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It’s a little hard to believe, but we are a mere three days from the beginning of Lent! I feel somewhat fortunate that I’ve already begun thinking about it; in previous years, Ash Wednesday has completely caught me off guard.
Each year, I want to observe Lent better than I did before, and this year is no exception. I’ve been thinking about how I wish to observe this season, how I wish to practice sacrifice and discipline, self-denial and self-giving. I don’t want to be lax. I don’t want to approach Easter with the least regret that I could have observed Lent more faithfully and deeply. But each year has been better–this will be might eighth Lent since returning to the Church–and each year I have become more reacclimated to the rigors of this season. I’m no longer quite the fledgling I was. I feel this year will be very edifying.
One simple thing that I have found helpful and motivating is Father Jonathan Morris’s Lent Challenge, “A 46-day plan for spiritual growth in mind, body, and soul.” For each of those three areas, mind, body, and soul, he encourages that we decide on one thing to give up and one thing to do. He will share daily messages of encouragement via Twitter and Facebook.
I also found this quotation from Pope Benedict XIV in 1741:
The observance of Lent is the very badge of Christian warfare. By it we prove ourselves not to be enemies of Christ. By it we avert the scourges of divine justice. By it we gain strength against the princes of darkness, for it shields us with heavenly help. Should men grow remiss in their observance of Lent, it would be a detriment to God’s glory, a disgrace to the Catholic religion, and a danger to Christian souls. Neither can it be doubted that such negligence would become the source of misery to the world, of public calamity, and of private woe.
This quotation speaks powerfully to me; as I’ve mentioned before, I respond to nothing more readily than to a call to arms. I am best motivated to conduct my life well when I am reminded that how I conduct my life affects the world around me–when I remember that it’s not just about me. It’s about what, and Whom, I stand for. More than any other time of year, it is about carrying the Cross and following Christ toward Calvary, trembling in every footstep. Not that we are not always called to do this, but this special season exists for our benefit, to focus us and make us stronger, to amend our lives. It’s a special journey, a special march, a special campaign.
I pray that I might enter into this season with deep devotion and dedication, together with all Catholics. Let us pray for each other!
I think I am something of a rara avis among women. I like war stories. I like hearing about people’s experiences in the military. Not to say that I don’t shudder and shrink at the brutality, the inhumanity, the pain and death and trauma. But I like being amazed and humbled by the realization that people have been willing to put themselves in the way of those things for the sake of country and countrymen, to stand between those horrors and the rest of us. Sometimes I hear people dismiss or disparage soldiers because war is such a tragedy, such a shame, such a burden. They don’t consider that if it weren’t for soldiers, then all of us would be more directly impacted and imperiled by war, and we would all be forced to fend for ourselves. War is never a thing to love or desire or be proud of. But the soldiers and other people who suffer and endure and even sometimes overcome in extraordinary ways… these are people to be respected and admired and grateful for. They are heroes, every one.
I know this probably sounds like a post for Veterans Day or Memorial Day. But these thoughts shouldn’t be reserved for just certain days. I think them often. They inspire me. They motivate me. They instruct me. They drive me. They help me to remember that life is precious and a very dear price to pay. They also encourage me in the spiritual life, the spiritual war, the Good Fight as St. Paul called it.
This is a war that we are all in the midst of–some are officers, some are foot-soldiers, some are pilots, some are special forces, some are spies, some are medics, and some keep the fires of home and camp burning. We too can be heroes. Even if all we can do is stand our ground and declare where our loyalty lies–in this fallen world and even more fallen society, those things alone can be radical and heroic. And like all soldiers, we put ourselves between the enemy and those who cannot or will not defend themselves. We usually do it without any recognition or thanks–nor do we mind such things; we sometimes do it to the derision of those we long to protect. This is what life is like in the Church Militant, the Church on her long march Heavenward.
I sometimes fear that the Church and Christianity (never mind the rest of our society) have become too soft, too self-indulgent, too complacent, too undisciplined, too indolent–and God knows I’ve been my share of it all, much to my shame and regret. We all have chinks in our armor, after all, and the enemy is very subtle and slithery and knows just how to get though to us. But I fear that too many of us have forgotten altogether where we are and what we’re meant to do. We’ve forgotten our duty. We’ve gotten so fixated upon false, watered-down notions of peace and love and tolerance and niceness and upon feeling good at all costs without the least concern for being good. We count our own opinions, emotions, and preferences as far more important than doctrine, reason, and obedience. We give more loyalty to moral relativism than to the natural law inscribed upon every human heart.
We’ve seen the results of this. We’ve seen the Church splinter from within. We’ve seen unspeakable tragedy and scandal shake her down to her very foundation. THE enemy and those who serve him point and say, “You see? I knew you Christians and your Church were rotten to the core. You hypocrites! You oppressors! You can’t even save yourselves much less than the whole world. Give it up! Cast off the shackles. Forget about your so-called sins and your so-called virtues. Be nice to everybody and otherwise just do whatever feels good. Go with the flow and get a life!” They say this as if the Church herself and all of her loyal adherents were the source of all the misery and humiliation. In fact, it is because some people within the Church have persistently and remorselessly done exactly what the enemy would have us do!
What serves the enemy most is serving ourselves. Loyal service, on the other hand, demands that we lay ourselves down, set ourselves aside, and when necessary let ourselves be nailed to the cross! Generosity is at the heart of all loyal service, be it in an earthly military or the Church. Generosity steels our courage and discipline. Generosity ignites faithfulness, obedience, and charity. Generosity enables us to be selfless.
And so, one of the most helpful spiritual practices I’ve found recently (via my confessor, who always seems to know me better than most anybody, even though he never sees my face) is this Prayer of Generosity, traditionally attributed to St. Ignatius of Loyola, who knew a thing or two about service and obedience:
Lord God, I want to love You, not that I might gain eternal Heaven nor escape eternal Hell, but simply because You are my God. Teach me to be generous. Grant me to give to You and not count the cost; to fight for You and not mind the wounds; to toil and not to look for rest; to labor and to ask no reward, except the knowledge that I serve my Lord and my God. Amen.
Such simple words to pray. And such difficult words to live by! But pray, and it will be given, often beyond our wildest expectations. I have found this simple prayer to be very powerful. Transformative, really. Exactly what I needed to call forth the heroine in me and keep me from straying from my duty, which is to serve God and my fellow man, and to reach Heaven, my true Patria. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
I just want to say that I am honored to be part of the Church Militant. I am honored that God and Church would entrust such service and duty to me. And I pray I never completely let them down. I pray I can stand firm until the Good Fight is finished.
I know that sounds selfish and prideful, and it certainly is if that is your prevailing attitude in life. But sometimes it is completely necessary and beneficial. You can’t give of yourself if you are running on empty. And I have been running on empty. It’s sort of like when you’re on a plane and they give you the run-down on safety matters–put your own oxygen mask on first, and then assist others. It was years before I understood the good and logical reason behind that instruction. You can’t very well assist anybody if you can’t breathe yourself.
And so, I have been trying to focus on myself. Doing things that I know will be profitable to me. I’m even taking a break from looking for Mr. Right–this is partly out of scientific curiosity; I want to test the very popular and widespread theory that “When you’re not looking, that’s when the perfect person will come along.” We shall see about that.
Among other things, I just completed an introductory computer programming course via Coursera. I took it just because I felt like learning something completely new. I wasn’t too sure whether I would be any good at it, but I did it anyway, and it turns out I am pretty good at it (so far)! It might even lead me down a new path in my career. I’ve already signed up for some future classes in math and science.
For so many years, I was convinced that I was no good at math and science and never could be, not in a thousand years. Now, I wish I could go back in time and give my younger self a sound shaking and say “Don’t you believe it. Don’t you dare believe it!” Now, I am trying to make up for lost time. The truth is, I’ve always had a natural love and fascination with science. My mind has always worked in scientific ways. My heart and soul have always been in it–regardless of what marks I got in school. I always knew a truth that was far more important than anything I could learn in school: I knew that science would help me know God better. And I know that now more than ever before. That is my driving force.
It feels good to broaden my horizons and unfurl my sails! Who knows where I might end up? Adventure–I think that is what I need most of all right now. An adventure with the One who knows me best and loves me most.
I’ll close with one of my favorite G.K. Chesterton quotations: “All science, even the divine science, is a sublime detective story. Only it is not set to detect why a man is dead, but the darker secret of why he is alive.”
November is by far my favorite month of the year. It’s sort of bittersweet, but that is why I like it. The darkness lengthens, the trees turn, the air becomes chilled. And yet there is a special light and warmth as well. The warm hues of autumn leaves and gourds and chrysanthemums. The golden tone of the slanting sunlight. All the abundance and togetherness and festivities–not to mention smells and tastes–of the Thanksgiving feast. Wearing sweaters and fleecy pajamas for the first time in months. I appreciate and cherish these things more with each passing year!
I turned 36 this month, and that too was bittersweet. On one hand, I feel disappointment because my life at this age is nothing like how I always hoped and anticipated. I thought that surely by this time, I would be married and have at least a couple of children and a house all our own. Maybe I would even be able to leave the workforce to tend to the home and educate the children. I fully expected to be living a normal, respectable, successful life. But things have not turned out that way. In some ways, I feel like I have not made any progress at all from where I was ten years ago… only I’ve lost people and things that made up so much of the joy I had ten years ago.
But I’ve also gained important things: faith, maturity, and wisdom. And the older I get, the more I cherish the important things and the less I care about unimportant things, such as what people think or say about me, or how the world measures what is normal, respectable, and successful. The older I get, the more content (but not complacent) I become. And that is very liberating!
Also this month was Election Day in the United States, and it included the biggest election of all, the presidential election. I did my civic duty as a voter, and did so proudly and gratefully. But on the whole, I don’t put too much stock in government and politics. There is no form of worldly government that can make me entirely secure and confident. There is no form of worldly government that can make people happy. Happiness and security and confidence come from the heavenly kingdom and its Lord. This is not to say that the election didn’t impact me. It impacted me in that it revealed, yet again, how very polarized this nation is. No matter who won the most votes, nearly half the nation was going to feel defeated and frustrated and defiant. That’s not a good thing, and I don’t envy the president one bit. I also don’t much envy those who put him in office, for the burden of what happens in the next four years is going to be largely upon them.
But as for me, I shall continue doing what I always do and putting my trust and hope where I always put them, in my King and my God. My citizenship and good standing in His kingdom will always come first. Funny how folks in this country used to be suspicious of Catholics and say that Catholics could never be good Americans because they give their primary allegiance to the Vatican. The Vatican?! Boy, they didn’t know the half of it! They thought much too lowly and safely and mundanely of us. For we Catholics don’t just give our primary allegiance to another worldly kingdom, but to a completely otherworldly kingdom. We Catholics are far more bold and radical than our fellow citizens have ever given us credit for. The rather ironic part is that our allegiance to God and His kingdom actually entail being loyal and responsible to our earthly homes and leaders (or at least their offices). In the spirit of true charity, we love and serve our nation and respect our leaders out of love for God and Heaven. To adapt the famous last words of St. Thomas More, “I am the Republic’s good servant, but God’s first.”
November increases my tendency to wax poetic and philosophic.
For now, I am going to put aside my computer and go fix myself a nightcap of hot chocolate blended with a little tot of whiskey.
This is one of my favorite days of the year. Even if the weather is still a bit on the warm side, All Hallows Eve means summer is over and autumn has begun.
That this past summer has been so arid and desolate–a real desert–makes this day all the sweeter and more rejuvenating, all the more blessed! I am so relieved to have made it here, and I thank God and all my loved ones and supporters and intercessors for seeing me through the summer.
This day is a turning point in the year, and one that always brings about good things. I can’t help but feel excitement and hope and energy!
And then, this is not only All Hallows Eve, it is also my Birthday Eve! Life can never be too bad when you’ve got all the Saints in Heaven as your patrons. :D
Some have asked me how long my retreat will last. It’s always hard to predict before hand, but I always know when I’ve reached the end. The end is when when I reach the point where all the things I’ve done during the retreat become things I do every single day, without having to set my mind to it very hard. The end is when the lessons I’ve learned become deeply engrained and immovable. The end is when I can face some kind of crisis without totally falling apart. In short, the end is when my world and everything in it fall back into their correct places, bathed in the light of God.
This particular retreat has been rather lengthy. But that’s all right. Such things need as much time as they need, nothing more and nothing less. It’s not something that can be limited or planned out.
I can’t tell you what relief and rejuvenation I feel.
What I would tell you is this: You have to rest sometimes. What my life has been lacking for a long time is rest. I don’t just mean sleep, although that is very important. I mean periods of silence, stillness, and simple communion with God. If you don’t remain in contact with God, you will lose yourself and you will lose your sense of what is truly important. You’ll get pulled in a thousand different directions. You’ll pour your time and energy into things that don’t really matter in either this world or the next. You’ll start losing the voice of your Good Shepherd and start getting led about by other voices: the world, the flesh, and the devil. You’ll start becoming somebody you’re not, and you’ll start wanting to be somebody you’re not. You’ll start letting other things and other people define you and your values.
But in God, you will find yourself again. That’s what I needed more than anything. To find myself again. To be myself again. To let everything else fall by the wayside: all the distractions, all the noise, all the pride, all the masks, all the walls, all the many things coming between God and me.
Ideally, we should always be making time for rest and for communion with God. Ideally, we should never let all the other “stuff” intervene and build up so thick around us that we have to have it chiseled away. The reality is that it can be a really slippery slope. The reality is that sometimes things have to get overwhelmingly bad before we are compelled to fix them. At least, that’s the reality for me. And that’s why I sometimes have to undergo retreats. I have to force myself with every shred of will and discipline to just withdraw and seek out rest and seek out God.
Things have gotten much better and much easier. I feel like everything is finally the way it should be. Thank You Lord! I hope I can keep myself on the right path… for a while…
I’m still here and still doing my retreat. During this time, I’ve talked about shaking things off, or having things chiseled off. And for a while, that has been happening. Many things have fallen away or been taken away from me: worldly and spiritual indolence… arrogance… trying to be somebody other than who I am and who God created me to be… overall malaise… grudges and non-forgiving… putting too much value on material things… lots of unhealthy and unattractive things.
I have now come to a place where I am rather bare. Raw in some spots. Vulnerable. There are things I would still like to shake off or have removed. And God says, “There are some things that can’t be shaken. And there are some things I will not remove from you. There are some things so integral to who you are that you would not be yourself without them. You may not understand them. You may not want them. You may think they are not good for you, that they are even harmful to you. You will understand someday. For now, you have only to trust me and accept them. Accept yourself.”
This takes me back to the very first day of my current retreat, when I pondered weakness and strength. I put my finger squarely on one of my greatest weaknesses: namely, that I hate weakness. Now, I have been brought to the heart of the matter. After so much has fallen away from me, I still have weaknesses. It’s still difficult to accept them and to put them in God’s hands. But it is far less difficult than it was on day 1.
Things that can’t be shaken… things integral to me… I think the chief among these is grief. A few nights ago, it hit me like a hammer: the loss of my father, and ever farther back, the loss of my intended husband. I wept and cried and felt the losses in my soul as I have not done in years. I think that my grief for my father has only recently fully sunk into me. And I think the reason is that I’ve put up barriers to it… not been true to myself and to my situation. It’s one of those spots that has newly been stripped away. Grief, for losses old and new… it is always going to part of me. Not only my past, but also my present and future. I can’t be rid of it and still be myself.
But the surprising and wonderful part of this is: when I acknowledge that grief has a place in myself and in my life, then that place becomes very defined. Because grief has a place, it can’t fully occupy me or take over my whole life and being. When it has a place–and when I allow it its place–it stays in its place. And that’s a good thing. Grief occupies its own chamber within my heart. But my heart keeps beating and growing and expanding. It opens wide to include new people and new joys and new possibilities. When I give grief its place, then my life and my love and my self flourish.
St. Paul’s words come back to me: “For when I am weak, then I am strong.” I think I understand that better now.
There are many other such integral and unshakable things. Some are genuine strengths–for we all have strengths, just as we all have weaknesses. Some are strengths that may come across as weaknesses to the outside world–I am a “still waters run deep” kind of person; not very impressive on the outside, but a constant wellspring of thinking and sensing and reasoning and understanding. Sometimes I would like to be a lot more impressive on the outside, but then I would be just a shallow, dried-up, graven image of a person, and not my authentic self.
Being anything other than my authentic self is just draining… exhausting… it doesn’t get me anywhere. I’d rather just be myself, with all my strengths and weaknesses and quirks. That is when I can make true progress. That is when I can be closer to God and to other people.
As it turns out, I have more to shake off than I realized. And what I expected to be a refreshing rest has been more like lying on an operating table. Once again, I should have known better–for it often happens: I reach a point where I myself cannot loosen the things that immobilize and bind and mar me.
So now, God has His chisel in hand and is slowly but surely chipping away at all the pieces that still need dislodging, chipping away at things that hold me captive and mar my form, chipping away at the barriers I’ve thrown up myself.
It’s a painful process, and difficult to remain still and be utterly trusting in God’s sure hand and eye. The baser parts of my nature resent it and cry out, “Why are You doing this to me? I’ve turned to You for help, and yet You cause me such pain!” But the higher parts of my nature understand perfectly. After all, what am I but a clump of earth that God has seen fit to fashion in His own image and–wonder of wonders–to love? And if He is willing to work, again and again, to bring forth the greatness He sees in me, to liberate and purify and beautify me, then why should I complain?
It reminds me of one of my favorite passages from C.S. Lewis’s The Problem of Pain:
One can imagine a sentient picture, after being rubbed and scraped and recommenced for the tenth time, wishing that it were only a thumbnail sketch whose making was over in a minute. In the same way, it is natural for us to wish that God had designed for us a less glorious and less arduous destiny; but then we are wishing not for more love but for less.
(HarperCollins, p. 34)
Or, as St. Augustine said, “The doctor doesn’t stop cutting just because his patient is screaming for him to stop.”
There are many, maybe hundreds, of other sayings to express the idea that pain is sometimes necessary and beneficial for us. It is one of those timeless and universal human experiences. That gives me a little comfort. Just a little! So does looking forward to the final result. It is always worthwhile. But for now–just gotta be still and be trusting!
Well, this week has been a little bit crazy. But I still consider it a success.
I had a lot to shake off, and I think I’ve pretty much shaken it off, with lots of help from the Lord Holy Spirit. Tonight, I’ve reached the point where I feel I can breathe with clear lungs, think with clear mind, and rest a while in peace. I feel that my connection with God has finally been restored and my ties to the world have been severed. I feel much more recollected. I have my eyes back on the prize.
Tomorrow, the real, positive work will begin: the work of overcoming and ascending. Tomorrow I can pick up my full regimen of prayer and study. Tomorrow I resume the great journey heavenward.
So far, so good.
I don’t know what I was thinking! All those ideas about having a nice, clean, regimented, scheduled retreat… it’s like I was daring the Holy Spirit to take matters into His own hands. And did He ever!
The short version of the story is that these last two days have not gone as planned at all. In fact, I’ve been rather miserable. But–and this is the important part–I have learned a lot. And grown a lot. And grown closer to God. And become a bit truer to myself as well.
I wanted to just withdraw and rest. I wanted to meditate and contemplate. The Holy Spirit was having none of that! He likes to throw me into a fire and have all of my flaws and impurities be burned away and all of my soft spots and jagged edges tempered. He likes to throw me off a high cliff and see me learn to fly. While my soul is screaming and crying and begging and flapping around for dear life, I can sense His delight through it all. I can almost hear His laughter.
Of course, He knows what sort of creature I am. He knows that when He tries me and when He takes delight in it, it ratchets my determination up to the max. “I’m not going to fail,” my soul says with gritted teeth. “I am not going to give up!” And my soul strives ever harder toward God, toward faith, toward love.
I guess I should be thankful that the Spirit allowed me at least one day of relative calm. I might say that I hope He allows my coming days to be full of calm… but I don’t want to tempt Him! I’m not sure how much more of His tough love I can stand just now.