcy. He’s working all things for good.8 He loves you too much to give you everything you want or even everything you feel you need. But he is always, always taking care of you. Trust him.
God keeps leading me into danger and uncertainty just so he can swoop in and save me. It’s getting to where I almost don’t worry anymore. Almost. But at least in the midst of my worry I know I’m being dumb. Because my God is so good and so much bigger than anything I may face. He’s got this.
Basically, the lesson I’ve learned is that God loves me. And if I ever really believe it, I’ll be a saint. Until then, I’ll keep trying. And failing. And falling on my knees in the confessional and before the Blessed Sacrament to let him heal me once again. And I’ll keep driving. See you around!
I’m a huge fan of the Bible. I’ve read it almost a dozen times (Want to join me?) and there are parts that hit me every time. I buy purses only if they’ll fit my Bible, shake with anxiety when I hand it over to be rebound, and still read with a pencil in hand. Because the Word of God is ever ancient, ever new. I just love it.
But some parts are terribly boring. I know in theory that they’re good somehow and every once in a while I’ll meditate on how God loved each person in the interminable Genesis begats, loved each one so much that he recorded their names for all the world to read forever. But mostly Jesus and I have come to an agreement: I skim. When it’s repetitive lists of numbers or names or dimensions, I just skim. And I’m okay with that.
Yesterday I hit 1 Kings 6: Building of the Temple. I sighed and began to skim. But I was about to give a talk on the Theology of the Body and I guess I had beauty on the brain, because all of a sudden I got it.
God spends a lot of time describing his dwelling place in the Old Testament. Exodus 25, 26, 27, 30, 36, 37, 38, and 40 describe in mind-numbingly minute detail how the ark and the tent and the lamps and the altar are to be made. There’s even a tally of materials to be used–he was very specific. 1 Kings 5 and 1 Chronicles 28-29 describe the materials dedicated for the temple while 1 Kings 6 and 2 Chronicles 3-4 describe Solomon’s temple exactly–to the point that we believe we can make accurate models today. After Solomon’s temple is destroyed, we have two entire books (Haggai and Zechariah) encouraging Israel to rebuild the temple, as described in Ezra 5. Then, of course, there’s the interminable description of a new temple in Ezekiel 40-48 and the (different) new temple in Revelation. It’s enough to drive a person to distraction!
But what if all this temple nonsense isn’t a waste of time? What if it’s in the Bible because it’s of infinite importance? What if God mapped out every cubit of space, every pomegranate and cherub, every tent pole and gate, down to even naming the pillars…to teach us something?
Obviously, there’s plenty we can do with this: Jesus is the perfectly made temple of God, God incarnate; the temple was pure and undefiled, so Mary (the temple that held Christ) must be as well; if beauty and liturgy mattered then, they matter now. But what grabbed ahold of me yesterday was this key to the meaning of all this temple business:
Do you not know that your body is a temple of the holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you have been purchased at a price. Therefore, glorify God in your body.1
Christians have used this passage at every chastity rally since chastity rallies began. Before that, little Regency-era ladies whispered it to their daughters before they took a turn about the garden with a suitor. I’m pretty sure that had the early virgin martyrs had tattoos, they would have been of this passage. We know this passage. “You are a temple of God” means “keep your clothes on.”
Or maybe it means don’t smoke or eat right or exercise or something. Whatever it means, it’s definitely a threat.
But what if it’s not? What if it’s a love letter? What if God calls you his temple in the hope that you’ve struggled through the endless descriptions of his temple of stone and will realize what he’s saying about you? What if he’s saying that you are fearfully and wonderfully made?
Dear heart, you are not an accident. There is no part of you that is not willed–deeply, desperately desired–by the God of the universe. This God of yours–the God who made oceans and volcanoes and lilacs and hummingbirds–he was just warming up. The greatest beauty in this world is nothing compared to you. From the beginning of time, he was preparing for you. And when he made you–your body, not just your soul–he made you right.
He planned every bit of you. Every atom in your being was accounted for. You think he spent a lot of time thinking about the temple? That house of stone has nothing on you, his living home, his beloved. Your proportions are just what he wanted. Your coloring, your shape, your hair texture have purpose and meaning just as much as any horns or wheels or basins.
And the result, my friend, is ineffable beauty. You are his temple, stunning and lovely. Every bit of you is covered in glory, as the inside of the temple was covered in gold. You are so much more than the sum of your various parts. Listed out on a page, taken piece by piece, it may be easy to overlook you, easy to skim over you. But all together, you are marvelous, a wonder, a sight to behold.
Now wait a minute. You–rolling your eyes. Shut up. I’m not making this up. This isn’t sappy nonsense about how you’re so pretty just because you’re you. This is truth. Written in the word of God. The God who tells you that you are all beautiful and there is no blemish in you.2 Did you hear that? No blemish. This God who made your creepy long second toe and your moles and your love handles, this God who can see every bit of your body and soul says there is nothing wrong with you. Nothing.
You might struggle to accept the fact that you’re lovely, but if you refuse to believe it your self-loathing might just become heresy: the heresy that God screwed up. That even though he tells you in Scripture that every bit of the temple is perfect and planned and that you are his temple, he’s wrong. Got that? Hating yourself is saying that God is wrong.
I know this is hard. I spend my life trying to convince beautiful women that they’re not worthless. I’ve asked young women across this country–hundreds of them–if at some level they hate themselves. One girl one time said no. So I know that many of you are absolutely certain that no matter what you do you will never be enough. Believe me, I know. I’ve been there. Many days, I’m still there. But every once in a while I get a glimpse of this fundamental truth: God doesn’t make junk. He didn’t plan out every square cubit of the temple down to the last talent of bronze and then lament that it wasn’t decorated well. He didn’t form you in your mother’s womb to sigh over your frizzy hair and your acne-ridden skin. He made you–just as you are–on purpose. He thinks you’re stunning.
I had a fight with a five-year-old today. She was wearing a Cinderella dress and two tutus and told me she was pretending to be a princess.
“Oh, Natalie!” I said, in that voice I use when I’m trying to get little ones excited about something. “You don’t have to pretend. You are a princess!”
Natalie was not amused.
“Yes, because a princess is a daughter of the king and your Father is the king!”
“My daddy is not a king,” she stubbornly replied. I tried to convince her. I laid out the argument. She agreed with all my premises, that God is her Father, that he’s king of heaven, that the daughters of kings are princesses. But she would not accept my conclusion.
The exchange felt a lot like conversations I’ve had with older girls—and adult women. They know intellectually that they’re loved by God, but they’ve bought into the lie that they’re not good enough. And so they pay lip service to God’s unending love and go happily back to hating themselves.
Being a Christian is so often about choosing God’s truth over the world’s lies, and I think we get that. We choose chastity and sobriety, we choose confession and fasting, we choose life and we march to support it. We’re glad to be radically different on all those surface issues, but we ignore the central truth of Christianity, that truth without which none of the rest of it makes sense:
God loves you.
Deeply, desperately loves you. He made you exactly as you are—on purpose—because he wanted you that way. From before the creation of the universe, God was planning your too-frizzy hair or too-loud laugh or too-big butt and loving it.
The world tells us the lie that we’re not smart enough or pretty enough or thin enough or athletic enough or popular enough or whatever. Popular Christianity counters with: yes, but God loves me anyway.
God doesn’t love you anyway—he loves you exactly this way! Sure, there are parts of you that are sinful or unhealthy and he wants to walk you through those. But he even loves you in your sin and your addiction. He loves every little bit of you. He’s captivated by you. Why?
Because you’re a princess, a daughter of the King.
The princesses in our stories are beautiful, yes, but they are also brave and clever—in the good stories anyway. More importantly, though, princesses are wonderful simply because of who they are. They don’t have to earn our love. We even love the awkward and plain ones in the stories we read as tweens. We love them because they are daughters of the King. He loves them, and that makes them good enough.
My friends, you are beautiful—so beautiful. You are brave and clever and strong. You are funny and sweet and loving. Maybe you’re a little short or sweaty or slow, but can’t you see that God is entranced by just that? Your cynicism is endearing, your chub lovely. The God of the universe made you just that way. He doesn’t make mistakes.
I need you to be strong on this one. I need you to decide today to serve God. You’ve done it in so many other ways. Today I’m asking you to believe that God is who he says he is. God is love. There is nothing about you that can change that. God is crazy in love with you—read Isaiah 62:3-5, if you don’t believe me. Or Hosea 2. Heck, read the whole book of Songs and tell me again that you’re not good enough.
You are so good. So beautiful. So loved. Don’t let the lies of this world ever convince you otherwise.
I hate failure. I know, I know, everybody does, but I’m one of those type A folk who would rather be set on fire than get a B on a test. I still feel the need to justify the C that I got on a Scarlet Letter test in 7th grade even though I hadn’t read the book.* There’s something about failing that makes me burn with shame. I lose sleep. I’m honestly surprised I haven’t given myself an ulcer yet. And the thing is, I started life off pretty well. As long as success was about school and not souls, I did well. I achieved and achieved and achieved and was quite pleased with myself all through my academic career.
And then, apparently, the Lord decided that I was better than that. And the failure began.
It was little things at first, things that didn’t overshadow the good I felt I was doing. Students who hated me, friendships cut off; even leaving the convent after I had told everyone I’d be there forever didn’t seem too bad in the face of all the ways I’d succeeded. Sure, there were failures, but overall I felt I was changing the world and winning souls for Christ.
Lately, though, it hasn’t been that easy. Failure these days isn’t occasional, it’s daily. Every day, some kid I’ve poured my life out for tells me my class is a waste of time. Or makes really bad choices and lies to me about it. Or listens to every word I say and then throws his life away at some party. And there’s nothing I can do.
So my motto recently has been Mother Teresa’s: God has not called us to be successful, he has called us to be faithful.
Because the Christian life is not about success. I suppose I should have figured this out the first time I noticed that the guy everyone was talking about was hanging dead on the wall. Here I am worshiping a man who was executed naked while almost nobody looked on, and somehow I thought my life was going to look different?
When you follow a crucified Lord, you will be a failure. You will fail at work because you refuse to compromise integrity. You will fail in your pursuit of holiness because you are fallen. And, as I have learned to my chagrin, you will fail in your service to the kingdom because it’s not about you.
This summer, mired in self-pity because I’m a total failure, I found myself listening to yet another homily on the Parable of the Sower (Mt 13:1-23 for anyone following along at home—does anyone else feel as though that reading comes up ten times a year?). This time, though, Father wasn’t talking about what kind of soil we are. He focused on God’s prodigality. God doesn’t choose only fertile ground; he sows his seed everywhere on the off chance that it will take root. He’s not jealous of his grace but lavishes it on even the most unwelcoming hearts.
God offers his life to every punk kid there is—even to me, self-obsessed as I am. And when he asked me to take up my cross, he asked me to be crucified along with him. Sitting in the comfort of my first world home, it seems it would be easy enough to suffer martyrdom (although I’m sure I’d feel differently when faced with the opportunity) or even to be persecuted for righteousness’ sake. But this pathetic daily failure? This inability to meet deadlines or love well or change hearts? That’s a cross.
The central paradox of Christianity, though, is precisely this: it is our greatest defeats that are our greatest victories. We lose all we have to be filled with the riches of the kingdom. We mourn and are comforted. We die to rise again.
Jesus failed—again and again and again. He lost his disciples because he was too extreme (cannibalism—John 6). He fell three times under his cross. He couldn’t even keep those he loved most from falling into grave sin. He is fully God and fully man, like us in all things but sin. Like us especially in failure.
But Jesus’ defeat was victory specifically because it was redemptive. And that’s what he’s called me to as well—a life of failure embraced for the salvation of souls. He’s asking me to lavish myself on barren soil, to offer myself again and again to be crucified by those whose salvation I desire more than anything else. And when, in the throes of passionate prayer, I offer my life to him as a sacrifice for souls, he takes it gladly.
(Seriously, though, you have to be careful what you pray for. I once told God I’d do anything if he’d make my students holy. I woke up the next morning with my eye swollen shut and then broke my tooth in half.
A month later, I prayed the same prayer, and again he took me at my word. I walked into my apartment to discover green mold growing on everything I own. Don’t tell God you’re willing to suffer for something if you’re not prepared to scrub cinder blocks for hours on end.)
And his promise is this: “In the world you will have trouble, but take courage; I have conquered the world.” Not “you will conquer the world,” but “I have conquered the world. The promise is that I will suffer. And I will fail. And as my life draws to a close, I may look back and see nothing gained. But Christ has conquered the world. And my life of failure will bear fruit, whether I see it or not.
We are an Easter people living in a Good Friday world. We fall and we fall and we fall beneath our crosses. But still we rise because the promise of the empty tomb leads us on. So let’s ignore success and failure and broken teeth and broken hearts. Let’s plant in whatever soil we find and forget about looking for fruit. Let’s embrace our crosses and rejoice in defeat. Because when we go before God, unemployment and divorce and teenage drama and middle school exams and pimples and even Bush Push 2005 will count for nothing. We will realize, with Graham Greene’s whiskey priest, “that at the end, there was only one thing that counted: to be a saint.”
*But really, what teacher has a kid take a make-up test in a room filled with socializing kids?? I was so distracted I didn’t even finish!
I’ve sat through a lot of commencement addresses, from Steve Case warning us about the internet crisis in Africa (you’re right, that’s the crisis we should worry about) to Alan Page extolling the virtues of affirmative action (irrelevance was the least of his issues). The only thing I remember my high school commencement speaker (Congressman Tom Davis) saying was that he remembered his commencement speaker saying he wouldn’t remember anything from that speech. Yes, I see the irony.
I sat through another yesterday, all filled with inspiring words about changing the world and following your heart (no joke—the day after I published that bit about not following your heart). I didn’t love everything she said, but it got me thinking about what I have to say to my kids, my babies who are going off into the world. I haven’t been able to protect them from much, but at least I’ve been around to help patch them up afterwards. Now I can’t do anything and it breaks my heart.
Every year that I’ve taught, I’ve kept the last ten minutes of the year to offer my last pieces of advice. It looks something like this:
As you go from here, I have so many hopes for you.
I hope you know that you are strong, you are beautiful, you are good enough, you are loved.
I hope you live for something. I don’t care what it is, Christ or music or family or whatever, but I hope you don’t just drift through life. I hope you live a life that means something, that when people look at you they see honor and integrity and love.
I hope you fight and struggle and question, that you never stop striving to be great.
I hope you conform to no one but Christ.
I hope you live in the Sacraments, that you remember what Christ sacrificed for you and never skip Mass Sunday. I hope that you never stop repenting, confessing, and striving again to be a saint. I hope you trust in the mercy of a God who loved you enough to die for you and never stay away from him out of fear or shame.
I hope you hunger for God, for Scripture, for the Bread of Life, that you pray every day, even when you don’t feel anything.
I hope you trust his Church but fight to understand all she teaches.
I hope the crosses you carry transform you. I hope you embrace the cross, that you find Christ in suffering. I will not hope that you do not suffer because I know that it is enduring suffering that makes you great, but I hope that when you suffer you cling to God and let him make you whole again.
I hope you find people who love you for who you are but want you to be better. I hope you are accepted and challenged, that the people you love are worth fighting for.
I hope that you’re caught up in a love so great it spills over to those around you.
I hope you dream big and ignore impossible.
I hope the world is a better place because of you.
I hope that when this life draws to a close you discover that all along you were led by a love that calls you deeper, that makes you greater, that brings you home.
And when you find yourself on the edge of eternity looking into the eyes of that love, I hope you throw yourself with abandon into his arms to be loved as you deserve.
I hope I see you there.
Congratulations, Class of 2012. Go out there and set the world ablaze!
I stumbled across a brilliant blog post the other day with advice for teenage girls ranging from awkward-but-true (“maybe you should stop offering your own breasts up for the ogling”) to touching (“You are beautiful. You are valuable. You are enough.”). I nodded till my neck hurt and then offered my students presents for reading it. I gushed about it and raved about it and then I moved on. Because I am (allegedly) an adult and have learned these lessons.
Today in prayer, though, I was struck by this: “’Follow your heart’ is probably the worst advice ever. “
Amen! Your heart is stupid! Don’t look at me like that, you know this. Remember that guy (girl) with the spiked (long) hair who wore those amazing JNCO wideleg jeans (um…that shirt she looked all cute in)? Okay, so I was in high school in the 90s. Forgive me. But work with me here—that kid’s in jail. You were so in love and everything would have been so perfect if your parents/friends/less attractive significant other hadn’t gotten in the way. All you wanted was to follow your heart and be true to yourself but you were stuck following the advice of people who think with their thinking organs and not their blood-pumping organs. And where did that get you? Oh, yeah, prom pictures where nobody’s wearing an orange jumpsuit.
Despite the fact that anyone over the age of 12 knows this, though, following your heart is the only virtue left in American cinema. Josie Geller follows her heart to the pitcher’s mound in Never Been Kissed. Who cares if she outs an innocent man as a sexual predator along the way? She’s being true to herself! Or how about Cher from Clueless following her heart into the passionate embrace of…her stepbrother? And nobody has a problem with that?
You see, when we’re “true to ourselves” above all else, we’re generally stomping all over someone else. (Unless you’re so holy that you love others more than yourself. In that case, may I suggest starting a blog to teach the rest of us?) Our hearts may want to drown our sorrows, cheat on our taxes, and kick our children to the curb (figuratively, I’m sure). A well-ordered mind, or conscience, or, dare I say, soul, knows better.
Now, I’m not saying every decision you make should spring directly from an Excel spreadsheet (although that is how I chose my last home). I’m just saying that your heart isn’t an unfailing compass to happiness. Because your heart is broken. Maybe not broken in two, but somehow lost, confused, hurt, stony—broken. There’s something in you that isn’t as it should be. This is ultimately a result of the Fall, but more immediately caused by an absent father, a number on the scale, a demanding mother, a best friend who found someone better, a pink slip, a solo Valentine’s Day…. Your heart learns to long for things that will not fill it and runs from the One who will. You need meat and potatoes but your heart grasps at Snickers instead. And so following your heart without regard for consequences or kindness or truth, beauty, and goodness just leaves you clinging to the candy while you slowly starve to death.
So when I heard that line, I put a big check mark by it in my head and moved on. But today, I started to wonder. Doesn’t God write his plans in our hearts? Can’t I trust my heart to lead me in his paths?
It struck me that the Christian life is about letting God tear from your heart whatever is not of him, letting him break and remake you. As I suffer in obedience to him, he conforms my heart to his. The more I love and seek him, the more my heart leads me in his ways. The more I pray, the more my life is built on who I am in him, not who I am to others. When I sit before the tabernacle and ask God to show me his will, I usually just mean that I want him to validate my will. I grasp at the happiness he has for me without accepting the joy that he is for me. But when I seek to love and serve and be consumed by him, the hardness of my heart is transformed into flesh—into his flesh for the life of the world.
St Augustine said, “Love God and do what you will.” Not because the rest doesn’t matter but because your will is aligned with his when your life is about him. So maybe “follow your heart” isn’t the worst advice ever—if you’re really following God. Ten years ago, the most powerful desires of my heart were to get married and have babies—two things I no longer believe God’s calling me to. I don’t think the deep desires of my heart have changed, but I’ve started to recognize what my heart is truly longing for: to be loved as I am, to give myself away, and to nurture others. Gradually, I’ve learned to see what my heart truly desires and to listen to what God has written there.
I’m not there yet—of course I’m not. I’m starting to trust, though, that my will is an accurate reflection of God’s will when it comes to the big things. A friend asked me today how I know that God’s asking me to start this ministry. I explained that God reveals his will to me in many different ways (more on those soon) but in this situation I felt a deep desire to do something that doesn’t naturally sound appealing. I like to have plans and safety nets and instead I’m driving away from the people I love, leaving with no job, no home, and no plans to find either—and I’m thrilled! When my heart rejoices in something that isn’t natural to me, I start to listen for God’s voice in that.
My heart is still divided on pretty much every front and there are many areas where “following my heart” would be as much of a disaster as it was when I was 15. One day, maybe I’ll be so completely his that my heart is his heart. Until then, I’ll let prudence balance passion and trust the thoughts of those wiser than I. Pray for me!
Oh, and (because it was stuck in my head the whole time I was writing this) here you go: