prayer

Hygge. Of the Heart

I think that we sometimes as Catholics don’t give our trendy culture enough of a fair shake.  I know I have my antennae up when I’m reading a trending article laying out a philosophy for life, and for good reason.  A lot of that stuff is junk, but every once in awhile there is a little pearl that sparkles in the rubbishy pile.  Recently there have been a couple of particularly interesting forces pulling the younger generation- simplicity/minimalism and Hygge.  They both seem to go hand in hand and I think that they (with prudence and moderation in mind) offer 1) a new way to live out the gospel imperative in the modern world, and 2) a new openness to certain elements of the gospel.

Let's start with the concept of Hygge.  Hygge is difficult to translate, but it is a Danish concept that includes comfort, intimacy, and “cozy togetherness.”  The Danish are statistically the happiest people on earth.  They point to this philosophy of life as one of the primary principles in their secret recipe for rampant happiness.  Hygge conjures up images of roaring fireplaces, warm socks, fluffy throw blankets, deep conversations with friends, games of charades, soul food, hot cider, etc. to the Danes.  It dictates what they do on nights and weekends and how they relate to their friends.

While there is a lot to be said about the exterior practice of Hygge, I want to talk about Hygge of the heart- prayer and divine intimacy with the Lord.

I had a vague experiential knowledge of Hygge when I first heard about it, and while Christmas lights, warm cocoa, etc. did come to mind it was my first experience of the interior life that really defined the feeling of contentment Hygge is supposed to be all about.  

In college I had a massive conversion while praying the rosary during commercial breaks on Christmas break.  My guilt caught up to me and I wagered that a few decades might help eke me into purgatory.  When I got back to college and eventually found myself sitting in the Newman center chapel after weeks of contented rosary-praying and guilt-ridden everything else, I felt all at once like I was in over my head and cozily at home.  When I started to pray I felt like I was finally doing what I was meant to do my whole life.  But I had no idea what I was doing, so I started glancing around and seeing what other, holier people do in prayer.  I watched how they postured themselves, I noticed when they closed their eyes and where they looked when they didn't.  I took notes on how to genuflect more holily.  But most of all I tried to take note of what they were reading.  At that time St. Faustina’s diary was making its way through the ranks of devoted Newman-ites, and after a couple of nights of inquiry about her story and who she was, I rush ordered my copy of the diary.  

When I began to pray with St. Faustina I began to experience an interior kind of Hygge.  I imagined myself in her convent, so small yet so immense because of the implications of what she was receiving and how she was praying.  The whole world fit in the walls of her cell, and she had access to the heart of Jesus and a duty to pray for every soul.  The intimate way that she talked with Jesus jumped off the page.  I didn’t know what I was doing, but guessed that a saint was a pretty good model for prayer so I started talking to God informally like she did.  I borrowed a word here and there and wove in my own sentiments.  I felt like I was in a cozy cabin in the woods, hidden away from the world I was trying to reject outside the chapel walls.  It was cozy for lack of a better word.  I felt communion with the person of Christ and weirdly with the other people independently praying in the chapel while I was.  

The transformation was barely noticeable.  I found that when I read the diary that I was reading some of the sentiments resounding in my own soul.  I was wandering the corridors of my own “inner monastery.”  I was actually praying with the Saint and even borrowing some of her zeal as I prayed.  But when I left the chapel the “cozy” feeling started to remain with me.  I found that my room, my workplace, my classrooms, etc. all had that cozy feeling.  I retreated into my heart where God and I were building a meeting place together.  God’s presence was the ultimate Hygge.  Even in the struggles and the dryness and the strife and pain of my rapidly changing life, I kept finding myself drawn to that place and experiencing a mysterious happiness.

I found Hygge of the heart in prayer.  The Danes may have found a great way to achieve a certain level of happiness but the saints have found the real Hygge in prayer.

In the next article I’ll talk more about the external ramifications of this philosophy for Catholics.

The Hidden Virtue of a Simple Interior Life

Something's Missing

Serving as a missionary for the last five years, I’ve often heard and taught about our need for a regular daily prayer life.  Many times that’s translated into a “holy hour” or time of prayer, usually in the morning.  And it’s mostly comprised of meditative prayer and/or spiritual reading.  But I often find that I don’t do much with this little period of prayer, and I end up feeling like something is missing with my interior life.

Having checked the holy hour box, I usually just continue on with my day.  It’s a crapshoot if I’ll live in the light of the grace I’ve received in that prayer or continue to meditate our ponder the Lord.  I read about lovely concepts like practicing the presence of God, and I don’t know for the life of me why I’ve completely forgotten about these ideas approximately ten minutes after I’ve signed out of prayer (literally a phrase I learned in Catholic high school- you sign in when you do the sign of the cross at the beginning and you sign off when you do it at the end- woof).

But that approach ignores St. Paul’s exhortations to “Rejoice constantly, pray ceaselessly, give thanks in all circumstances… Do not quench the Spirit” (1 Thess 5:16ff).  We forget that the God wants to sanctify you wholly (1 Thess 5:23), not just in the times we set aside for prayer, but in every thought, action, and word we speak or hear.

Russian spiritual master and theologian Theophan the Recluse warns that a prayer life that exists going from holy hour to holy hour is a faulty one.  Every hour of prayer you build up your heart, only to spend the day tearing that foundation down when you don’t remain in the presence of God.  Then you spend your next holy hour building back up on the fallen foundations, limping along in your progress without sustaining the grace that you’ve been built up in.

In our bento box life, compartmentalized in its aesthetically pleasing way, our interior life, at least in practice, becomes just one more storage space like the rest.  And meditative prayer seems to be the most aesthetically pleasing form of prayer to fit into that box.

But the Spirit exists to break the boxes that we place ourselves into.  And I think help in sustaining ourselves in the Lord lends itself towards a bit of an out-of-the-box solution.  Out-of-the-box because it seems to call us, in a sense, to regress in our interior lives.

Maybe the key is getting back to our basic prayers, a little less aesthetically pleasing in one sense, a little more bland maybe, but still potentially revolutionary.  Remember that when the apostles asked Jesus how to pray he taught them the most basic of rote prayers:  the Our Father.

The Virtue of Simple Prayers

We have loads of these prayers memorized. Why not put them to good use.  Our friend Theophan claims that when you fill your mind with this type of simple constant prayer, keeping in mind that the Lord is present in your heart as you say the words, your mind can be at prayer even when your hands are at work.  Even more when you attempt to fill your mind with the things of God, you tend to start thinking more like God.  Your conversation and the inner workings of your psyche start to transform- all through a persistent stream of Hail Mary's, Our Father’s, Glory Be’s and (if you’re feeling adventurous) the frequent repetition of the Jesus Prayer.

But basic, simple prayers in and of themselves tend to bore us. I’ve heard a million times, “I don’t like praying formal prayers like the rosary.  I like to pray more organically in my own words.”  

The Russian Byzantine Saint, Dimitri of Rostov, in The Art of Prayer, writes this about praying simple, “formulaic” words:

“During lengthy prayer, the mind of the inexperienced cannot stand long before God, but is generally overcome by its own weakness… and drawn away by external things… Short, yet frequent prayer, on the other hand, has more stability, because the mind, immersed for a short time in God, can perform it with greater warmth… St. John of the Ladder also teaches: ‘Do not try to use too many words, lest your mind become distracted by the search for words… An excessive multitude of words in prayer disperses the mind in dreams, while one word or short sentence helps to collect the mind.”

The short prayers we say are filled with depth, though we often barely consider them.  

The “Our Father” is probably the first prayer you learned, and it’s said everyday by most Christians across the world, which probably accounts for the fact that we’ve lost a sense for its profundity.  Luis Martinez, in The Sanctifier, thinks differently:  “In the prayer to his Father in which he made a sort of summary of his desires to teach us what ours should be, we find these words that seem to come forth as a triumphant cry from the depths of his soul: ‘Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven’ (Mt. 6:10).”  

If our heart was rightly ordered we would pray this prayer with all the gusto we can muster because it is a list of the desires of Jesus’ heart- given to us as a model for the desires our hearts should yearn for.

The “Hail Mary” is another great example of a profound prayer that goes unnoticed as it passes our lips, but it has contained in it all we really need for a good heartfelt prayer.  1) The first couple lines are scripture.  We acknowledge the truth of Jesus’ Incarnation and our faith in the Word of God.  It’s basically a little summary of the creed.  2) The hinge word is the name of Jesus.  Jesus is the center of the prayer.  When we pray His name we say the most powerful word in the world.  Just saying his name, according to Fr. Mike Schmitz, calls upon His power, His healing, and His presence.  When meditating upon the mysteries we call upon all of those things in the midst of each moment in His life.  We step into His life with Mary.  3) We ask for mercy and intercession.  The Eastern Catholics base their entire spiritual lives upon the name of Jesus and the plea for mercy.

Lastly in our list of basic prayers is the “Glory Be”, which is basically you giving God glory for whatever is happening at that moment- good or bad in your heart.  It’s a practical application of Paul’s advice to “rejoice always” mentioned above.

Think of these simple little prayers (or others like it) as  “leaven which a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened” (Matt 13:33).

Now, I’m not meaning to say that these prayers will make you holy in and of themselves.  We have to pray them with our hearts and not just our lips.  Theophan (and really any good Byzantine monk trying to live out the exhortation to pray ceaselessly) cautions us that without remembrance of God’s presence in our heart these prayers are clanging cymbals and clashing gongs (see 1 Cor 13 for another “overused” piece of Catholic wisdom on that).  

A Cistercian abbot, Dom Jean-Baptiste Chautard, in the appendix to his famous book “The Soul of the Apostolate” teaches us how to tie in remembrance of God to these basic prayers:

“Take some text of Holy Scripture, or some vocal prayer, like the Pater, Ave, or Credo, and say it over, stopping at each word, drawing out various holy sentiments, upon which you may dwell as long as you like […] 

“[...] There is no necessity to be always making new acts; it is often quite enough to remain in the presence of God silently turning over in your mind the words you have already meditated upon, or savoring the affections they have aroused in your heart.”

So there it is, the most boring advice that has the potential to radically transform your interior life (and every other aspect of your life for that matter).  Thank your second grade CCD teacher, because when they gave you that cheap plastic rosary and prayer memorization sheet (perhaps unknowingly) just may have also given you the key to ceaseless prayer and recollection.

The Soultion to our Searching

    I was sailing through a sea of green fields. The wind whipped the soft grass creating the appearance of undulating waves. My car was a vessel floating amongst the vastness of the open road. My course was charted in front of me, by the rough, lonely country road. Small water tanks, like mirrors reflecting the bright blue sky above, dotted the countryside. The beauty was overwhelming. Almost instinctively, I had the desire to capture this beauty, to snap a photo to preserve the image. Yet, I have often found that pictures do not do justice to a breathtaking landscape, like the one through which I was traveling. There is something deeper than the physical beauty that can only be experienced in the present. It cannot be stored and revisited days or months later. One must dwell in the moment to soak in its fullness.

Stepping into the basilica, my eyes were instantly drawn upwards. Golden light shown through the elevated windows onto the enormous baldacchino over the main altar. The central nave extended all the way to the Holy Spirit window, far in the distance. The stone colonnade directed my sight onward and upward. I stared in awe at the vastness of this sacred space. Almost paralyzed, I was unsure of how to react to such beauty. Surely, no camera is able to capture the length, width, and depth of such a space, let alone the brilliance of colors illuminating the air. Yet, around me swarmed, likes bees, hundreds of tourists with their selfie sticks waving and their camera lenses clicking. They seemed unaware of the sanctity of the space, treating it as merely another sight to see on their Roman holiday. As I processed through the many altars lining the sides of the central nave, the artwork continued to draw my mind away from my current surroundings and more toward the One whose sacrifice was re-presented each day on these altars. Upon entering the chapel with the Blessed Sacrament, the atmosphere changed. There was a lightness that touched the soul. Only dwelling there in the silence of prayer could the beauty of St. Peter’s Basilica truly be contemplated.

There is something appreciable about our desire to capture beauty. It points toward our inner direction toward the ultimate Beauty. After all, every beautiful thing participates in the beauty of God. However, earthly beauty is fleeting. Many poets lament the loss of beauty with the imagery of the changing seasons or the process of aging. They profess tempus fugit and carpe diem - that time is fleeting; therefore, seize the day.

The best way to fully appreciate beauty is to dwell in it in the moment. Not every moment in our lives will be beautiful. In fact, a majority of them probably are not. But, if we truly appreciate beauty when it does come, we will be sustained in times of desolation in the hope of another consolation. One way to actively encounter beauty is to travel, whether that be internationally, or locally. Simply moving oneself out of their current, perhaps mundane, reality can help one find beauty in other people, nature, art, and architecture. The verdant countryside and the brilliant basilica that I described earlier are just two of the countless examples of how I have experienced beauty through travel.

Although physical beauty is fleeting, there is One that never fails. By encountering the One from whom all beauty flows, we can experience a beauty that the finite world can never offer. Prayer is the way through which we encounter our God. Granted, prayer is often hard and uncomfortable. But, as with travel, God gives us times of consolation in prayer to give us hope in our desolation and remind us of His promise.

Both travel and prayer draw one out of oneself to experience something greater. We are forced to encounter the vastness of the world and our God and reconcile ourselves with them both. We must return to travel and prayer continually to relieve ourselves in the bleak times of life. The fact that beauty can never fully be captured causes us to have to seek it out again and again. And surprisingly, I have found that the more I travel and the more I pray, the easier it is to find beauty in the mundane, and even the ugly. Prayer and travel broaden one’s perspective to see things as they are and to appreciate them nonetheless.

Souping Up Your Rosary Game

Yes, another rosary blogpost on a Catholic blog. The rosary is an oft-written about topic: the importance of it, the fruit of it, etc. It's almost become a Catholic cliche. I want to offer this article to those of you who are in the midst of a love/hate or on again off again type of relationship with the rosary (and let’s be honest, most people who are trying to regularly pray it are at least partially in one of those two camps).  

I had my conversion praying bad rosaries, muting on commercial breaks to rush through a decade, hoping that I could pray my way out of the eternal condemnation I knew I was heading towards (I mean our Lady promised it right), until I realized those three minute windows of time contained a certain peace that I longed for. So I kept praying the rosary as best I could, and things starting melting away: destructive habits and then eventually my desire for them. And mysteriously, new graces and convictions began to replace them. And so I've continued praying it, as best I can. Maybe not daily (though I wish it was), but consistently, through dryness and bountiful grace, the graces contained in the rosary keep coming.

I was talking about this with my spiritual director and he was re-convincing me how necessary the devotion is with a terrifying story of an exorcism. In the midst of the exorcism the demon began laughing at the priest and called the faithful a bunch of fools. The priest told him to elaborate in the name of Jesus, and it replied that the heads of the evil ones servants are utterly crushed by the recitation of the rosary. We carry a great key to our freedom in our pockets and were fools because we never use it.

All that being said, the rosary is not an easy prayer to pray. We live in the age of distraction, so sitting still for 20 or so minutes and focusing on a string of prayers and meditating on scenes from the gospel, if we were honest, seems like the last thing an overstimulated mind would want to participate in.  Keeping the mind focused on such a repetitive, involved prayer can seem more like trying to ride a bull then a serene focusing on the Lord.  It can often be the most dry and distracted, rote and bland addition to our devotional lives. And sometimes it should be, but I want to offer some ways to dive more deeply into the mystery of this devotion for each of the ailments that seem to afflict us rosary-averse people.

St. Louis De Montfort offers several methods for entering into the rosary.  This resource is a treasure trove and is great in an of itself, but for the sake of writing a more interesting blog post, I’ll highlight a couple of them and also add some different tidbits that you can work into your prayer to help spice it up.

 

FOR THOSE POOR DISTRACTED SOULS

I recently came to the conclusion that if I was going to pray the rosary consistently I needed to do it the car from time to time.  I can never seem to focus, and I feel like I’m cheating prayer fitting it into my commute because I’m not finding other time to set aside for things like the rosary.  But alas, sometimes we have to start with the the less than ideal.  So I started praying with St. Louis’s second method to help me focus.  You add a word after “Jesus” to bring your mind back to the mystery you’re meditating on, to praise Him, etc (i.e. “Jesus becoming man, born to poverty, crucified for my sins, etc.).  Not only did this help keep my attention, but I actually got lost in prayer.  My car rides became the most fruitful part of my spiritual life.

 

FOR THE NOT SO VALIANT PRAYER WARRIOR

I’m the worst intercessor I know.  People ask for my prayers, and despite my best wishes (not necessarily effort) I always forget to pray for them.  The rosary has offered a solution to that as well.  Here’s a simple method for interceding with the rosary: 1) Jot down all the prayer requests you receive (have an email folder set aside or whatever).  2) Read the requests before you begin the rosary or pick a few per decade. 3) Throw in some one-liners in between the proper prayers.  This article has a good suggestion for a simple way to intercede using St. Elizabeth of the Trinity’s simple method for praying for others.  In his third method, while meditating on the crucifixion, St. Louis dedicates each “Hail Mary” to each of the nine choirs of angels, asking them to pray for a particular intention (i.e. “Holy Seraphim, ask God… Hail Mary… Holy Cherubim, ask God… Hail Mary… and so on).  I throw a decade or two like this in there from time to time. The possibilities are endless here.

 

FOR THOSE WHO GET ANNOYED WITH THE INTRODUCTORY PRAYERS (JUST ADMIT YOU’RE ONE OF US)

I also found that I got bogged down during the introductory prayers (I know, I’m really getting lazy), but I found that the Dominican way of beginning the rosary on Reddit of all places.  It’s really simple and to the point and gets my heart ready for prayer.

 

FOR THOSE LOOKING FOR AN EXTRA, PERSONAL UMPF

Lastly, someone taught me this 3-step way of praying the “Jesus Prayer”.  Sometimes I pause between each decade, pray this and then apply whatever came up during the decade.  Here’s the method:

1. Call to mind Jesus’ presence.  Make an act of faith that He is present to you.  Here and now.  Picture Him sitting across from you, His arms open, ready to receive what you have for Him.

2.  And He asks:  “What do you want to give to me?”  Bring to Him all your thoughts, feelings and desires- what is on your mind that’s impacting you- good and bad?  And then He asks “What do you want in return?”  Each meditation has a grace to ask for laid out.  In your own words, pray to receive this grace.

3.   Lastly, recite the Jesus prayer.  “Jesus, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”  Remember as you recite His most powerful name, that with the name of Jesus comes His presence, power and healing.  Repeat this process as many times as you need to in order to prepare yourself to encounter the Lord.

These have been little tweaks that have helped me transition from the rosary becoming a commonplace ritual that I powder my way through as quickly as possible to really the heart of my prayer life.  Use what you like, mix and match, and offer some more suggestions in the comments section.  Happy praying!

From the Archives: On Being Too Precious About Discernment

This article originally appeared on Dec 8, 2014

There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat;
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.
--  (Julius Caesar, Act 4 Scene 3)

Today we celebrate the feast of the Immaculate Conception. I trust your priest has done an adequate job of reminding you that it is Mary's and NOT Our Lord's conception to which the feast refers. Defined by Pius IX in his Ineffabilis Deus of 1854, the Immaculate Conception is a relatively recent doctrine, compared, let us say, with the Council of Ephesus' declaration of her to be Theotokos (Mother of God) in 431.

lourdes.jpg

But I want to bring your attention to the young saint, Bernadette Soubirous (1844-1879), whose visions of a lady in a grotto in 1858––less than four years after Pius IX defined the Immaculate Conception––helped foster a devotion and love of this doctrine. To Bernadette, as to all within the church until the last three or four decades, the term discernment referred not to a process but to a skill in our soul.

Discernment, to Bernadette, could not take more than an instant. The senses provide the soul with phenomena. The imagination relates this to previous sensory experiences to form a picture. If trained properly, the imagination will do this quickly and accurately.

We practice discernment all the time. Am I to drink a gin and tonic or martini at this cocktail party? Do I wear the green or the blue tie with this suit? Should I switch lanes now or wait until after the next signal? Discernment––the imagination's readiness to judge well and quickly––does not come about through repeating the same judgement over and over again. And if we truly wanted to train ourselves to discern in serious matters, we would do well to read great works of literature rather than attend discernment retreats. Homer, Vergil, and Dante invite our imaginations to step outside our selves and enter into decisions of great weight and magnitude.

Believe it or not, your choice whether to become a priest, religious, consecrated virgin, layperson, is not the most important choice in your life. Your perseverance in that choice every day is.

When we wrangle and set ourselves on endless strings of novenas, we are precious and self-absorbed. And we are never so sure to doubt our happiness or resolution as when we spend days and weeks considering our own state.

Discernment is not a year-long process. Discernment is not a sacrament, a sacramental, or a spirituality. By making it a period of adolescence marked by being overly precious about ourselves, we have forgotten that discernment is a skill to practice every moment of our life.

As Hamlet says, the readiness is all...

And the readiness in little Bernadette Soubirous was all.

----

Beer and Book: "Loose Leaf" [Odell Brewing Company] & Jane Austen's Sense & Sensibilty

Following Bo Bonner's excellent invention, I will conclude with a drink recommendation. But I will try to pair your drink with a literary dish as well. Today, I recommend Odell Brewing Company's Loose Leaf. As with discernment, the readiness is all with this brew. With strong hops mixed with fruity tones from the green leaf infusion, it is heavenly when properly judged by itself. The subtle hint of tea in the Loose Leaf will put you in the proper British mood for Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility--the novel I would most recommend for those who wish to conceive of how discernment is a educable part of the soul.

The Never Ending Camino

            “Why are you here?” Father José asked me before I began the Camino de San Ignacio in Spain.  I said something along the lines of, “Well, because I had a week off for the first time in over a year, and my family asked me to come.”  Truth be told, I had not thought very hard about the journey.  PA school was all consuming, and there hadn’t really been opportunities for me to feel or think about why I had done anything in a long time.  Father José responded simply, “You’re here because for some reason, God wants you to be here.” 

            He did not say that God wanted me to do anything, pass a test, or even meet the people I was with.  He just said, “God wants you to be here.”  I am a scientific person, and I was not satisfied with his answer.  I like to know what the Lord wants from me.  I prefer whatever that is to have a definitive time line and a measurable outcome.  I want to fix things and create solutions to problems.  Hearing that the Lord just wanted me to just “be” there was one of the most difficult things for me to comprehend and even more difficult to live.  It meant letting go of the past, allowing the future to take care of itself, placing one foot in front of the other, and simply walking…for many miles. 

            “Pilgrimage must bring us to the limit of ourselves,” Father José said.  Pilgrimage, as I came to understand it, is meant to reveal our inability to control everything in our lives and therefore challenge us to trust God and to love.  So, I walked through the mountains and dirt roads of Spain.  For a short while, I felt relief.  My heart felt free for the first time in years because for just a few days, I could physically see that the only thing the Lord wanted from me was the present step.  Unfortunately, I had to return to the United States before the end of the pilgrimage and begin clinical rotations.  I believed my pilgrimage was over, but thankfully, I was wrong.   

            “Kinyarwanda…hmmm,” I thought as I read her chart.  Kinyarwanda is a language spoken only in Rwanda and Uganda.  Seeing this particular language in the chart meant I needed to use an interpreter on a language line to speak with this refugee patient.  I dialed 9-1-877...  and put the interpreter on speaker as I entered the patient’s room.  She was one of the most beautiful people I have ever seen.  The young girl, wearing a traditional dress, gripped her small baby boy tightly to her chest.  She was not sick but needed to update and receive immunizations for her green card.  I asked the interpreter to explain that her immunizations were up to date, so she could begin the green card application process.  “Sawa” or “okay,” she said.  I listened to her heart with my stethoscope.  As I listened, her baby squeezed my finger with a smile.  I inhaled deeply to demonstrate that I needed her to take a deep breath also while I listened to her lungs.  She followed suit appropriately, while her baby and I continued exchanging goofy faces.  She did not really need much in the way medicine from me.  Stripped of words and recognizing the limits of my medical background to address issues surrounding immigration, I struggled to see what God wanted from me right then.  My patient did not have a medical problem for me to solve, though she was certainly struggling.  Instead, she needed subtle motions, eye contact, and concern.  She needed love.  She reminded me that my pilgrimage was not over.  As Father José had said, “Pilgrimage pushes us to our limits.”  Even though I wanted to be a heroine and solve her problems, I had to recognize that I was a limited pilgrim on this earth.  I could only give her presence and love.  As she walked out of the clinic, her small baby looked back and waved.  It was all God asked of me.  It was enough.             

            It was symbolic for me that I never completed the Camino de San Ignacio because I realized that the “pilgrimage” is never over.  We will always be pushed to our personal limits and challenged to rely on love.  There is always some reason God wants us to be here.  While we are here, there is always a call to presence, hope, and surrender.  In the words of St. Ignatius:    

Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty,
my memory, my understanding,
and my entire will,
All I have and call my own.

You have given all to me.
To you, Lord, I return it.

Everything is yours; do with it what you will.
Give me only your love and your grace,
that is enough for me.

-St. Ignatius of Loyola

 

A Moment

Someday I will go back to Rome

And I will get up early and walk slowly through the streets

Before I sit down at a café with a book.

Someday I will go back to the mountains

And I will breathe deeply of the freshness in the air

Before I ascend a peak to take in the view.

Someday I will go back to the ocean

And I will let the tide wash over my toes

Before I begin collecting seashells to show my mother.

But today, I will take a moment

To look out over the plains, and be glad I am here.

 

The writing of today’s post was interrupted by a loss in the author’s family.

 

From under a bell tower recently damaged by wind and hail, I offer prayers for the family, and ask you to do the same. In the midst of gratitude for what was not lost in the storm, I ask for grace for all those who are grieving. From this place of quiet and unassuming beauty, I will take a moment to quiet my soul and be glad I am here. 

 

 

Mother of the Lapsed

Sometimes it is hard to be _______________________.

Take a moment to fill in the blank. We all have something that fits.

For me, sometimes it is hard to be Catholic.

Growing up, we have all been told stories of heroes with an all or nothing mentality. Whether those heroes were Catholic saints who fought for their faith, persons from our own American History who strove for freedom and equality, superheroes from comic books, our grandparents, you name it - we all had our idols growing up. These idols did whatever it took to achieve their goal or to be a part of something greater than themselves. It is no wonder then, that upon achieving adulthood, we are often disappointed in our own accomplishments. We look at our shortcomings, preferences, flaws and mistakes and allow these things to tarnish who we are and what we strive to be.

Sometimes, it is hard to be Catholic.

How can I be Catholic if I sleep with my boyfriend?

How can I be Catholic if I am divorced?

How can I be Catholic if I am gay?

How can I be Catholic if I get drunk on Friday nights?

How can I be Catholic if I am not speaking with my parents?

How can I be Catholic if I doubt or question aspects of my faith?

How can I be Catholic if ___________________?

We all have something to fill in the blank.

This is why we are a Church that is more than 50% lapsed. We all ask ourselves these questions at some point or another, and the answer is difficult to find. Like my heroes, I am an all or nothing type of gal. There is an old saying, “Whatever you are, be a good one.” Why would you try to be anything if you don’t intend to be good? If I’m going to be Catholic, I’d better be a good one, and if I can't, perhaps I ought not to be one at all.

Though it is a natural tendency to think in this way, sometimes it is best to shed the all or nothing mentality. Sometimes you just need to take things day by day, or hour by hour. Take a moment to read, listen to a song, go for a walk, or pray, and find yourself in what you are doing. What is needed is a different perspective, and this new perspective will often lead us back to ourselves and our identity in Christ.

To illustrate my point, I would like to share a little bit about a book I recently read entitled The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd. Though neither a Catholic piece of literature nor the work of a Catholic author, Sue Monk Kidd depicted the Virgin Mary in a way that shed light and wisdom on our relationship with Mary and our faith.  The most notable conversation about Mary takes place between August, a strong mother-figure in the novel, and the young female protagonist, Lily, as August relates:

Our Lady is not some magical being out there somewhere, like a fairy godmother. She’s not the statue in the parlor. She’s something inside of you [….] She’s the one inside you saying, ‘Get up from there and live like the glorious girl you are.’ She’s the power inside you, you understand? […] And whatever it is that keeps widening your heart, that’s Mary, too, not only the power inside, but the love. And when you get down to it, Lily, that’s the only purpose grand enough for a human life. Not just to love – but to persist in love.
— The Secret Life of Bees, 288

Sometimes what is needed is to persist: slowly, deliberately, intentionally. Think back to the images you know of Mary. What does she do with her body, and what does she tell you in this silent speech? When I look at Mary, there is always an openness. Her arms are outstretched, her body bent and graceful.

This Mary I’m talking to you about sits in your heart all day long, saying, ‘[…] you are my everlasting home. Don’t you ever be afraid. I am enough. We are enough
— The Secret Life of Bees, 289

In Mary we see so much vulnerability and fragility, but also a steady strength and persistence. All of these things lie in the spread of her arms to us.

Sometimes it is hard to be Catholic. But as we open our arms, our hearts, and our minds rather than fixate on our perception of perfection, we can find ourselves and our faith once more.

 

 

 

 

Is Summer About Escape?

Well it’s finally here. Summertime! Days of waiting for that last school bell, the last carpool line, the last exam, and the last whatever else, and now we are here! It is officially summer and Americans across the country rejoice in the wonder and excitement of no school, vacations, and weeks of leisure! I was blessed to spend a week at the Outer Banks in North Caroline the last weekend in May, before summer crowds descended in droves on the sandy paradise. There isn't anything else like feeling the sand between your toes, hearing the waves rolling in, when, in the words of Jimmy Buffet, "the only worry int he world is if the tide's gonna reach my chair."

I have always had an affinity for summertime, the relaxation, and the time to unwind, to leave behind the stresses of everyday. However, recently I've noticed that I often find myself looking to vacation for fulfillment, which leads to a disappointment when the time of relaxation is over. In the midst of the season of summer, it has been important for me to enter into vacation with an attitude of thanksgiving and looking for opportunities to give of myself during my time away.

It is important that we take time to relax and unwind, but it is also imperative that we do so well. Joseph Pieper has written a great book, Leisure, the Basis of Culture, in which he expounds on our modern understanding of leisure, and how it has been distorted. Many of us see leisure as a time of consumption, entertainment, and self-indulgence; binge-watching Netflix, eating and drinking a little too much, spending extravagantly, indulging our appetites, laziness, and selfishness. 

Of course, as Christians we realize that none of these are healthy ways to spend our leisure, but nevertheless, it is easy for these attitudes that surround us to creep into out hearts. Leisure in the truest sense of the word is an opportunity to reflect, to be rejuvenated, and should be the apex of our existence, rather than a small break from the daily routine, merely to recharge and re-enter that routine without having changed.

 

Through times of leisure (which Pieper would describe as much more than vacation) we ought to have time to reflect on what we've received and experienced and to wonder at the life we life. Leisure is an opportuity for us to adjust out attitudes! it is so much more than 'getting away from it all'. I hope that this summer you have a chance to sit in wonder at the amazing things that God has gifted you. Even through the difficult times we can always find something to be thankful for it we just take the time. Let's make this summer a time of transformation instead of simply a time to escape.

 

The Heart of the Matter

This past week I spent most of my time packing my apartment into boxes. The clinical phase of the physician assistant program I'm enrolled in includes rotations all across the Phoenix valley. So for the next year, I'm keeping things simple...living with family, friends, and school subsidized housing at the different clinical rotation sites. Bright red mixer, Mt. Rushmore coffee mug, mismatched pillows, picture frames, well-loved couch, bottle opener from my favorite restaurant, and even espresso maker from Italy found their respective temporary homes in cardboard and shrink wrap. Once everything was packed, my roommate and I cleaned the apartment from top to bottom. When we were done, I laid on the floor and stared at the ceiling. I could feel my heart pound in my stomach. I knew I couldn't stay, but I wasn't ready to go.

I pressed my hand over my chest and perceived its rise and fall with each heart beat. As I felt my own heart beat, I remembered the smooth inside of the atrium, powerful walls of the ventricles, and delicate coronary vessels of the heart that I dissected and held during anatomy lab. The heart I held in lab was strong, but vulnerable in my hands. I closed my eyes and contemplated getting up, but couldn't just yet. The whole apartment was clean, empty. Lying there felt right. So, I stayed and pictured the Sacred Heart of the Lord, pierced, bleeding, crowned with thorns, and on fire. I pictured those same smooth atria, strong ventricles, and septum between them pierced, but still beating despite the wounds. In the image, and always, the Lord is strong because he is a vulnerable human. As human, he is willing to feel, to bleed, and to give us everything. Christ did not keep any of His walls, not even the ones in His heart. He let go of his His mother Mary, His friends, His home, and His very breath.

Reluctantly, I got up and walked around the apartment one last time, checking for scuffs, dust, and marks I could wipe off walls before we left. Now that the apartment was empty, I could see the physical walls of the apartment that I didn't want to let go of. I knew that these physical, visible walls were just like the invisible walls inside my heart. As I let go of the physical walls of my apartment, I knew the Lord was asking me to let go of those invisible walls around my heart too. I became aware that these invisible, immovable walls in and around my heart stood in stark contrast to the image of Christ's open heart, pierced through the septum, the smooth atria, and the muscular ventricles...bleeding...but on eternal fire. His love has no boundaries, but only gives. As I reflected on the Lord's heart, I realized the walls had been around my own heart long enough. The heart of the matter was that I didn't really need the coffee mug from Mr. Rushmore, the mismatched pillows, the espresso make from Italy, and everything else so much as I needed to be free to give all of myself always. By now it was dark. So, with the sweet relief of packing and cleaning complete, I turned the keys in the ignition, rolled the windows down, and drove down the 101 east, open to whatever adventure came next.

We all have our walls physically, and also emotionally. The adventure is to be open and brave enough to let Christ pierce holes in them and give us the strength to walk away from them so that we may experience Christ-like vulnerability. As the Oh Hello's said, "Hello my old heart. How have you been? How is it being locked away? Don't you worry. In there you're safe, and it's true you'll never beat, but you'll never break. Nothing lasts forever. Some things aren't meant to be. But you'll never find the answers until you set your old heart free."