Because God knew how far I could fall, he reached in and saved me from myself awfully early. My conversion was when I was 13, and since I don’t generally do things halfway, I was pretty serious pretty fast. I started reading the Bible and the Catechism all the way through and praying daily. By the time I was 16, I was going to daily Mass and praying the rosary every day. If you’d asked me at the time, I would have told you I was a really good Catholic.1 But even at the time, I knew I was mostly going through the motions. I was doing what I knew was right, but my heart hadn’t been transformed. My approach to the faith was more competitive than contemplative–I wanted to be the best at Church so I could win. And given the “competition,” it didn’t seem to me that it would take much. So I patted myself on the back and continued judging and hating and ignoring the Lord. After all, I was good. There was plenty of time to be holy once I was grown. For a teenager, I was doing as much as the Lord could expect. Right?
Then when I was 16 I went to World Youth Day in Rome. And everything changed. Not because of the catechesis or the fellowship or the visit to my dear Claire in Assisi. Not because I went to Mass with a million other Catholics or saw the Holy Father for the first time. Not because of a powerful confession or a new best friend. Because of a stained glass window and a throw-away conversation.
I was walking through some church in Rome with a priest and saw a stained glass window of some 14-year-old kid.
“Who’s that kid?” I asked Father, rather more dismissively than I might today.
“Oh, that’s Saint Dominic Savio.”
“Cool. What’d he do?”
“Nothing,” Father answered. I’m sure he went on to explain more about Dominic Savio’s relationship with St. John Bosco and his work for the sanctification of his schoolmates, but I didn’t need to hear that.
He’s the youngest non-martyr ever canonized. He had no visions, no apparitions, worked no miracles. He was a regular kid who lived a regular life, died a regular death at age 14, and people raced to his coffin to make relics of their rosaries.
What have you been doing with your life?
For me, that was a wake-up call. I realized that I had to live for Christ in every moment, that it was never too early to strive for sanctity. In many ways, it transformed me. March 9th is the feast of St. Dominic Savio. Maybe on his feast day you could spend some time asking the Lord how you can live your regular life heroically.
Spoiler alert: if someone tells you she’s a really good Catholic, she’s probably not terribly holy. [↩]
I wonder if there was ever a Saint in the history of the world who was able to attend daily Mass and simply chose not to.
Not a guilt trip, just an invitation to reconsider your priorities. If the purpose of your life is to be a saint, what’s stopping you? Maybe daily Mass is impossible for you. But if it’s just that you’re lazy or busy or easily bored…think about that.
This weekend, I had the honor of singing at the wedding of a former student and his lovely bride. It was a profoundly moving ceremony and the most beautiful wedding reception I’ve ever been to, but what made the day so marvelous was knowing the happy couple. Andy and Suzy love each other deeply (though they love God more). They are kind and joyful and loving towards everyone they meet and watching the way they love each other–Andy so filled with joy as he watched Suzy walk towards him that he actually laughed out loud and Suzy even more radiant than usual when she gazed on her beloved–has reminded me once again what it means to be in love with Love himself.
Remember when you first fell in love?1 How thoughts of the beloved would push their way into your mind unsolicited? How every decision was made with him in mind–what you’d wear, what you’d read, how you’d walk to class? Remember spending the day filing things away to tell him about? Longing to be with him? Aching over the distance that still had to separate you?
Remember when you were first engaged? How all you could think about was becoming a woman who deserved him? How you could hardly bear to keep your distance? How you were almost consumed by a desire to be his, to bring more of his life into the world?
Remember when you were first married? How you couldn’t wait to get home to him? How the world more beautiful because he was in it, more beautiful because you were his? Remember looking in the mirror and rejoicing at the gift your body was to him? Knowing you were beautiful because you saw yourself through his eyes?
My friends, that is the love God desires from you. When he speaks of his love in Scripture, he calls himself our bridegroom2 and our lover.3 He describes our relationship with him not as a contract but as a covenant, a marriage, a love affair.
This isn’t the unique realm of consecrated women–or even of women, as St. John of the Cross would be quick to point out. Every person is called to a wild, passionate, being-in-love with the Lord. What if your relationship with Christ were less a series of obligations and more an enthrallment? Oh, you can’t manufacture feelings like that. But you can do your best to view Jesus as your beloved and not just some God-man who wants you to be good. What if you made every decision with him in mind? Stopped to talk to him about the things that excite or upset you? What if you asked him to make you long for him? If you looked at him in the Eucharist and tried to imagine what it would mean to be in love with him?
What if your purpose in life was to try to deserve him? What if you asked him to let a desire for him consume you? If you saw yourself through his eyes and knew that your life was a gift to him? If you made every decision because you are his, holding nothing back?
The only reason romantic love exists at all is to teach us the way God loves us and the way he wants us to love him. Scripture is saturated with this imagery of God as lover.4 Jesus tells us again and again that he is the bridegroom.5 When he handed himself over for us on the marriage bed of the Cross, his body cried out in the language of marital love, “I give myself completely to you forever.” At each Mass, he speaks again through the priest, “This is my body which will be given up for you.” “I give myself completely to you forever,” he says, and we walk down the aisle to receive our groom.
What if we just tried to view the Eucharist like it was the supreme act of love, the consummation of our union with Christ? What if we approached the Mass like it was our wedding–or at least a date? Like it was more than just a box to check but an opportunity for communion with the Lord? Like it was the most important moment of our week?
Of course, love isn’t always pleasant and it isn’t always easy. Remember when it all started to fade, when you lost the love you had at first?6 When it was hard to find things to talk about? When he began to seem too demanding? Remember how you stopped thrilling at the sight of him? That’s part of love, too. It’s the part, I think, when love becomes real. It’s no longer about us. It’s not about feelings or fun. It’s a choice made for the beloved. We choose to love, choose to spend time together. We work at love not because of what our lover can give us but because of who he is.
Maybe this is where you are. Maybe you’ve had the butterflies and the longing for heaven and now you’re just trudging through. Maybe prayer is boring and living for Christ just seems too hard. That’s when it’s time to double down. Just like you wouldn’t quit on your marriage,7 don’t quit on this love. Don’t settle for mediocrity. Fight for this love. Read up on some strategies for prayer or just commit to doing it without any strategies. Start talking to God, even if you have nothing to say. Spend more time with him, not less. It’s okay that it’s not fun–it’s still good. And it’s worth fighting for.
I guess I’m just saying that if you’ve been settling for doctrines and pious practices and rules, know that there is more. All those things are designed by God to lead you to what really matters: being in love with him. So many of us are pushing through the day-to-day without any attention to God beyond the obligatory grace before meals–or going to daily Mass and praying the Office and the Rosary without a spirit of love. The Lord is offering you more than a membership card with the occasional obligation attached; he’s offering you a love affair of the most passionate sort, a relationship that shakes your world, that defines you, that fills your heart and still leaves you longing. You may never thrill to the thought of a holy hour, but your life can be so much more than just the things of this world with a side of Jesus. It can be beautiful, intense, amazing, terrifying, and real. But he’s a gentleman. He won’t force you. He’ll keep chasing you, but eventually you have to stop running and draw near to the God who is closer to you than you are to yourself.
It’s a choice, just like love is a choice. It’s a choice to spend time with him every day, a choice to pay attention when you’re there. It’s a choice to see the world through his eyes, a choice to make him more than just an obligation. It’s a choice to live like a woman in love and I’ve found that the more you make that choice, the more you find that’s exactly what you are: a woman in love with Love himself. What a gift.
Guys, I’m going to direct this at the women since I have no idea what it’s like for a man to fall in love and I don’t know how to talk about men being in love with a God who primarily reveals himself as masculine. Do what you will with it. [↩]
I thought I was done with weddings. And then my students started getting married, and now wedding season has begun all over again. Seriously, I have 6 weddings and two ordinations in the next 8 months. I hope they’re not expecting gifts….
Soon after one of my kids got engaged, we were talking about how exciting it all is. She looked at me with 22-year-old, doe-eyed, twitterpated optimism, and asked, “You know what I’m most excited about?”
The cynic in me steeled myself for some saccharine answer like “Waking up every morning with my best friend” or “Falling more in love every day of my life!” A good answer, but one that was unaware of the difficulties of real love.
“When we’re married, we won’t be able to hide from each other. Think how much we’ll grow!”
I’d like to take credit for that answer. After all, I did teach her apologetics in 2009. But she may have taught me more in that one statement than I did in 9 months of essay tests and notebook checks.
This is a power couple. They’re good-looking, intelligent, successful, outgoing. The world is their oyster. They should be focused on a Pinterest-perfect wedding and a honeymoon to make their Instagram followers jealous. But instead, they’re focused on holiness and how marriage will transform them and make them saints. Shoot.
It got me thinking. I don’t meet a lot of married couples whose approach to their marriage seems to be that it’s intended to sanctify them. At best, people tell me that marriage is really really hard and suffering makes you holy, so marriage makes you holy. On rare occasion,2 I’ll meet a couple that’s intentional about praying together. Not just praying as a family or showing up at Mass together, but honest-to-goodness, bare-your-soul-before-God-and-your-spouse praying together. More often, couples (good, holy, faithful couples) tell me that praying together is too intimate. God help us who live in a society where physical intimacy is shared with anyone we find moderately attractive but spiritual intimacy has no place in marriage!
But while redemptive suffering and communal prayer are essential elements of Christian marriage, I think even those two aren’t enough. Marriage doesn’t make you holy just because your spouse is a thorn in your side or a prayer partner. Marriage makes you holy because it strips you bare before another soul and asks you both to challenge and encourage each other. It’s that accountability that makes saints.
So I’m going to go out on a limb again and give advice I have no business giving.3 Go ahead and discount anything that’s tinged by my unmarried optimism and adjust as needed.
Here’s what couples need: a couple’s examen of consciousness. Make a commitment that once a week4 you’ll get together just the two of you.5 Start by praying together—Mass or a rosary or adoration or whatever but also from-the-heart, awkward, intimate prayers. And then get real. Each of you go over the last week, talking about where you feel you failed in charity. Point out the times you got angry, the times you were lazy—not just in your marriage, but throughout your life. Mention the ways God helped you grow this week and thank God for the many blessings he poured out on you. Talk through the frustrations you endured and try to figure out together how those things are working for good. And listen. As you share the ways you fell, ask your spouse if there’s anything you didn’t notice. Listen when he points out both your faults and your victories. Ask her what you did that made it harder for her to love well. Process the advice he gives you and the strategies she suggests.
Then switch and talk through your spouse’s week. Listen more than you talk, but speak when you must. Console and challenge and encourage. Speak hard truths, but speak them gently and with reverence.6 Ask (and grant) forgiveness. Thank each other. Ask the Holy Spirit to guard your tongue, that you might speak truth in love. Ask the Holy Spirit to guard your ears, that you might hear God’s truth. Ask the Holy Spirit to open your heart, that you might become holy.
Maybe some of you do this daily. But I imagine that more of you are living lives of quiet desperation, that the deep, intimate conversations of your courtship have disappeared under the weight of trivialities and exhaustion. So when your partner upsets you, you bite your lip and bury your frustration over and over and over until it explodes in unmerited rage that just causes him to close up. Or you try to say something each time and it comes across as nagging. You decide you’ll just be a martyr but you martyr her instead by your frigid response. When you speak, she takes offense and when you’re silent he doesn’t change.
But what if you had permission to correct each other? What if once a week, there was a peace accord, a free pass to examine your own conscience and encourage the other to grow? What if you were vulnerable before each other? What if you talked about little problems while they were still little? What if you saw your temper through her eyes? What if you saw your sullenness through his? What sins could you wipe away before they became habits that hardened around your stony heart?
And what if you were affirming each other as well? Balancing correction with congratulations? Taking the time to point out your pride in his patience or your pleasure in her hard work? Our herculean efforts often go unnoticed in the chaos of life and that lack of recognition becomes one more stone in the walls we build between us. What if every week you told him how marvelous he is? What if every week you told her how glad you are that she’s the mother of your children? What if you stopped letting life live you and started living like you’re saints?
It might be too much to jump into if you’ve got years of resentments and wounds built up.7 But you could start by praying together and affirming each other once a week and go from there. If you’re early in your marriage, you could amp up communication now; if it’s been 50 years, you could start talking about the things that have been swept under the rug since the Nixon administration. Figure out the formula that works for you, but start looking at marriage like its purpose is to make you a saint. Marriage isn’t sanctifying simply because it’s hard. What accomplishes the miracle of holiness in marriage is two people fighting together to become saints.
Obviously, I’ve never tried this. In fact, I don’t know anyone who has. Maybe it’s a ridiculous idea. All I know is I can’t get it out of my head in prayer and it sure isn’t doing me any good rattling around in there. Maybe it’s for one of you. Give it a shot for a few months, then tell me how it’s going. I figure prayer, communication, and the pursuit of holiness can’t hurt, anyway.
While we’re on the subject, can I recommend my favorite books on marriage? I just reread Alice von Hildebrand’s By Love Refinedand it’s just as good as I’d remembered. Note: it’s subtitled Letters to a Young Bride but is NOT written exclusively for women. It’s a book about love and sacrifice and it’s simply-written in short chapters—a perfect book to read together! Fulton Sheen’s Three to Get Married is (as I recall) not quite so simple but fantastic all the same. And it gives me hope that people can write well about things of which they have no personal experience….
Also, I fleshed out some of these thoughts in a talk I gave in Tennessee. Listen to it here:
Pick a time when you’re generally not too stressed or distracted or exhausted and when you won’t feel rushed. Get a babysitter if you have to. Your marriage is worth the investment. [↩]
Be very careful how you phrase things. Try “What was going on Tuesday night when you wouldn’t talk to Therese?” instead of “Have you forgotten what a baby you were Tuesday night?” “I feel as though this was a hard week for you to speak charitably about your coworkers” instead of “You were quite the gossip.” “I know you didn’t mean anything by it, but I was pretty upset when you joked that I was fat” instead of “Calling me fat was a total jerk move, don’t you think?” [↩]
If this is the case, please, please don’t be too proud to consider therapy. Sometimes all we need is for someone to help us find a common vocabulary and we can take it from there. [↩]
The very first talk I gave to a large group was when I was in high school. I stood up in front of our Fellowship of Christian Athletes huddle1 during Advent and talked about how Christmas hit me harder than Easter because Easter told me Jesus died for me but Christmas told me he lived for me. “I’d die for Jesus,” I said confidently. “Honestly, I want to be a martyr. But it’s not because I’m brave. It’s because I’m lazy. I figure I can be holy for 5 minutes; it’s the prospect of another 70 years of holiness that terrifies me.” I’ve been giving some variation of that talk for the past 15 years and it’s never more powerful to me than when I’m meditating on the Annunciation.
Our feast today celebrates a God who became ordinary, born to an ordinary mother in an ordinary town. Oh, of course we know there wasn’t anything ordinary about them–and yet for thirty years, their holiness consisted in the dull monotony of everyday life. Jesus’ Passion, Death, and Resurrection were the culmination of a life of quiet sacrifice, of dirty feet and skinned knees, of sweat and stomachaches and boredom and rejection and chores and loneliness. Mary, the Queen of Heaven and Earth, spent 30 years sweeping floors, fetching water, consoling neighbors, and getting sassed by her many (spiritual) children. St. Joseph sawed and sanded and carried out the trash and all three gave glory to God by the very ordinariness of their lives.
How many of us are content to be ordinary? We want to be marvelous and impressive, to have the world look on in awe at our holiness–or we want to be mediocre and comfortable. We see our options as daring, terrifying lives of holiness or everyday, ordinary adequacy. But the Annunciation tells us that holiness lies in the ordinary and that the ordinary is supremely sanctifying.
The great saints weren’t hobos or martyrs or visionaries–or at least not above all else. Above all else, they were mothers and brothers and lovers and friends. They were made saints by changing diapers, listening to complaints, shoveling snow, forgiving, begging forgiveness, chopping vegetables, wiping away tears, grading papers, and loving. Always loving. It wasn’t St. Gianna’s death that made her a saint; thousands of mothers have made the same heroic choice. It was loving her husband and washing dishes and sympathizing with her patients. Thomas Aquinas didn’t become a saint by being the greatest mind the West had ever known but by recognizing how small he truly was. Mother Teresa wasn’t a saint because she won the Nobel Prize or founded a successful religious order but because she loved one child of God. And the next. And the next.
This morning I was blessed to attend Mass at a beautiful Dominican parish where I received Jesus kneeling at the altar rail. Like Mary, I did nothing to deserve this gift. Like Mary, all I could do was say amen, let it be done unto me, not even reaching out my hands but just opening myself to receive. And now, like Mary, I am sent out to bear Christ to the world, not to kings offering gifts or to angels crying Gloria but to shepherds and widows and pagans and friends and enemies. I am theotokos to the cashier and the fussy baby and the man without hope. It’s everyday, ordinary, change-the-world holiness. It’s day-in, day-out, dull, radical holiness. It’s my cross and my crown, it’s tedious and glorious. It’s time I stopped looking for holy wars to fight and started looking for a holy life in what I’ve been given. I am an ordinary woman following an ordinary God, a great saint-in-the-making following a great saint-maker.
Fiat mihi. Let’s go be saints.
No, I was not an athlete. It seems to be rather a misnomer. [↩]
When I decided I wanted to be a Saint,1 I knew exactly what to do. Saints, after all, are sweet, quiet, pink-cheeked girls who spend hours on their knees and never, ever yell, right? So I set about becoming a holy card.
I even made sure to fold my hands when I prayed and to gaze at heaven.2 I knew what it took to be a Saint, as I knew everything, and I was willing to mortify everything about myself. I knew I had to quit being loud and sarcastic. I could smile beatifically, but never guffaw. I should pray about everything–everything, even which sidewalk to take on my way to class. It was insane, and it lasted about five minutes.
But the idea that I had to change dramatically if I wanted to be holy stayed with me. It wasn’t just a desire to be purified of my sinfulness–obviously, holiness requires radical change. But I was identifying core elements of my character as “wrong” because they didn’t fit with the plaster images I’d seen in Saint books.
So I tried to be quiet and sweet and inoffensive. I tried to smile more and yell less. But you know what? God made me loud and obnoxious. And really, he’s called me to be obnoxious for the kingdom. I’d just as soon say nothing offensive and draw only positive attention. I’d gladly avoid calling anyone out, even people who are knowingly embracing serious sin. But I’ve realized, after years of hating myself when my best efforts were met with raised eyebrows or narrowed eyes, that that’s not who God made me to be.
And when I started to really get to know the Saints, I realized that most of them weren’t like that, either. In fact, there’s no one model for holiness that we all have to squeeze ourselves into. All Saints are like Christ, sure, but Christ was by turns gentle and wrathful, sarcastic and sweet. And just like holy people aren’t all priests and nuns, holy people don’t all fit that hands-folded, heavenward-gaze model so many of us are used to. People who are seeking Christ are messy and awkward. They’re all kinds of people living all kinds of lives in all kinds of ways. Don’t believe me? Check it out:3
All for the glory of God, all for the kingdom, all for love of souls. It’s not better to be a missionary than it is to be a fry cook, just like it’s not better to be a choleric than it is to be a phlegmatic. What’s better is to be just who you should be–whoever that is.
My friends, God did not make you to be anyone else. He doesn’t need another Dominic or another Elizabeth Ann. He made you quite deliberately to be you. Your truest self–your holiest self, your saintliest self–is most fully you. Which means that if you’re shy, you can let yourself be shy–within reason. Same thing if you’re loud. I’m not giving you permission to indulge your personality quirks to the point of sin, just pointing out that grace builds on nature. God gave you the particular personality and circumstances and work and vocation and body and home that you have in order to serve the Church and the world. He wants to use what is natural to you to do the supernatural through you.
This song by Danielle Rose expresses what I’m trying to say. Ironically, it was Danielle Rose’s beatific smile that inspired my college obsession with being quiet and sweet.5 I wanted to be holy like her. But just like me, she was trying to be holy like someone else.
Your homework this week: spend some time asking the Lord what parts of you need to be converted and what parts are exactly as he wants them. You might wish your holiness looked quieter or louder or more radical or more ordinary or less painful or less easy, but knowing who you ought to be requires that you know who you are. If I had succeeded in becoming the Saint I thought I needed to be, I’d be repressed and tense and miserable and totally ineffective. To be free and holy and do God’s work, I sometimes have to dance like a fool, fall on the ground at a dropped pass, or scream “heresy” around people who don’t quite understand the nuances. I have to cry more than is reasonable and laugh harder than anyone in the room. I have to stick my foot in my mouth and give people nicknames and (try to) look cute and make fun of myself and all kinds of nonsense. It’s not normal, but it’s good. And it’s me.
I’ve had people listen to me talk about my life with Christ and tell me that they don’t think they can be like me. Good! God knows the world doesn’t need more of me. It’s got about all it can handle with one. And, quite frankly, you’d be terrible at being me. Just like I’d be terrible at being you. But if you can figure out how to be you and I can figure out how to be me, we can change this world.
If you are what you should be, you will set the world ablaze. -St. Catherine of Siena
I know I should just want to be a saint–a person who’s in heaven–but I admit that I really want to be a Saint. I want statues and holy cards and a feast day. We’ve talked about my pride issues before, haven’t we? [↩]
This would be cute if I hadn’t been in college. [↩]
Hover over any of the names to see who I’m talking about without clicking away. [↩]