The Lifelong Labor of Love

I’m lucky enough to be allowed to plug in to my music at my desk job, which helps immensely when I’m trying to keep my mind off of my personal life while I’m on the clock.  Lately, though, I’ve been listening to C. S. Lewis audiobooks instead of music.

Depending on current circumstances, Lewis speaks to me in different ways.  Certain quotes or passages will jump out at me to touch my life as it is at the exact moment I read or hear them, and sometimes what he writes does move me to tears.  So it was when I was listening to The Four Loves the other day.  Luckily I was already home by then, having been too caught up in that venerable Belfastian baritone to have silenced it on my walk home from work, so nobody had to witness the rather unattractive display of crying.

Discussing St Augustine’s observations that,

All creatures are temporary. It’s the very nature of the universe that all individuals should pass away and make room for others. … To give one’s heart to a created being is therefore to court disaster. If love is to mean in the long run happiness, not misery, it must mean love for the only Beloved that does not pass away;

Lewis went on his discourse of agape, or the love of God for man and man for God, to say, “A broken and contrite heart awaits, most surely, those who follow that road most faithfully.”  This frank statement about the difficulty of loving God above all else made me reflect on another passage he had written in The Screwtape Letters:  “Indeed, the safest road to Hell is the gradual one – the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”

There are many lines of Scripture wherein God tells us that the road to Heaven is not, by any means, easy.  Who hasn’t been made aware of going through narrow gates, chaff being separated from wheat, persecution by armed enemies, testing gold in fiery furnaces, and wandering in the desert?  And who hasn’t been confused by the Word of the Lord in these instances?  Yet God speaks plainly if you listen to Him intently.  Each example illustrates the intense amount of effort it will take for us to overcome the crippling elements of the human condition before we can cross the holy threshold of His door.

But listening intently to God means listening to everything He has to say.  And for every line of Scripture telling us of the hardships of our faith, there’s something to be said about what good will come from enduring each one.  On the other side of the narrow gates lies a city of paradise.  Freed from chaff, wheat may become flour to make nourishing bread.  Those who suffer for God will have their wounds tended by His mercy. Gold becomes pure and dazzlingly beautiful, and shows its true measure of worth and value.  The desert eventually gives way to an oasis, a land flowing with milk and honey.

Plainly put, God gives us fair warning about the difficulties that lie ahead should we choose to follow Him, and lets us decide in the end if we will or if we will not…but He doesn’t just leave it at that even when we cast the dice.

He gives us the milestones and signposts to guide us along that high road home.   They can be found and identified in every level of our existence.  In the mundane tasks of ordinary days, in the ways we pass our spare time, in our friends and families and acquaintances, in the experiences from which we grow and learn, and in the ways we choose to revere and love God through worship and participation in the Sacraments, we are never left entirely to our own devices.  Not even those who neither believe in any higher power nor practise any religion are abandoned:  we all are given some kind of compass to help us on our way.

Of the Four Loves, Lewis states that all wish to call the objects of their affection, “Mine” —  yet is only agape as it comes from God towards His creation that can truly say this.  God is love, and it is out of His perfect love for all creation that He warns us of the difficulties in following Him.   It is out of that same love that He gives all the tools and resources and graces we might need to keep moving forward.  One’s heart may be broken in pursuit of His will, but when that will is fulfilled by a heart purely joyful and joyfully pure that chooses to endure and persevere for the sake of that perfect love…oh, what healing and wholeness surely awaits that broken and contrite heart!

Now, bring me that horizon.

Last week, God asked me to put my money where my mouth is.

I’ve expended many a keystroke on this blog writing about wanting to follow Him and becoming a better Catholic, a better daughter of God, in the middle of the ordinary world. Being somebody with a record of talking big but hardly ever acting on what I say, I’m not really surprised that I was finally challenged to prove it in a pretty big way.

I won’t get into details about what went down. Not every story has to be told in a visceral fashion in order for its lessons to be made clear. What I can say is that of all the hard choices I’ve had to make, this was the hardest…and of all those, this was the only one that wasn’t made for only my own good.

God challenged me not only to fly out of a nest, but also to let another person do the same thing – both with no strings attached to the ground of human wants and desires, because that’s how we end up flying in circles instead of into the horizon.

If we’re flying in circles, we’re not following God…and for somebody with faith, that’s a big deal.  As CS Lewis once wrote, “To walk out of His will is to walk into nowhere.”  Being a woman of faith, I am confident in God and I trust in His wisdom when it comes to the unknown.  As long as I walk in His wake, even into the unknown my path is certain.

But of course I am only human, and of course that means I have questions about this, even though it was a decision I executed in certainty after much consideration and long deliberation.

Was the choice I made the right one?

Buried somewhere in this hurt, is there hope?

Upon what branch will I alight when this next leg of migration is over?

Being a woman of faith, I know I can question God and somewhere, somehow, He will give me the answers I seek.  I feel a quiet peace now in my heart; small though it may be where it lies in the very centre of myself, it is there and it will grow. My heart might be wrapped up in sadness for now, but one day it will be wrapped up in joy again. And no matter where my next nest will be, as long as I follow God’s call on the wind I will be one step closer to Home.

I have heard You calling in the night

Last Sunday’s readings at Mass included the one about Samuel waking up in the middle of the night because he heard somebody calling out his name. It took a while before Eli figured out it was God’s voice in the night and once he explained this, Samuel knew how to answer The Lord. The readings last week also included the passage from the Gospel of John where John not only recognises that Christ is passing by, but proclaims it with such certainty that disciples immediately follow in His wake.

This past week has been a time of deep introspection for me — a week of constant soul-searching, praying, and demanding to know what exactly is expected of me. I’ve come to realise a great many things about myself and my life so far, and have come to better understand the role of certain events in the grander scheme of things.

I am not like John and the disciples who immediately recognised Christ as he passed by on the road. I am more like Samuel who woke up in darkness and was unable to recognise the voice of God without help. It is true that I have found God in my darkest moments, but it was only through retrospect and guidance that I was able to see that it was Him calling through those long shadows.

Once I realised this and truly began to listen — this Friday at my desk job, of all places — some answers came to me in swift and resonating succession, not unlike the hammer blows a blacksmith rains down upon an anvil when forging a new tool.

A hammer has the dual ability to destroy and to create, depending on the conditions in which it is wielded. When I was not listening to The Lord, His words broke me open and His call was hollow in my ears. When I listen to Him now, those words — the very same words, for His message has not changed — took all those pieces and started banging them back together.

I am not entirely mended, and I will always be a little broken. But I trust in God’s wisdom and grace enough to trust that the chinks and dents will be straightened, the tears will be mended, and the holes will be patched over. In darkness and in light, The Lord is working on me so that I will be ready to be a part of something greater than my own self. Because, as somebody so very dear to me once wrote to me in a time of darkness,

“In one way or another we are all tools of God. Our talents determine how He comes through us into the world — the musician becomes His instrument; the artist becomes His paintbrush; the writer becomes His pen. But sometimes we are called to spread His Gospel and sanctify daily life in ways that require us to be like swords in His hands. And because we are swords that He draws at a moment’s notice, He hammers and bends and tempers us in His divine forge; makes sure we are always sharpened; and always keeps His hand upon us.”

An Epiphany of My Own?

If I had a dollar for every time somebody exclaimed, “Wait — you’re Catholic?” I would probably have a tidy nest egg by now. When I, in turn, ask why it’s a surprise, I usually get a response along one (or any combination) of the following lines:

  • “Well, I guess because it’s weird? I don’t know anyone who still believes in God.”
  • “Because religion is ridiculous.”
  • “Oh…well, then, that actually explains a lot.”
  • “You don’t really seem very Catholic..”

While I could write a post for each one of those (and probably will one day), in light of the Feast of the Epiphany today I’ll just address the last one.

What is it to “act Catholic,” exactly? The modern secular world seems to have an archaic view of Catholicism that resembles a mish-mash of all of the human Church’s less-than-spectacular moments in history and the way popular media has misrepresented Catholics over the years. But even though we real-world Catholics are aware of how we are misrepresented — even though we know the truth of how our faith works in the real modern world — why is it that so many of us are afraid to show what we truly are and profess what we truly believe?

I grew up in a small town in the Fraser Valley that had no shortage of Christian followers: between the Roman Catholic parish to which my family belonged and the nomadic evangelicals who moved from family to family in my best friend’s congregation, there was a slew of trinitarian Baptists, Latter-Day Saints, Episcopalians, Anglicans, and numerous Protestant denominations. I certainly wasn’t the only practising Christian or even the only practising Catholic in my high school when I started out, and though there were fewer of us when I graduated I certainly did not stand alone on the religious front at the end.

But adolescence is rife with insecurities, and if left unattended those insecurities cross the threshold with us into adult life. As practising Catholic teenagers, my brothers and those few Mass-attending classmates were different from the other Christians because church on Sundays was never optional, and if we knew ahead of time that we couldn’t make it on Sunday we had to go on Saturday. We were different because our faith included rites and rituals and sacraments that were foreign to other versions of Christianity. We were different because practicing our faith outside of church didn’t involve youth mission trips to third-world countries over the summer, but rather spending time outside of Mass in prayer, reflection, and contemplation.

We knew what to do and what to say at Christmas and Easter Mass. We didn’t know lines of scripture by heart but could talk your ear off about catechism. Our summer camps were gender-specific, and involved daily Mass, faith formation, and prayer time. We wore Saint medals and scapulars; didn’t eat meat on certain days of the year; and said grace in the cafeteria.

After any amount of time of having these differences pointed out to us, in our own ways we stopped being so visibly Catholic among our peers. We found ways to keep our Catholic lives separate from our school and social ones, and gradually some us even abandoned it altogether. Some of us abandoned the Cross for some time before returning to stand at its foot.

Having experienced all of that, including a crisis of faith and a reaffirmation of my beliefs, I should be able to stand in front of you and be unmistakably, unsurprisingly Catholic. I am a daughter of God and have embraced that, so it should come out in how I express myself and conduct myself even when I’m not talking about beliefs.  It shouldn’t come out in a pushy or overbearing way — I don’t believe in throwing certain things in people’s faces — but it should still be evident that I profess faith and practice it, too.

Alas, it is not the case, and that needs to change.

The Feast of Epiphany recalls the journey of the Three Magi from the Far East to Bethlehem in the wake of the Star, and celebrates what they found there: the new-born Christ in his lowly manger bed. It is used in the New Testament and in the Liturgy of the Word as a precursor to the spreading of Christianity throughout the world, for the Wise Men did indeed travel from countries far from Israel to celebrate the birth of the Holy Child and pay homage.

Our parish’s head pastor, a wise and down-to-earth Irish-Canadian Monsignor, told his congregation today that the Three Magi had great faith indeed, for only great faith in prophecy and scripture could account for how closely they watched the night sky and then followed the Star from so far away. They had no idea where exactly they would find the infant Messiah and they had no idea how long it would take — they did not even know when the signs of His birth would appear. But they kept faith that they would not only see the signs, but also that they would eventually lay their eyes on the Holy Child.

A little over two thousand years later, there is no need for Catholics to wait for signs and to wonder if Our Lord will come — for we know that He already has, and that He has already died for us. There is even no need for followers of Jesus Christ to follow Him in secret. We acknowledge His birth, we greet him at the manger, and we trust in His second coming. We are secure in this, so does it not also stand that we should be secure in living our lives in ways — at all times — that bear witness to this?

It is easier said than done, and it is a lifetime struggle at that, to live in the real world in ways that makes us unmistakably children of God and followers of His Word. But that is where the strength of one’s faith is truly tested: in the real world, in the mundane and repetitious tasks of every day life. I spend most of my human life outside of the comfort of my own home, but my entire life and all aspects of it should be spent in the presence of God. And if I truly am secure in my faith, I should not let the adolescent fear of being different keep me from being unsurprisingly Catholic.

Living my religion

Being a young adult of ardent faith comes with its own set of challenges, especially in today’s society.  It’s no understatement to say that being a young adult practicing any religion is counter-cultural simply because it’s true:  the majority of my peer group does not have a well-developed spiritual formation, if any at all.

And because we practicing young adults are going against popular culture, our own lives can become quite confusing from time to time.  We are still humans living in the day-to-day world.  We are still faced with the same challenges, ordeals, and events that everyone else encounters – but we have faith.  And while faith is on the whole an incredibly reliable compass, when the expectations of faith clash with the expectations of popular culture we do get thrown off-course.  It’s especially hard to live and express faith openly when popular culture perpetuates religion-based stereotypes, particularly the ones wherein anyone who is an ardent believer and faithful follower is portrayed as an uncontrollable, unlikable zealot out to convert the entire world by force.

Uniting uncommon faith with popular society is a tricky business.  It’s hard for those of us who have it to understand it, so believe me when I say that I get that the non-believer has a hard time understanding it too.  I’m a practicing Roman Catholic who had a crisis of faith in late adolescence and young adulthood, so really:  I understand both sides of the story.  And I do need to point out that the world through the eyes of faith is not necessarily black-and-white.  There are many shades of grey on all subjects of morality – and those spaces in between the extremes of what is blatantly wrong and what is infallibly right are where our faith is truly tested.

I’m still figuring out my faith and who I am as a daughter of God.  I’ll probably spend a great deal of the rest of my life trying to figure it out.  But in the twenty-four years that I have lived, loved, lost, and regained my faith, I have come to understand a little better three key aspects of my belief system.

Let me be clear that my intention here is not to preach on these three points, but rather to share how I have come to understand them – and for a few reasons.  First, not every religion names the Bible, either in entirety or in part, as its holy scripture.  Second, there are several versions of the Bible and the way I know the Word of God is not necessarily the way others would know it.  Third, the written word – even as it pertains to faith and religion – is always subject to human interpretation, and therefore can be read in many different ways even among those who know the same version of the Bible.  (See what I meant when I said it’s not all black-and-white?)

But there are common threads among all kinds of faith, and maybe if you’re a young man or young woman of a faith different to mine you’ll see those threads of my spiritual life intertwining with yours.

***

“Love the sinner, hate the sin,” is not carte-blanche for you to do whatever you want and think you’ll get off scott-free.  Catholics have this thing called Confession.  Otherwise known as the Sacrament of Reconciliation, it’s hinged upon the belief and teaching that no matter how grave the transgression, the sinner is still worthy of love and forgiveness.  (Actually, it’s what the entire religion is hinged upon.  After all, the Incarnation of Jesus Christ as a means of salvation for all of humanity is pretty much how this all started.)  And this is pretty good.  It means we can be human and make mistakes, but we have a chance to start anew and head back into the world with a stronger resolve.

It’s a component of Catholicism that is so integral and intrinsic to the entire belief system that sometimes it becomes a loophole or a crutch.  Personally, I have lost track of the number of times I have said to myself, “I can do whatever I want, because as long as I go to Confession I’ll be alright.  But that’s not entirely true.  “Confession is a covenant, and requires conviction to keep us from condemnation,” as my father once told me (how’s that for a Catholic tongue-twister?), and as such, it can’t be taken as a “get out of jail free” card that we can whip out every time we’re faced with a moral quandary.

But in terms of the world outside the confessional, loving the sinner and hating the sin goes beyond one’s own personal relationship with God.  As I’ve grown in my faith and in my limited understanding thereof, I’ve come to realise that the concept applies to my real-world relationships and that in these circumstances it applies in both directions.  To love the sinner and hate the sin is to “forgive those who trespass against us” and to do it with faith so that we may see the inherent good in others and help them overcome the challenges presented by their own weaknesses and shortcomings.  It is to remind us to forgive without losing accountability – either to ourselves or to others – and to forgive with conviction so as to strengthen ourselves and others.

 “Let those without sin cast the first stone,” is not an invitation towards passivity or inaction.  Spiritual lukewarmness has its own Gospel passage wherein it is struck down and criticized – and rightly so.  Faith requires conviction – not just when it comes to asking for forgiveness and forgiving others, but rather in every single one of its components.

Only God has the power to judge and condemn, but once again this isn’t an excuse to do whatever the heck we want and think we can get away with it.  This is yet another situation wherein accountability to oneself is intertwined with one’s accountability to others.   Refraining from casting the first stone does not mean remaining an uninvolved bystander.  Yes, we should make a conscious effort to avoid passing judgment (especially when we know little or nothing about the situation), but we should not avoid the opportunity presented to us in these circumstances to help another person grow positively.

Whether or not another person in my life shares my faith and even whether or not they believe in anything at all should not dictate how I choose to live my faith within that relationship.  I believe that I am held accountable not only for my actions but for my inaction as well.  It is not enough to merely refrain from casting the first stone:  the hand that drops the stone should be extended to help another back to their feet.

“Love one another as I have loved you” and “do unto others as you would have done unto yourself” – if these truly lie at the heart of my faith, then dropping the stone is to try loving as my Savior loves, and extending my hand in aid is to treat another as I would want them to treat me.  The call I have answered through my faith is not a call to jury duty.  It is a call to the witness stand where I can testify to the good in everyone and everything.  If I drop the stone but remain a bystander, I am not testifying to my faith:  I am failing to live by the standards of humanity in which I believe.

“Turn the other cheek,” is not another way of saying, “take it lying down.”  My mother often says, “Catholicism is the last acceptable prejudice.”  That is to say, the general (and ideal) Catholic propensity towards openness, compassion, and forgiveness is often either mistaken as a loophole to bash the religion as a whole for the mistakes and shortcomings of its individuals, or mistaken as passivity, complacency, or obliviousness to reality.

God created man in His image.  Catechism taught me that God is love; therefore, because I am made in His image I too am called to embody love.  And while my spiritual propensity towards love does exist, my human one towards pride causes a great internal conflict.  I have learned, though, that there is a great difference between having pride in myself and being prideful.  The former is to acknowledge and stand up for my worth as a person – as an individual, unique, and irreplaceable creation.  The latter is to believe that my individuality and my uniqueness place me above anyone else.

To me, turning the other cheek is relinquishing one’s pride enough so as to allow room for growth and improvement in both parties involved, but not letting go of it entirely so as to become a willing doormat or scapegoat for one’s opponents.  To take any unwarranted or excessive attack lying down is to be lukewarm or indifferent to one’s faith and to one’s own inherent value.

I know the reality of human nature includes unsavory qualities and harmful tendencies, but I also know that the reality of spiritual nature gives every man, woman, and child a measure of worth.  Every person’s inherent value is worth fighting for, but I firmly believe that we are called to fight for our worth in ways that are not vengeful or harmful towards our aggressors.  Rather, we are called to fight for our worth in ways that would reflect the worth of others.

***

Of course this is all easier said than done, but another integral part of faith is the battle to overcome human weaknesses and failings.  The struggle is real, but my personal failures and shortcomings do not define me.  I am defined by how I abandon myself to my faith and how I live it in my daily life.