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A number of fellow Catholics over the years have asked me for advice and encouragement about going to Confession. Few things make me more glad than to share my love and appreciation for this very special Sacrament, and I pray very hard that all Catholics may be drawn to it. At the same time, I also understand that it’s not an easy thing to do. So, especially now that we are in Lent, I would like to offer some encouragement for my brothers and sister who might be having difficulty approaching the Sacrament. (The following is from a letter I wrote to one dear person this evening; but I think it might be applicable and helpful to many people.)
I understand how much trepidation we can experience about going to Confession. It never completely goes away; I still struggle with it occasionally, and I’m sure everybody does. The reason is that the devil wants to prevent us all from going and receiving the tremendous grace, nourishment, and healing of the Sacrament. He will throw every lie and every negative feeling at us in order to stop us, to make us afraid, to make us distrustful and doubtful.
To withstand these difficult things takes God’s grace. Nobody can do it alone. And so, what you should do now and very often is simply ask the Lord for His peace and for the grace to go to Confession. It may be helpful to pray this Act of Contrition–and note especially the part I’ve emphasized:
O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee, and I detest my sins because of Thy just punishment, but most of all because they offend Thee, my God, who art all good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace, to confess my sins, to do penance, and to amend my life. Amen.
Pray that at least once a day, and it won’t be long until you start to feel much more at ease and even eager to go to Confession.
Trust that there are good reasons that Christ instituted the Sacrament of Reconciliation and made human priests ministers of His mercy. The Sacrament itself provides not only sanctifying grace, but a very special, particular sacramental grace–that of stronger resistance to sin. The priest, as a fellow sinner and fellow penitent, can provide valuable help and guidance. As a fellow human, he can speak those wonderful words of absolution in a voice we can hear.
You certainly have nothing to fear from a confessor. You may think that he will be judgmental or perhaps even outraged at your sins. But he won’t. I’ve heard many priests say that sin is just sin–it’s boring, it’s dull, it’s unimaginative, it’s completely unremarkable. What they find truly remarkable is the courage and humility and faith of the penitents who come to them. And they feel privileged to be able to help and heal and minister to them.
I will just add here what I have told myself and others many times: In the whole universe, there is only one person who benefits from our not going to Confession–and that’s Satan. Don’t give him that benefit!
Also, I welcome anybody to contact me to ask further questions about Confession. I don’t ever get tired of talking about it!
Tomorrow will be 2 months since my father passed away. It’s been just a little over 5 years since my fiance passed away. I knew that the two griefs would be very different, just as the two men and the relationships I had with each of them were very different. But I’ve been pretty amazed by just how vastly different the experiences have been.
The diversity of grief is quite impressive. I say this in the same way that I say I was impressed and fascinated by the power of the shingles virus as the disease wreaked havoc and pain on my body. If you can just distance yourself a little from the situation, even the worst, most painful things can fill you with wonder. I’ve always been rather reflective upon my sufferings.
One thing I’ve been reflecting upon lately is the difference that faith has made in my experiences of grief. When my fiance died, I was without faith–but in fact, that loss gained faith back to me. In grieving my father’s death, I have found myself faced with a far greater challenge: maintaining my faith.
The work of grieving can always be likened to walking through a dark valley. Back then, my faith was like a glowing torch, suddenly burst forth in the darkness. It was something new. Now, my faith has grown and matured, and at its center is the Cross. And it’s heavy. And Satan is working very hard to get me to drop it. He’s trying very hard to convince me that God is not with me. “If He were with you, you wouldn’t be suffering so much.”
What a conniving and sometimes strong temptation that is. But how false! How false it is to assume that God exists to take away our pain, and that if He doesn’t then He either doesn’t exist or is a big old meanie. We are not ourselves without pain. And the reason for that is not that God is a sadist who created us to suffer. The reason for that is that we allowed ourselves to be destroyed by Satan.
No, God does not rid us of pain. But He does free us of it. There’s a big difference between those two. We each carry our cross because God has given it to us. Not because He’s a big old meanie, but because He first carried His for us. That we must carry our crosses, that we must experience pain and suffering, are simply a matter of justice. He willingly experienced pain and death because of our wrongs. But justice demands that we each also bear the consequences of our wrongs. There is nothing mean or unfair about this demand. Understanding this simple principle of justice can take a lot of bitterness out of our sufferings… if we let it.
But what really frees us from pain is the perfect mercy that balances out God’s perfect justice. He is never more merciful to us than when we attempt to suffer pains patiently and humbly, as He did. How do we suffer well? First of all, we don’t give into that dreadful temptation to blame or to dismiss God. Rather, we spit in Satan’s eye and tell him we’d much rather suffer under our crosses than to lounge beside the lake of fire! (Note: getting angry at Satan and telling him where to go is a great stress reliever.)
We simply have to refuse to reject God. That’s all we may be able to do during painful times. And it is enough. God doesn’t ask more. He is never unfair, never unreasonable, and certainly never cruel. He never exploits our weaknesses nor demands the impossible, but rather understands and has compassion for our weaknesses. He always bears the brunt of our burdens–here and now as much as at Calvary all those centuries ago.
So, while I am undeniably experiencing pain, I am also experiencing God’s mercy and love. While I sometimes feel tempted to reject God, I am blessed with the freedom to say no to Satan. Really, why on earth would I go groveling after the one who brought ruin upon our race in the first place? I much prefer to walk through the dark valley with God.
When God takes you down a peg, He then lifts you up again, sooner or later, one way or another.
I went to Confession and Mass this evening. Even after Confession, and even during Mass I was still struggling with my silly pride and discontent. I certainly didn’t receive the very noticeable consolations I usually receive after Confession. I know we can’t always expect those. But I’ve never felt so overwhelmed and still so caught in the heat of battle after Confession. It really threatened to get me down… way down. I was even tempted to doubt the power of the Sacrament.
I was distracted will into Mass. The harder I tried to focus and pay attention, the more viciously the distractions and temptations vied for my attention.
Things got better when Father gave his homily, though. He spoke about Christ’s mandate to preach to the ends of the earth and told us that that mandate is still in effect today, for each and every one of us. Naturally, of course, this was very near and dear to my Dominican heart! It rallied and helped to re-focus my spirit. It helped me remember what my life is all about–all of our lives, but mine in a special way. As happens rather frequently, I heard God speaking through our priest. And today, I felt that He was reaching out to me in a particular and special way.
But what really got to me was Communion. After I received Communion, I felt like my sense of gratitude was restored. My heart welled over with gratitude! And as I always say, gratitude can heal any ill. Gratitude puts all things in proper perspective. Gratitude hammers discontent, envy, self-pity, disobedience, pride, and all other negative tendencies into the ground. Gratitude banishes demons. Gratitude calls forth the comfort and the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Gratitude brings us into the company of the Saints.
And what can bring about gratitude the way Holy Communion can? What is there for which to be more grateful than our Lord’s gift of Himself?
After Communion, I felt soooo much better. I felt like myself again. Finally, I feel like I’ve been able to shake off and overcome my difficulties. But not I myself. It depended entirely on God and His providence.
All thanks and praise to God for His love, mercy, and care!
Today is the first day of my fifth year as a practicing Catholic. What better way to launch it than with Confession?
I really needed it, actually. I’ve been under attack for about the last week. Waging war with some ugly and distressing things.
Whenever I’m besieged by the devil, I feel pretty sure that I’m doing something right. And right now, that something is approaching my temporary profession as a Dominican this coming Sunday.
It’s only to be expected, of course. The last thing the devil needs is one more person with “OP” after their name running around. Hahahaha!
Seriously, though, please remember me in your prayers.
And now, here’s a great Dominican photo:
Here’s another, from Godzdogz:
Br. Ursus says, “Remember: it’s still Easter!”
The 10 months after my rejoining the Church were some of the most difficult, most harrowing of my entire life. I had seen the light… and the darkness I had lived in for many years became even darker by contrast. Leaving that darkness behind was a real trial.
Not everything was darkness, of course. I was in grief counseling with a good, wise, knowledgeable counselor at my church. At times, I could feel the pieces of myself coming back together. I could tell that God was working on me, though often in deep, secretive and mysterious ways.
But there were some pretty big stumbling blocks in my way, and falling back into old habits and affinities was ever so easy. As easy as falling off a cliff.
As one would only expect, I found some of the Church’s teachings to be very difficult and seemingly arbitrary, especially where sexual matters were concerned. Not coincidentally, some of my favorite and most addictive sins fell into that area. Until I could see why they were sinful, I really didn’t see any point in stopping them. So I went about life much as I had before, while telling myself that I was trying to understand. Furthermore, I was soon distracted by meeting some occultists–not a very surprising thing to happen, given the kinds of circles I’d lived in.
I had been pretty deeply steeped in the occult for several years, and was still quite familiar and quite comfortable with it. My life was so full of pain and turmoil that I yearned for something familiar and comfortable–and was willing to accept it without much critical thought. I was vulnerable, I didn’t really have my head screwed on straight, and these people knew how to take advantage of that. They knew how to take advantage of my nascent religious faith–my lack of knowledge, my doubts, my struggles. They planted seeds in my mind that what we were doing wasn’t evil, that it did not necessarily conflict with my religious beliefs, that they too were religious people so I had nothing to worry about. But above all, they took advantage of my loss, my sorrow, my incredible yearning to remain close to Patrick, to not let go of him and our life together. They fed me some rather fascinating threads, some techniques and theories, all seemingly very rational, even scientific. And I swallowed them hook, line, and sinker.
For months I practiced deranging my mind and senses, in search of a breakthrough into “other planes” and other worlds. I spent many sleepless hours attempting to induce trances, to trigger astral projections, to contact spirit guides, to open chakras, and all other kinds of nonsense. And I kept telling myself that it was all OK, that it wasn’t harming or endangering me in any way. That was a huge delusion! I conveniently ignored the fact that I went to Mass less and less frequently, that I had not gone back to Confession since 12 May, that I considered occult techniques more beneficial than the guidance of Scripture and Tradition, of priests and counselor, and that I was getting back into the habit of looking in the mirror to find God. I thought I had everything under control. In reality, I was becoming the same obsessive occultist that I had been before.
Meanwhile, I was perfectly at home with my pet sins from before, and was even adding new ones. I was retreating more and more into myself, and yet I was always angry at other people for allegedly shutting me out or turning against me. I was consumed with anger, with envy, with downright hatred. I blamed it on grief, but in reality, I was refusing to actually work on the grief. I would go to my grief counseling group and talk about things. I never let on to my counselor that I was living a kind of double life. I wanted to protect my double life. And it nearly destroyed me. The devil had a great big meat cleaver splitting me down the middle. His claws sank deeper and deeper into me, dragging me away from the Church.
Three Rays of Light
Things were really bad–I don’t think I can really express the horrors of that time in my life. You may be asking, as I sometimes do, “Where was God when all that was happening? Why didn’t he stop me from falling back into all that vileness?”
We must take into account the mystery of free will and free choice–the fact that I chose to turn my back on God and the faith in favor of my favorite sins and occult practices. My grief and confusion may have mitigated some of my responsibility, but there was a big measure of willful disobedience there nonetheless.
But this is also a lesson about God’s mercy. To the extent that I was suffering grief and confusion, He was very merciful to me. I describe those months as “falling off a cliff”–and yet I never hit bottom and died. I could have. But between God’s mercy and the part of me that still sought Him, I was spared.
He was still at work on me and in my life. And in the end, He did step to the forefront, in a most marvelous way! During a time when I was seeking out bizarre occult experiences, a few genuine mystical experiences sought me out quite unexpectedly.
The first one involved Patrick. He and I were sitting together in a high place, on top of a cliff. It was sort of gray and misty. He was warm, luminous, but solid, and I felt his presence more strongly than I had ever felt it when we were together in our earthly life. It’s hard to explain. But he was no shadowy dream figure or product of my imagination. He was talking rather sternly, as was his way on occasion, telling me that I couldn’t be with him in the way I wished and planned, that nothing could possibly achieve that, that trying to achieve it was foolish, deluded, and dangerous for me. He told me I was falling away, and that at that rate, he and I would only become more separated–maybe for eternity. He told me that our paths were going to be separate for a while, and I had to keep on my own path, not chase after his. He told me that there were a lot of people in the world who needed my love and my attention, and I was neglecting them. There was a very clear message, and a very strong feeling, of separation. Something final. I knew I would never see Patrick again in this life. At the same time, I knew that something would always remain… something undefinable. It would be a loving separation. It would be in my best interests, and that was all Patrick had ever thought of and desired.
The next one involved a lady in white. We were in a moonlit garden. She told me that I must come back around to seeking true wisdom, which would not be found inside me, but only in God and His Church. I would have to reach outside of myself for it. I would have to seek out an encounter with God. She told me that I must not shun or be afraid of suffering, because my suffering would help to take me outside of myself and reach out for God. It could serve a very good use for me. I don’t think I really recognized the lady in white at that time… but it wasn’t long before I did. Almost immediately thereafter, I felt an enormous urge to begin praying the Rosary. And I began to cope with my suffering and sorrow in a more genuine, head-on way, just like Mary and her Son had.
The third one was an encounter with Christ Himself. I was kneeling at the altar rail in my parish church. Before me was a tremendous light and an overwhelming presence that made me tremble from head to foot. I tried to look up, but I couldn’t look at His face. I did see His hand, still bearing the nail wound, a dark red opening near His wrist. He raised His hand to His chest, over His heart, and drew out from it a gleaming white Host. He brought it down to me. I closed my eyes and opened my mouth as if to receive the Host on my tongue. But before I could, I was seized with a horrible illness. I was struck by an intense heat, my body convulsed, my mouth filled with an extremely bitter, rotten fluid. Almost as quickly, then, the sickness vanished, and His hand brushed my face, and the vision was over. But I understood: what I had felt was the effect of the sins in my soul, and that to receive Communion while my soul was in that state was a horrible imposition on God, and a great harm to myself.
These experiences happened in quick succession… all within about a week. They happened while I slept, but… they were not like any dreams I’d ever had. Even if they had been “just dreams,” the messages were real and true. In any event, they pretty much blew any occult experience I’d ever had out of the water, and jolted me to attention! And that’s when I discovered two of the greatest, most important things of all, the things that really turned the tide:
First, I learned that God really was worthy of my trust, my faith, my obedience, and my submission. He wasn’t going to lead me wrong. Even if I didn’t always understand Him or His teachings or His demands, I could trust them. Even if I treated Him horribly, He wouldn’t send me to Hell. If I went to Hell, it was going to be because I chose to. And He and I both knew that I didn’t want to choose Hell. Part of me was still crying out for Him and longing after Him, and that was enough! As long as I was just willing to strive for Him and do my best to cooperate with Him, He was going to to be there for me, and He was going to save me. I could rely on that!
Second, and related to that, I discovered the real meaning of freedom. I looked at myself and at what was going on in my life–my sins, my stubbornness, my mistakes. And I said to myself, “I’ve had enough of this! This stuff is just bringing me down. It’s burying me. And I don’t have to let it. I have another option, and by God, I’m going to choose it! I’m going to choose Him, I’m going to be faithful to Him, and I’m going to do whatever it takes! It doesn’t matter if it’s hard or if I don’t have all the answers and all the power. He is worth it, and so am I. I am above always giving into the basest drives and desires. I am above taking the path of least resistance.” I learned that freedom meant taking responsibility for myself. And it also meant choosing something, and Someone, greater and better. It meant being able to overcome, as opposed to saying, “Oh the devil made me do it… oh, I just can’t help it… oh, it’s because I’m grieving…” etc., etc.
That was the turning point. It happened to coincide with Ash Wednesday, 1st March 2006. Almost a year since Patrick’s death. A year spent on a monstrous precipice between Heaven and Hell.
A Grueling but Wonderful Lent
I call Ash Wednesday 2006 “the point of no return” because that is when I decided once and for all that I was going to be a practicing Catholic. I wasn’t going to give less than 100% of myself to God and the Church. I was going to learn and live by every single Church teaching, without compromise. If I failed, I would simply try harder. I would struggle as much as I had to. I would go to Confession as often as needed, and I would never receive Communion unworthily again. That’s what I decided to do, and I stuck by it!
Dang if that wasn’t one grueling Lent! I was often terrified of the decision I’d made! I knew I was committing myself to something huge and really radical. I knew I was setting myself apart from the world, and I knew it was going to bring conflicts and difficulties. I knew I was going to have to learn some serious humility. Terrifying! But God was so very good to me, and as I got to know Him and rebuild my relationship with Him, person to Person, I came to love Him so much and to desire so greatly to be with Him. Whenever I committed a sin, I immediately had to be reconciled to Him, because I couldn’t bear being apart from Him and His grace. To be separated from Him felt like death to me. I went to Confession most every week.
I came to understand all the difficult teachings of the Church that had previously frustrated me. It’s amazing what you learn when you just sit yourself down at God’s feet and say, “Lord, I am all Yours! Give it to me straight, and give me the understanding I need to incorporate it into my life and give my obedience to it!” You can read as many books and listen to as many homilies or Catholic radio programs as you want, but unless you completely submit yourself to God, you aren’t going to get anywhere.
By the time Easter came around on 16 April 2006, I was truly a different person. All of my pet sins were completely gone. I was completely freed from them! I have never even thought about delving back into the occult. Every occult experience I’ve ever had is pale in comparison to what I have learned, seen, discovered, and experienced in Catholicism and in my relationship with God. God and Catholicism have opened my eyes to the wonders of creation and humanity. There’s always something new to learn and something new to appreciate more deeply. I don’t need anything else.
There is so much more I could tell about those 10 months of darkness and the subsequent Lent. Even now, I am probably doing a very poor job of describing them and just how intense and challenging they were. But looking back now, I am just so grateful for them! I am grateful that they were challenging. I’m grateful that I was forced to face the darkness in my life and then fight to overcome it. I think that I really had to be brought to the brink of destruction in order to know definitively what I wanted and which path I was going to take.
As I said before, that’s the mystery of free will and how God interacts with us. It was scary. It didn’t always make sense–I couldn’t always figure out just what God was up to! But as time goes by, I can see the wisdom and the goodness of it.
Some people I’ve talked to about it are utterly confounded by that. They say, “That’s crazy! If God did me that way, I’d just tell Him where to go! I wouldn’t put myself through that! That’s not my idea of a loving God!” I smile and say, “Oh, if only you knew Him! If only you could go through what I have–to be able to look back and see what a beautiful, fascinating, intricate tapestry He has woven in my little life! That makes everything worthwhile!” I don’t think I’ve convinced anybody yet… but I do pray for them. Especially the ones who profess to be Christians. I mean… they don’t even seem to know Him whom they profess to worship! I hope and pray that they will someday.
On the other hand, there have also been people in my life who have assumed that my conversion was just an easy, mindless thing, like somebody flipped a switch and BOOM, I was a bona fide brainwashed Catholic! Yeah, I had some really powerful mystical experiences that would make many of my former friends roll their eyes and sneer with disgust. But you know, for all their glory and power, those visions really only served as a bridge, a transition. They were merciful consolations amid vast desolation. They were a respite from the journey so far, and fuel for the journey ahead. There has been absolutely nothing easy, magical, mindless or instantaneous about my conversion, and to characterize an entire long, arduous, and still-ongoing journey as just a flash of light or a puff of smoke or brainwashing is just incredibly irrational and insulting. I pray for those people too.
By the way, I don’t think I’ve ever written about all three of those “visions” (I really don’t know what else to call them). Their exact natures can’t really be captured in words, of course. I think I’ve probably hesitated to discuss them for fear of being considered a lunatic. But I’ve reached the point where I don’t care if somebody thinks I’m a lunatic. I have so many other things to think about! I am OK with putting myself and my experiences out on the line. Because no matter how strange or absurd they make appear, those experiences are true. And I am all about speaking truth. There’s no point in saying anything if you’re not going to speak truth.
So that’s why I tried to describe them at some length. They were each wondrous and strange. I recall that I was very calm during them. Not frightened. I just took them in, absorbed them. I don’t recall saying anything myself, but just listening. That’s what I needed to do.
Listening is so important. That is literally where “obedience” comes from–a Latin expression that means to “listen to.” That’s why you have to sit yourself down at God’s feet and just open your mind, open your ears. You have to do that if you’re going to be able to practice Catholicism. Otherwise, you’re going to beat your head against the Church’s teachings, and you’re eventually going to give up on them or redefine them to suit your own tastes. And that’s not practicing Catholicism.
Epilogue: The End is Always a Beginning
Well, that’s the bulk of my conversion story. The rest of it is just what you read here! It continues on. I still struggle at times. But I’m not giving up, no matter what happens, no matter how hard I have to work, no matter what I may have to sacrifice. To put it very simply: God and the Church saved my life. Or rather, restored my life. I wouldn’t be here today without them. Or at least, I wouldn’t be who I am. You don’t just turn your back on that, or treat it lightly! You don’t pour yourself 100% into something just to let it go to pot or abandon it for the latest fad.
I have a long way to go. I’m definitely not perfect. My faith is still very much a matter of “practicing” in every sense of the word (hence my blog title). I fall flat on my face now and then, although I’ve now gotten to where my life is mostly a “controlled fall” where I can avoid being seriously injured and seriously offending God–all thanks to frequent Confession, my friends.
If I could sum up Catholicism in one phrase, it would be this: “There is always a new beginning.” After all, we worship a God who died and was resurrected, right? So, even if we seem to reach an end of some kind, we can be assured that there can be a new beginning. It might not be easy, but it will come.
I did not make it to the pro-life Mass and Rosary procession. Was so disappointed in myself. Lately, I’ve been feeling really down. Discouraged. Like a mess-up who can’t do anything right. Things have been like that a lot. I’ve been sorely tempted to wallow in self-pity, to turn in on myself, and away from God and others (why would they want anything to do with me, after all?). I’ve given into that temptation, too, at times.
Today, I was thinking and praying about it, and I realized: the devil is just trying to play my emotions! I don’t like it when anybody tries to play my emotions! So, I told the devil where to go, and felt much better.
I should have known, really. At the end of Bishop Hermann’s letter, which I mentioned last night, he says, “If you want to make Satan angry, pray the Rosary for the sake of Life.” What I have been doing a lot of lately? Praying the Rosary for the sake of life. And making Satan angry does have real-life repercussions. For me, and for most folks, I imagine, they are rarely spectacular; they are mostly subtle little slitherings-in, slippery little serpents. Hard to head off.
I really needed a clean slate and a re-grounding, so I went to Confession at my parish, then stayed for Mass. From the entrance antiphon and hymn on, I felt like the entire Mass was God speaking to me. Nearly every word was significant… nearly every word something I really needed to hear! It was such an extraordinary experience that I was near weeping the entire time. During the Eucharistic Prayer, and after Communion, I felt so close to the Lord. It was an incredible consolation.
Father’s homily was awesome. He addressed our bishops’ statement and some of the negative and/or confused reactions to it. Then he turned to the Gospel for today: the hypocrisy of the Pharisees who did not question Jesus in order to learn, but in order to trap, and the meaning of giving to God what is God’s. Father’s main theme was integrity of heart. Just as Roman coin had Caesar’s imprint, so do our hearts bear God’s imprint. God gave us our hearts; we owe Him our hearts in return. Justice demands that we owe Him our whole hearts, our whole beings. Not just pieces.
That is what integrity means: wholeness. Also honesty. Integrity is showing with your actions what is in your heart. It is the opposite of hypocrisy. As Christ shows, being a hypocrite with God doesn’t work. He sees our hearts at all times. If we receive Him humbly and earnestly, our hearts will come to bear His image. If we receive Him haughtily and unworthily, our hearts will become rock-hard and malformed.
We also owe integrity to our fellow man; we may not be able to see each others’ hearts the way God does, but we can often tell when somebody is being dishonest or hypocritical. We cannot judge somebody’s heart and soul, but we can–and should–judge words and actions. And we can demand integrity of another. We deserve that from each other. Our Lord commanded us to love each other, as well as Him, and how can you love somebody without integrity of heart? Lack of that integrity hurts and uses others.
We must have integrity of heart not only in voting at this coming election, but in every action of ours, we must be true to God and to the hearts he has given us. Transforming our society into a culture of life and justice is something each of us has to do every day; we can’t just think about it now and then, and we can’t simply rely on other people or on the government.
That is a very crude paraphrase (as always… I can’t possibly reproduce Father’s eloquence). It was a strong statement, just like the bishops’ statement itself. It reached straight into my heart; it was consoling and encouraging. We are very blessed in our bishop and in our pastor!
I feel much better now. I feel refreshed! And I am grateful to those of you who have given me your prayers… I know they deserve lots of credit! :D
(Snake photo by Flickr user jereandreagan)
When I examine my life and my conscience, sometimes I find that my desire to find a spouse has been so all-consuming that it has become a kind of idolatry. I care more about attaining to some happy future than I do about my life in the present and the people who are in my life right now. Sometimes I care about it even more than I care about my relationship with God. Sometimes I even let it turn me against God. I give in to worry and self-pity and lose my trust and my hope in Him. I forget all about the many blessings He has given me and instead become ungrateful and resentful and self-centered, and envious and bitter toward other people. It can be really hard not to give into this downward spiral.
Not to make excuses for my own part in that, but there are a lot of external pressures, both from society at large and from family and friends. With the latter especially, it may be well-meaning pressure, but that doesn’t make it any less distressing; in fact it can be much harder to cope with loved ones than with society, because you are more likely to care what your loved ones think of you. I should also say that sometimes I am my own worst enemy, in that I can be especially sensitive and self-conscious about my state in life, so that if a friend offers me fashion advice, I may assume she’s telling me I am not attractive enough, or if my mother comments on how much she wishes she had grandchildren, I may assume that she is profoundly disappointed in me, maybe even a little resentful. Such assumptions likely have little or nothing to do with reality. More likely, they are whispers of the devil. Whispers that are actually more like spears that know exactly where your armor is weak.
The real problem is giving heed to those whispers of the devil. The desire to find a spouse, the desire to have a happy and fulfilling life, the desire to win esteem from those around us–these are all perfectly natural and good and necessary drives. Our hearts naturally yearn for love, happiness, and approval. But our hearts, fallen as they are, often seek them in the wrong places. They seek them in the world… the world that is too often in thrall to the devil and chock full of pitfalls and mesmerizing diversions. Yearning after things in the world is the very root of all idolatry. We may not make idols as ancient pagans did–we don’t have to make them. They are already here, everywhere we turn. Everything in this world, including our own hearts, our own natures, are susceptible to distortion and corruption.
So clearly, we must look beyond this world. We must reinforce the weak spots in our armor. We must shore up our courage and be very vigilant. We must keep our minds trained upon what is real, what is good, what is true, what is right, what is at hand right now. We must pray for our society and we must assume the best of our loved ones–or at least be willing to forgive and forget any seeming inconsideration or careless slips of the tongue on their part. Above all, we must cling fast to our true God, our only true God, our only help and our only hope. Ultimately, despite all the outside influences, it all comes down to us and God and the relationship between us.
I find the image of God as our Good Shepherd especially powerful in keeping me close to Him. God is always there for us. He lets us run loose, hurry ahead, dally behind. He speaks to us, calls after us, but He doesn’t force us to listen. He even lets us run straight into trouble if we really have our hearts set on it–and let’s face it, we often do, and in those moments, we couldn’t care less about Him or where He is or the sound of His voice. But He is there when we need Him and want Him. If our hands reach out for Him, they will find Him. If we cry for Him, He will come. He is ever alert to our little bleats. He may break our little sheep legs if we wander off one too many times–but that is an act of mercy, not punishment, and He will carry us is His own arms, especially close to His heart, until we heal and start running around again.
And then, there is the Crucifix. Nothing sums up the relationship between God and mankind like the Crucifix. St. John of the Cross said: “Whenever anything disagreeable or displeasing happens to you, remember Christ crucified and be silent.” Before a Crucifix, there can be no complaining, no quarreling, no rebellion, no self-pity, no shaking your fist at God. Not if you really look at it and think about it. There is just the stark realization that God’s love for us is so vast that it is beyond our understanding. I think it’s a really good idea to buy your own Crucifix for your home. I have a couple. And sometimes it helps to take one down from the wall, into my own hands. Somehow it becomes even more “real.” If I can pray in no other way, I just take the Crucifix and hold it and look at it and press it against my shoulder. And that helps me to feel very close to God and to His Sacrifice.
Finally, I wouldn’t be much of a Dominican if I didn’t recommend the Rosary! It is another really good way to draw us into the life and the person of our Lord, with help from His mother Mary. When I first started praying the Rosary, I found this site most helpful. For each decade of each set of Mysteries, it gives 10 brief meditations. It’s a good way to get into the habit of meditating while praying the vocal prayers.
Those are just a few things that help me to remain focused on God and His love for me and my love for Him. That is of the utmost importance in order for any of us to find any kind of happiness. As the priest says to the countess in Bernanos’ The Diary of a Country Priest, “[God] is not the master of love, He is love itself. If you wish to love, do not put yourself beyond love’s reach.”