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Today’s the 4th anniversary of Patrick’s death.
But it’s pretty much an ordinary day for me.
I guess that’s a good sign.
I’m pretty happy with it, anyway.
I still would rather he were here, but that’s not how it is. And so much has happened since then… I have more than enough to think about and keep me busy.
He’d want me to keep on moving forward.
After all, moving forward is moving toward being reunited someday.
That will be good.
But we must be faithful to today too, and as I said, I’m pretty happy with today.
My Lenten Lesson for this year was to be sheepish:
Not in any bad sense. Just trusting more in our Lord’s mercy. Putting myself in His arms. Not chasing after my own designs so much. Being more genuine. Being more humble. Seeing in greater clarity my weak humanity and all its struggling and suffering… and not freaking out about it as if I’m supposed to be some other creature. Just today alone, I’ve come to realize that sometimes I think I’m supposed to be God–I’m supposed to be the infinitely strong, mighty, wise, and merciful one–to the point where I don’t feel like I need to turn to God or entrust myself to Him.
I guess there’s something in all of us that craves to be in control at times. I know I can be a control freak now and then. But that’s not who we are, that’s not how we’re made. We don’t thrive that way, nor do we learn anything. We need God to be God, and us to be ourselves. We need to be the rescued wayward sheep at least sometimes.
I had a feeling that it was going to be challenging, and it has been. But I feel it has been a success! It’s hard to go through and enumerate all the steps in the process, but I do feel I’ve learned and changed. I have put myself more in God’s hands.
It has taken some discipline, but in disciplining myself, I feel I have been much kinder and gentler to myself. If that makes sense. To put it another way, I’ve always been my own harshest and most unreasonable critic. When I am able to just put myself in God’s hands and look to Him for my needs and for solutions, I always find that He is infinitely gentler and more forgiving than I am to myself. The same is true with other people, even. When I look outward and when I trust God and others, I find so much more love than when I look inside myself.
This Lenten Lesson was partly about learning to see myself more the way God does, and the way other people do. And treating myself more the way I would treat others. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not talking about laxity. This isn’t about letting myself slide or take license. It’s just about compassion… happiness… not agonizing over things to the point where it’s really hard for me to appreciate how good life is, how good God and other people are to me.
Most of all, I feel like I have received a great deal of healing this Lent. You know, the last several years have been so hard and brought about so much change… not all of it good. Even though I can’t help it that my fiance died, even though it was so completely out of my hands and my control… being single and alone again has been such a huge, painful blow to me, to my confidence and to my sense of my own identity and value. It has made me self-reliant in a positive way, but it has also turned me inward on myself to a very unhealthy and unhappy degree.
I think it has left some chinks through which some remnant of my old feminist and atheist attitudes have seeped back into me. There’s been this nasty little voice saying, “You don’t need a man. You don’t need anybody. And you definitely don’t need some god in heaven. All the power you need is in you. You are in control.” And it ignited in me some awful need to overcompensate for my loss and cope with all the change.
I guess some part of me still found that more attractive than accepting the truth of the matter, that sometimes I need somebody greater and more powerful than me to help, to provide, to heal, to comfort, to control, and to fight for me. I need to be carried sometimes. And that’s not a put-down of myself, nor is it self-pity. It’s simply the truth. And right now, that Somebody is God. My parents and other relatives and friends and Church communities help a lot too! But mostly, it’s just me and God.
Not me or God (as that nasty little voice would have me believe). But me and God. He has blessed me with many abilities and strengths… and weaknesses. Most of all, He has blessed me with Himself! When I accept and receive Him, I also accept and receive my self. He gives me my self in all authenticity and truth. He looks upon it with love, and that makes me more capable of doing the same.
I still have lots of questions about how to be myself and exactly who that is right now. About how I am different than in the past and how I’m still the same. I have things to learn about how to interact with people too. Lots to learn and explore. There is nobody who can give me more answers than God can. Nobody knows me or my questions better than He does. I don’t even know how to ask them–but He knows what they are.
So I need to keep on building upon my relationship and partnership with God. And with other people too–because they will always be part of my life and who I am. I know God uses us to help each other. But honestly, after almost 4 years, nearly everybody around me either 1) doesn’t realize all I’ve been through, or 2) assumes that what happened then no longer affects me, that I am “over it,” not to put it too bluntly. I don’t hold that against anybody. There’s no way they could still be as aware of my difficulties as I am. But that’s why I say it’s mostly just me and God for now.
The Lenten Lesson has helped me see how close He is to me, all the time. And that He is there for me. I don’t need to try to shoulder anything alone. I don’t have to accept the little voices that lie to me and try to build walls between me and Him. I now recognize them for what they are. And I no longer want anything to do with them. I just want Him. And I just want to be whole and live well, with as much happiness as possible.
Not happiness as defined by the world, but happiness as defined by my soul’s relationship with God. Whether it is the relationship between Father and daughter, Shepherd and sheep, King and subject, Teacher and student, Master and handmaid, Creator and creature, there is no shame in it. God’s love and devotion gives it worth. And that is where happiness is born. That is where our selves are most true: in His love.
(Image is a detail from a photo by Flickr user Lawrence OP)
This is probably by far the simplest part of the story. But as Georges Bernanos once wrote, “The simplest things are by no means the easiest.” I could simply say, “I decided God was calling me to become a Lay Dominican, and so I did. The end.” What kind of story would that be?
I guess I will start by saying this:
It is true that the Lord knows when we’ve reached our limits–we only have to trust Him. Just when I was reaching mine, He gave me a deep and much-needed respite. It coincided with the beginning of Lent, 2007. Unlike the grueling Lent of 2006, this Lent was serene and restful.
I felt closer to the Lord than ever before, and for once there was no friction. I thought back to my relationship with my late fiancé, Patrick: I remembered that when the relationship was in its infancy, we each had our rough edges and sharp corners that needed smoothing; after a while they were smoothed and we were able to grow closer together, more comfortably. I think something similar happened between God and me.
That Lent, I learned what true happiness and fulfillment are: not emotions, but rather a Person. In that happiness and fulfillment I found rest and peace. And even when I was having troubles with work or grief, that ageless, eternal, unchanging Happiness was there for me. On 25 March I wrote:
Lately (and, generally, as usual) my passion is more of the Garden of Gethsemane variety. And still I am learning about happiness! Because when you’re in the Garden, you are with Him. More than that, you are with Him when none of His other disciples are. You are alone with Him. You are with Him in one of His most vulnerable, most human times–blood, tears, fear, anxiety, dependence on the Father. In the first, He was any and every one of us… in the latter, we must strive to be like Him. Oh, to be in the Garden, alone with Him… the Garden is an even better training ground than the Desert. You can’t do aught but suffer with Him, and also suffer your own helplessness to console Him. But you also can’t help feeling the joy and the great privilege of such an intimate encounter with God at His most human, and of the ignition within yourself of a love so spectacular in its selflessness and desperation.
Love is love, no matter how pained. The same is true of happiness.
What does this have to do with my becoming a Lay Dominican? At the end of Part 2 of this story, I said, “In searching for my vocation, I was finding my relationship with God.” The opposite was true as well. I didn’t understand at the time how intricately intertwined vocation and relationship with God are. Of course, it makes sense: vocation is a calling from God. And how are you going to hear it, much less obey it, if you aren’t close to God?
Becoming close to God is what made finding my vocation simple at that point. But that still isn’t the whole story.
Lent ended and Easter began. And then 28 April came–the 2nd anniversary of Patrick’s death. And it wasn’t a horrible day. Not only did I have a closer relationship with God, but I had also formed a nice little circle of Catholic friends by that time, and could feel myself being borne up and surrounded by their prayers. And it inspired me to pray too. The Rosary had been my life-line many times. And I’d always felt closest to Mary, the Lady of Sorrows, in times of grief.
And then, there were the Saints. I knew that 28 April was the feast day of St. Gianna Beretta Molla, one of my very favorite of Saints. But on 28 April 2007, I happened to learn that it was also the feast day of St. Louis-Marie de Montfort–one of the more famous devotees of the Rosary, and, as it happens, a Third Order Dominican. The next day, I learned that 29 April is the feast day of St. Catherine of Siena–Patron Saint of Lay Dominicans. And the next day, 30 April is the feast day of Pope St. Pius V–another Dominican! Even at that time, I thought to myself, “This is no coincidence.” The Dominicans were definitely being kept at the front of my mind.
The Liturgy of the Hours came onto the scene around that time too. I happened to come by a free trial subscription to eBreviary. I knew that if I did become a Dominican, the Liturgy of the Hours would be part of my life every day. So I tried it out and fell in love! But I decided fairly soon that I really needed a print breviary, so I ordered a copy of Christian Prayer.
Finally, 11 May came–the 2nd anniversary of my re-joining the Church. And the next day, a Saturday, is when it happened. It wasn’t a Road to Damascus experience. It just came to me, gently yet unmistakably, in the quietness after receiving Communion. I simply knew that I had arrived at a threshold, and that it was time to step over it. So I did. When I got home, I found the Web site for the Southern Province Dominican Laity. I shot an email to the provincial vocations director and to the moderator of the local chapter.
I shortly received some very nice and informative emails from both of them. But just as if that weren’t quite enough to convince me that I was on the right path, I learned about the patronage of my local group: Our Lady of the Rosary of Pompeii, and her devoted servant, Bl. Bartolo Longo. Here’s what I wrote in my journal on 13 May:
The most significant thing about this story is how much Bl. Bartolo’s early life reminds me of my own high school and college years. I was, like him, caught up in every variety of error–all of Modernism’s irrational trappings as well as theosophy and various flavors of occultism and paganism. It all caused significant physical, mental, and spiritual damage and brought much suffering and grief upon me and my whole family. But there was hope for Bl. Bartolo, and there was hope for me… a hope revealed when much of our lives were seemingly reduced to rubble. He rejected and denounced his past errors, and I have rejected and denounced mine. He went on to do great things… and I pray I might also!
All of this provides me great consolations! For one thing, I’ve been introduced to a new, sympathetic, understanding, and inspiring ally in Heaven! And my local Lay Dominican chapter happens to be connected to him! Coincidence? You know I don’t believe that for a minute! Rather, I think it’s a providential sign that I am definitely going in the right direction and toward the right place!
This is so exciting! I feel like a child with a whole future ahead of me! I feel like a traveller on the brink of a expansive new horizon of adventure! I feel like I really will set the world on fire as St. Catherine of Siena said!
I was invited to the monthly meeting of the local group, and I was determined to go. It was pretty much a repeat of what had happened when I went to the vocations retreat. I was terribly beset by temptation and spiritual oppression. The devil and his demons were hell-bent on my not going. But I had my memories of that retreat to inspire me and keep me focused. And so I went. On the long walk up the path to the priory entrance, my insides were in knots and I was trembling. And then I stepped inside… and all the anxiety just melted away!
I had never been there in my life. But I felt like I was home. Just as if I had grown up there. I felt at home. Such peace and happiness. Home.
After that, I never looked back and never doubted, even though I occasionally met with some disapproval: “Oh, you’re just compromising–if you were really devoted to God and the Church, you’d become a sister or a nun.” And I’d just smile and shake my head. I’d think about all the months I had thought and prayed and discovered and doubted and discerned and retreated and surrendered. I’d think about the times the Holy Spirit had put me through wringer, testing and trying and training. I’d think about being with Christ in Gethsemane. About Mary and the Saints. I’d think of the Dominican tertiaries who had gone before me: St. Catherine of Siena, St. Louis-Marie de Montfort, Bl. Bartolo Longo, Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati–did any of them compromise?
After an initial training phase, I was admitted to the Order of Preachers on 9 March 2008. And people still tell me that my face lights up whenever I talk about being a Dominican. The happiness and fulfillment I found in my Lord have never left me.
I have encountered this question a number of times in the last three years. It is often a sincere and earnest question, with which I empathize greatly. Sometimes it is posed more cynically. I’ve been met with my share of incredulity when speaking of my life as a single Catholic.
The usual point of contention is the Church’s teaching on chastity and on sexual expression being reserved exclusively for husbands and wives–and even within marriage, there are laws of chastity and properly-ordered sexual expression. For all unmarried people, chastity requires complete sexual abstinence. Again, this is for all unmarried people: regardless of why they are unmarried, regardless of their sexual orientation, regardless of their state in life, regardless of how imminent their marriage may be.
This is a hard teaching. But is it impossible? It can’t be if I and many other people live up to it. So, do I have some kind of super-power? Is my sex drive abnormally low? If those were true, then I wouldn’t consider it such a “hard teaching.” The fact is, I struggle with it as much as anyone, and occasionally I fall–and I’m not sure I would believe anybody who said otherwise. So, then, how do we live according to this hard teaching? There are three fundamental and inter-related requirements.
1) We must stand apart from the secular world. This is important for Catholics to do in every aspect of life, but especially when it comes to chastity. In the opinion of the secular world, chastity is impossible, or at least miserable. In the secular world, even children are scarcely expected or encouraged to live chaste lives! For one thing, chastity doesn’t sell. For another, it doesn’t “feel good.” The secular world is very much about money and self-gratification, and nothing is more easily exploited for those purposes than human sexuality. This is pretty much the way it has always been.
For those who are (rightly) ashamed of being openly in thrall to money and gratification, there are all kinds of supposedly rational and scientific arguments that, as long as it is consensual, all sexual expression is normal and healthy and only natural, and that any kind of repression is harmful and turns people into basket cases–and the Catholic teaching of chastity sounds an awful lot like repression, doesn’t it? My favorite is the “argument from nature,” in which nature is used to rationalize any and every kind of sexual behavior based on the fact that such behaviors have been observed among animals. This argument is very faulty and capricious. I’ve heard quite a lot of people use it to rationalize their preference for promiscuity and conveniently overlook the little fact that some animals are naturally monogamous. Those who like to use it as rationalization for bad behavior drop it quickly as soon as some unnatural things like fast cars, computers, jet planes, and breast implants are concerned.
As for “repression” turning people into “basket cases,” experience simply doesn’t bear that out. If anybody can make a good case for me, or any other chaste single Catholic being a basket case as a result of being a chaste single Catholic, I’d really like to hear it.
All of this said, I am not saying that chastity comes naturally. Not in this fallen world. But remember: human nature is different from animal nature. It is partly supernatural. In order to live an authentically human life–which includes chastity–we rely on supernatural assistance. Better yet, it is there for the taking.
2) We must trust God completely. There are a great many things I could say about being in relationship with God. Let it go without saying that all Catholics must have an ever-growing, ever-deepening personal relationship with God. But I consider trust to be one of the most essential and crucial elements of that relationship. Lack of trust can make a soul especially vulnerable to ravage by loneliness, despair, envy, and depression.
When we say something is impossible, we imply that it is without hope, that it cannot be helped by anything or anybody. As we have seen, that is generally the opinion of the secular world when it comes to chastity. But Scripture and Tradition–our Catholic faith–tell us that we have a God who gives us hope, a God who cares for us and helps us, a God who knows us and knows our needs better than anybody else, even better than we know ourselves, and who provides for those needs. He made us–we hold no secrets, no mysteries for Him. There is nothing impossible for Him, and He does not ask anything impossible of us. All we have to do is cry out to Him for help. And when we are beseiged with temptations against chastity, we must be willing to cry out to Him immediately. “Lord, I am in trouble! Lord, please safeguard my chastity! Lord, please take the edge off of these desires!” If you pray like that at the first sign of temptation, and if you pray for chastity in general, God will help you!
In addition, trust also means entrusting ourselves to God, putting our entire selves in His hands, making a gift of ourselves to Him. It is saying, “God, I want to know and to fulfill Your will for me. I want to be the person You want me to be, and I want to do the things You want me to do. I want to follow Your commandments. I want to walk by Your side.” Trust in God involves both giving and receiving. He gives freely, but He does not force anything on us. We have to assume a posture of receiving. We have to be disposed to receiving what He gives us.
3) We must go to Confession regularly. God gives Himself and His eternal, supernatural life to us through the Sacraments of the Church. The Sacraments we can, and should, receive constantly are Holy Communion and Confession. Most people have no problem with Communion, but Confession is another matter. “Oh, I don’t need Confession. My sins aren’t that bad. Besides, why do I need to tell my sins to a priest?” Unfortunately, I think that this attitude has often been fostered by our clergy and religious educators, if not actively, then certainly by omission. Fortunately, I think that the damage is slowly being reversed. I am here to do my part by saying: You need Confession, and you need it regularly. I would recommend it at least once a month, but it is essential whenever you have commited a mortal sin. There are two basic reasons why.
First and foremost, Confession cleanses and releases our souls from sin and restores them to a state of grace. That state of grace is necessary in order for our souls to receive the graces offered by all the other Sacraments–it disposes us to receive grace. Furthermore, to receive Holy Communion when in a state of mortal sin not only deprives us of the graces of Communion, but also incurs additional mortal sin, namely sacrilege. Think about it: if you knew the Lord Jesus was coming to visit you in your home, you would probably want your home spotless and beautiful and full of good things to offer Him. When you receive Communion, you are bringing Him into your soul, which is to be a temple, a dwelling place for Him, so shouldn’t you want your soul to be spotless, beautiful, and full of delights for Him as well? You wouldn’t invite him into a sewer tank or a rotting mausoleum, but if your soul is in a state of mortal sin, that’s analogous to what you are doing. It is an offense to His goodness and His grace, an abuse to His Body and Blood, and hence an additional mortal sin. So my advice is that if you are aware of having committed a mortal sin, don’t even think about receiving Communion until you’ve gone to Confession!
Secondly, Confession is a Sacrament of healing and strengthening, which is effective even if you are not in a state of mortal sin. I have experienced this so many times in my life. Times when I have struggled constantly with temptations and come to the very brink of surrendering to them. Times when I’ve been distressed and exhausted physically, mentally, and/or spiritually. Times when everything has been in complete disarray and I haven’t been able to “get my act together.” Times when I’ve been plagued with confusion, doubt, despair, loneliness, envy, or other negativities. I often say that Confession “sets my world aright.” It has the ability to fortify me, to give me energy, to help me see clearly, to remind me that I am not in the world alone and I am not helpless.
I know Confession is not the easiest thing in the world. But I can say that it’s always much worse in my imagination than it ever is in reality! That’s probably because the devil doesn’t want us to go. The devil doesn’t want us freed from his slavery. So, one simple thing you might do if you have trouble going to Confession is pray to St. Michael the Archangel and to your guardian angel–ask them to protect you from the devil’s torments and trickery and to clear your way to the confessional. There are also Saints who are special patrons of Confession, such as St. John Nepomucene and St. Gerard Majella.
So, assuming it is not impossible to be a good single Catholic… can it make you happy? The answer to this is very simple: Happiness is not an object; happiness is not an emotion; Happiness is a Person. A divine Person. Actually, three divine Persons. As long as we have those three divine Persons in our lives, we can be happy no matter what life is like and no matter what the devil or other people may try to do to us. Ultimately, the three recommendations above bring us closer to Him. And thus, they bring us to happiness. Now, I don’t particularly enjoy being single, because I feel called to marriage, and I desire that will all my heart. But my life is still happy because I keep bringing it back to God and making Him my focus! This is something I’ve learned entirely by experience. Therefore, I encourage everyone to experience it for themselves. It is not always easy, but it is very worth it. The happiness that comes from living out the Catholic faith is a happiness the world can never afford.
I’ve been meaning to write about this for several days, but this post by Fr. Longenecker has inspired me.
During the last couple of months, I struggled very hard with prayer. I just felt like I never had enough time and energy to pray consistently every day. In the last couple of weeks, however, I’ve really set my mind to rectifying that. I decided that I had to get my priorities straight: God and my religious life and my duties as a Christian and especially as a Lay Dominican simply have to come first. Without them as my center, I can’t possibly be myself, and my life doesn’t mean as much. How can they if I neglect the very source of my life and the vocation He has given me?
So I just set my mind to it that, at the very least, I was going to pray Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours every single day without fail. It wouldn’t matter what else was going on, it wouldn’t matter how I may feel or how tired I may be–I would’t leave home until I’d prayed, and I wouldn’t go to sleep until I’d prayed. It was very difficult at first! I always felt so rushed and distracted… and very tempted to rush past praying. But I forced myself to just sit down, take my book and pray. And not just speed through it, but take all the time necessary.
After a few days, I found that a strange and wonderful thing happens when I take time for prayer… it is as if time slows down! And the more rushed I feel, or the more tired or distracted–i.e., the more effort it takes me to slow down and turn my mind to prayer–the more time seems to slow down while I am at prayer. And the more time I seem to have for everything else I need to do! It has really given me much more peace and relaxation in my life! Over the last couple of weeks, I feel like I have gotten so much more accomplished, and in a more whole-hearted way!
I don’t really know how to explain it, other than that God provides for those who put Him first! He provides not only material things, but also time. And He provides much more of it than we could ever ask for!
Since that first week of praying Morning and Evening Prayer every day, I have also found more time to pray the Rosary and attend Mass more often during the week, to read Scripture more, and to pray more in the course of my days, whether at work or home or driving or walking at the gym or grocery shopping. Turning to God in the midst of any old circumstance has become more natural to me. And I feel like I am living my life more fully and more properly. Everything is more ordered–not in the sense of being restricted, but rather in the sense of everything working more smoothly, and resulting in greater peace and liberty. And what do peace and liberty mean for humans? That’s right–happiness! It is ours for the taking.