Watering my mustard seeds

The other day, a very old and very dear friend of mine shared a humour post on Facebook – “30 Ways to Win a Catholic Girl’s Heart.”  It actually was pretty funny and I’m sure I’m not the only reader who can relate to several of the points on this list — though I really do think that you do have to have some working/practicing knowledge of the system to really understand why I had a giggle fit over “Become a Swiss Guard.”

Humour aside, though, the whole thing did get me thinking about this whole “being a single practicing Catholic” thing I’ve got going on.

I turned twenty-five a couple of months ago, passing that particular milestone with the experience of a few long-term relationships and various short-lived ventures into dating. I wouldn’t say I’m an expert because I so totally am not one, but I’ve loved enough and lost enough by now to have a pretty good idea of what it takes to win over this particular Catholic heart.

Some people I know think that the most fulfilling relationship I could possibly have would be one with a practicing Catholic guy. However after my last turn around the LTR block with one, I can tell you that being of the same religious background and having a reasonably comparable level of faith formation is no guarantee to everlasting marital-worthy happiness. Sure, it makes things easier sometimes, and I definitely have peers whose young marriages are working out rather nicely due to shared faith, but castles in the air of any kind are simply that until they’re grounded in your reality.

My reality contains within it a highly secularized demographic of peers who, while perhaps not being so ardent in their natal religions as I am, are still wonderful, decent, and amazing people. And I’m not about to whittle away all my options down to a small handful of churchgoing, God-fearing guys (who I know by appearance alone because the only time I see them is during Sunday Mass) simply because I’m Catholic.

I can stand on my own two feet in my faith.  My mustard tree, though small yet and still sometimes desperately thirsty for grace, is sturdy enough that there’s no danger of me uprooting it from that nourishing soil to please somebody else.  If I am meant to share my life with another person, then I know that I will be able to freely and happily share everything about myself with them – including my faith and all the experiences that I have had because of it. But I will never beat somebody over the head with my old Baltimore Catechism, make full conversion or RCIA a dealbreaker, or drag somebody by the scruff to Mass. That’s no way to win a non-Catholic heart, and that’s also kind of hypocritical (you know, that whole “Free Will” deal and all).

I’ve come to realize that what makes things easier for me is mutual respect, honesty, and openness. If a guy can respect that I have my faith and my beliefs, and doesn’t ridicule me, put me down, or insult me because I am a practicing Catholic, then I can return to him a sizeable measure of respect. If a guy can be honest with me about why he’s lapsed, doesn’t believe in God, or doesn’t understand the whole religion thing, then I am happy to share the little I know to help bring further clarity. And if a guy can be open with me about what’s in his own heart and what his intentions are, then I can find it in my heart to return the gesture.

I’d much rather be alone and happy than be trapped in a relationship of religious convenience.  I would rather be loved, cherished, and respected for everything that I am, not just wanted because of the religion into which I was baptized and which I practice willingly as an adult.  And that’s what would warm and win this particular Catholic heart, because the end of the day, being able to share my faith with my partner on any level would be a precious blessing and I would treasure it…and I honestly believe there are many ways to share faith – many ways to grow together in faith, hope, and love, even as a “mixed” couple. If that’s what’s in store for me, then I gladly welcome it and will eagerly walk that path alongside whatever upright, just, and decent man God sends along that same way.

The first day of the rest of my life

“You are never too old to set another goal or dream a new dream.”
— C. S. Lewis

I turned twenty-five on Sunday.

I spent the day before my birthday and the day itself with some of the people I love best, and am looking forward to a few friend-dates in the next week to get together with the ones I couldn’t see this weekend.  When I was growing up my birthdays were almost always exclusively family affairs, as having a summer birthday meant the majority of the few good school friends I had were away on family vacations.

As far as milestones go, it’s the only one I’ve had so far where I’ve felt like I’ve really come a long way from where I was the previous year.  The first half-and-a-bit of 2015 has been all about self-discovery and growing up – about coming to terms with what I’ve experienced in the past and learning to let it go so that I can move forward with my life.  I’ve grown stronger in all aspects of my life, even the ones where I was already doing pretty well…but I think the biggest difference between then and now is that I’m finally starting to be strong for myself.

Going the distance – not just physically but also emotionally, mentally, and spiritually – is something I’ve had difficulty with for my whole life.  I’ve got a few victories under my belt, but I’ve never really  been able to say I’ve done everything I’ve set my mind to do.  And something huge that I’ve come to realize in the past couple of months is that truly going the distance really is an issue of mind over matter.  I can set my mind to anything, but I have to keep those goals at the forefront of my focus if I’m going to achieve what I’ve set out to do.

The other thing I’ve realized is that part of keeping presence of mind regarding those goals is doing them every day.  Long-term investments of any kind take time to give you a return, and when it comes to personal goals and personal improvement there are no shortcuts.

Hot damn though…once it starts paying back, it really starts paying back.    

I can’t really quite describe how it feels to wake up, throw off my duvet, and stretch my legs any which way and see muscle lines where there used to be nothing but wobbly flesh.  It’s not just the fact that my legs are actually starting to look good – it’s the fact that now I can run farther and faster on them, and not just because they’re stronger.  I’ve lost enough weight to realize I can run – and, even more surprisingly, that I like running.  In fact, this former borderline high school Phys Ed failure enjoys running so much that she’s decided to train for a half-marathon next June.

But there’s something else that I’ve wanted to do for much longer than running a half-marathon – something else that symbolizes going the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual distance that I see before me.

Montreal is home to Saint Joseph’s Oratory – founded by one of Quebec’s very own saints, Saint Frère André, whose close relationship with Saint Joseph earned him not only the nickname bon ami de Saint Joseph but also the reputation of a miraculous man whose devotion allowed the intercession of Saint Joseph to cure seemingly countless pilgrims seeking relief from various afflictions.  Pilgrimages to the Oratory are still fairly common, and because it is built so high up on the hillside the most direct route upwards is an impressive series of stone steps.  In between the two stone staircases is a wooden one reserved for pilgrims, specifically those who wish to complete their journey to the Oratory on their knees.

I was meeting one of my closest and oldest friends for Mass last night at the Oratory, and the walk there from my new apartment is literally only ten minutes.  As I stood at the bottom of the hill, texting Elizabeth to let her know I was on my way up, I decided to make the kneeling pilgrimage up to the Oratory.   Yeah, I know I’m weird – who wants to celebrate their milestone birthday by getting to church on time by going up a hillside of ninety-nine exposed wooden stairs on their knees when it’s almost thirty degrees outside with the sun on their back?

But that’s what I did.  With a young couple praying the rosary up ahead of me and a young woman behind me making the same pilgrimage in place of her wheelchair-bound mother waiting at the top, I climbed 99 steps on my knees – praying all the while and giving thanks for everything with which I Have been blessed so far in my life.

Just as I can’t quite explain how it feels when I see strong healthy legs in the morning instead of twin cans of Pillsbury biscuit dough, I can’t quite explain how it felt to stand at the top of that staircase, using the last few spare minutes before Mass to see, quite literally, how far I’d come.  After Mass, I stood at the top of them again with Elizabeth, looking at the sky as the last of the light from the sunset faded to the black of night…and as we descended together I passed the memory of myself – and all my past fears, insecurities, failures, and hurts – where I left them on my way up.

I’m pretty sure there’s at least one of each on every last one of those stairs.

I went to bed last night a newly-minted twenty-five-year old who felt, for the first time in her adult life, like she truly was older, wiser, stronger, smarter, and more loved.  And while everyone in my life who celebrated with me, in one way or another, helped make me feel that way I had to make myself believe that by taking the first ninety-nine steps out of my past and into my future.

stjoesThe view of North Montreal from the Basilica level of Saint Joseph’s Oratory at the end of sunset.

Love over everything else

The United States legalized gay marriage nationwide today, and I’m not afraid to say that I’ve hit “Like” on more than one friend’s status update and on more than one news service’s headline about this social milestone.

I’m also not above sharing the fact that a person I’ve known and called a friend for some time now sent me a text message asking me why on earth would I give this breaking news a thumbs-up, remarking by way of justification that,

“…it’s wrong and goes against what we believe in, and as a woman who someday wants a family you ought to think hard about how this threatens your future position as a mother in a society that accepts this sort of thing.  Your hypocrisy is disappointing, to say the least. ”

Anyone who follows this blog knows I wear my faith and my views on my sleeve, and I do tend to get a lot of mixed feedback about doing so.  That’s only to be expected, though, since the Internet is public — but that’s besides the point.  Of all the negative messages I’ve received about my more worldly views, this is probably the one that angers and hurts me the most.

It’s not just because I have a lot good friends who are homosexual and a few who are bisexual.  It’s not just because  a good friend of mine is a heterosexual whose divorced parents are both now with same-sex partners.  It’s not just because one of my closest friends came out to me before they came out to anyone else, including their own parents.  It’s not just because a dear friend of mine is searching for a way to make their homosexuality coincide with their faith, determined not to give up or abandon either one because they believe both are equally important to who they are as an individual.

It’s also because I have never, ever believed in using my sexual orientation, religious affiliation, or gender to say that I am in any way “better” or “holier” or “more deserving” than anyone else – and it pains me to know that members of my faith community (both immediate and extended) so easily forget what the Lord says about love.

And He has quite a lot to say on the subject, but perhaps the most familiar points to just about anyone  are, “Let those without sin cast the first stone,” as well as, “And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love, and the greatest of these is love.”  He also asked us to, “Love one another as I have loved you.”

Oh, and while we’re considering those points, it would serve us all in good stead to remember that “Christian” means “follower of Christ,” and “Catholic” means “universal.”

Thus…

Is it truly Christian or Catholic for any person or group of people to say that those who are “different” aren’t worthy of the same rights, privileges, and advantages which “the norm” may claim unopposed?  Do we truly love others as we have been loved by an infinitely wise and loving Creator when we use that same Creator’s words against people who are in some way, shape, or form not exactly like us?  Can we really say we believe love is the greatest virtue when we allow our faith and beliefs and ideologies to get in the way of everyone being able to share their lives with other people in freedom and security?

If being a follower of Christ means following His example in daily life and if being made in God’s image means reflecting some measure His infinite love, then the hypocrisy lies not in being supportive of friends and/or family members whose lives are remarkably different than our own.  The hypocrisy lies in viewing anyone who isn’t heterosexual – and therefore supposedly “normal” – as being unworthy of acceptance, friendship, support, and yes, love. 

And that’s because the bottom line about humanity in this faith, the very heart of this belief system, is that our God became human so that He could die for all of humanity.  The Incarnation and the Crucifixion did not occur to save a select handful of souls, but rather every soul.  That is the extent of Divine Love, and nothing of human design or conception – not even the most deeply entrenched prejudices or misconceptions concerning the diverse complexity of any aspect of humanity – can change that.

Snow Day

It’s Saturday, and even though it’s April there’s snow coming down and piling up. I’m pretty sick of winter, as is everyone else who lives on the East Coast, and I wish that I could just curl up on the couch under my duvet today, a book in hand or a documentary on the telly and copious amounts of hot coco on the coffee table. Add the cat on my feet or my stomach and you’ve got what’s pretty much my ideal snow day.

Alas, the cat had to go to the vet today for a dental procedure that’s going to fix an abscess in one of his back teeth, and I had to get up at 6:00 this morning to get him to the vet in time for his 7:30 appointment. Back home and fully awake now, I have until 11:00 to do what I want before heading off to my retail job. And right after that I’ll be heading to the Basilica to celebrate the Easter Vigil.

From my couch in the living room, through the big windows I can see the snow falling down. Only three days ago on my walk to and from work, I was able to see tentative green things – the crocuses and snowdrops that mark the end of winter – coming up in the postage-stamp gardens all along my street. Now they’re all buried under a cold blanket of snow again, and they’ll have to wait another week before they can continue growing.

I feel like those crocuses and snowdrops at the moment. I feel like I am constantly being reburied under snow as I struggle to grow, and I long to feel life inside me every day when I wake up. Most days that feeling takes a while to kick in, but I remember how it felt to wake up with it already there, its grip on me firm and strong the moment my eyes opened.

Healing is a tricky business. I do have my faith and I do trust and hope in God, but as the saying goes, “God helps those who help themselves.” And as much as I keep stumbling on the hard path set before me, I know I have to keep pushing through every day.

I’m looking for things to look forward to. My upcoming move into a new apartment helps keep me busy when I’m at home for long stretches of time, and I know that when I really get deep into the whole business of it all I’ll have the opportunity to make as fresh a start as possible. I signed up for a pottery class that starts in May, and there’s always work and the cat to get me out of bed in the morning.

It’s hard, though. It’s hard waking up and facing a day without somebody you love. It’s hard to look outside the window and see the snow, and feel like change really is in the air or around the corner.

But life exists, even under the snow: deep in the ground, it waits for the opportune moment. I know that deep in my heart, there’s a little bundle of life waiting to grow…I just have to hold on through every sudden snowstorm until it’s sunny again.

The Demands of Love Himself

In spite of all my talk recently about following God’s will because I want to be a good daughter of His, like any child I’ve also spent a fair amount of time in the last couple of weeks being sulky, angry, and fighting rebelliousness towards Him. We’re almost done with Lent – in just two weekends, the Christian world will be celebrating Easter – and yet for these past two weeks I have felt no further out of the desert than where I was when Lent began.

I’ve only just written about how the road to Heaven is hard, and that God makes no attempt to hide this from us. I know this and I try to understand it more each day. I try to keep in mind that I’m not going through all of these life events for nothing: that He has a purpose for me, and such a purpose must be something huge if He needs me to go through so many trials and challenges to get there. It must be something wonderful if He asked me to sacrifice my last relationship – my best relationship – in order to follow His plan for me.

Yet despite knowing this, here I am: at some times furiously angry with God, and at others, sobbing in His presence – but all the time demanding to know why He would ask me to give up the person with whom I was planning on spending the rest of my life…why His divine love would demand that I set aside my own human love…why the path He has laid before my feet to happiness had to start with one of the unhappiest events of my life since laying my father to rest.

The sorrow and pain of having to end my last relationship still twists, visceral and acute, inside me. I haven’t really worn makeup in the last two weeks because the tears well up at the most unusual times outside of when I’m alone in my room: they come when I am walking along a windy boulevard; when I am praying; when I am alone in the washroom at work…even when I am in the middle of the church taking part in Mass or going to Confession.

Yesterday afternoon when I was talking with one of my parish priests about being angry and upset at God, he told me to reflect on one of the Lenten season’s earlier weekday readings about Naaman.  (As a side note, this was one of those instances wherein God’s sense of humour was made evident to me, because this was the reading on the day I ended my last relationship.  Nice one, Father.)

The leprous warrior and champion of Aram, Naaman was told to simply wash in the River Jordan to cleanse his body of the disease. Thus his call to obedience and to prove his faith in the Lord was a far easier demand than the ones made on others, such as Abraham (who was asked to sacrifice his only son as a burnt offering) or Moses (who led the Israelites through the desert and all of its trials for forty years only to die without ever entering the Promised Land).  Though at first he was indignant, thinking that surely the True God would have cured him in a grander way than that, Naaman eventually did as commanded…simply because his servant pointed out to him that by that logic, if Naaman had been asked to perform a more demanding task, he would have done it without question.

And yet the task before him was a simple, ordinary one that he did every day without second thought.

God could have called me to sacrifice myself and follow Him in the way He asked my father, or any other disabled, invalid, or dying person, to do so. He could have called me to leave behind all my worldly goods and possessions to serve under Holy Orders, or to serve him in a lay vocation. He could have asked of me a great many things that are undeniably much harder and much more demanding, and yet all He did was ask me to give up the guy I really thought was going to be The Guy.

And for what, exactly, did I sacrifice my last relationship? Not for any new vocation, but for the same vocation to which I already knew I was being called. Not for any other human relationship to take precedence, but for my relationship with God to truly and immovably become my first priority. Not to fall in love all over again with anyone else, but to fall more in love immediately with God…the same God, as C.S. Lewis says,

“…who needs nothing, loves into existence wholly superfluous creatures in order that He may love and perfect them. He creates the universe, already foreseeing…the buzzing cloud of flies about the cross, the flayed back pressed against the uneven stake, the nails driven through the mesial nerves, the repeated incipient suffocation as the body droops, the repeated torture of back and arms as it is time after time, for breath’s sake, hitched up.. … Herein is love. This is the diagram of Love Himself, the inventor of all loves.”

 

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!

My father, my ink, and my inheritance

On the side of my right thigh, more or less in the middle, is a tattoo:  a green infinity symbol, with one side twisting into the word “brave” and the other side adorned by a red poppy.  It is the second of three tattoos that I have, and I had it done in August 2012, some months after I said my last farewell to my father in the Notre-Dame-des-Neiges Cemetery here in Montréal.

I was not yet twenty-two when my father passed away on a cold February morning two days after his fifty-seventh birthday.  I was awakened by the sound of the ringtone I had assigned to my grandfather’s mobile, and the moment I heard it I knew that something was wrong.  He never called me from his mobile unless there was something amiss.  The moment I answered the call, I knew exactly what it was, and suddenly there was a tremendous weight on my young, irresponsible, and selfish shoulders:  “Please call your siblings in Vancouver and let them know,” my grandfather said.  “We have to speak with the medical team – they just arrived.”

To be the one to tell three of my four older siblings that our father had passed away was the hardest thing I have ever been asked to do, and it had to happen before I could leave my own apartment and walk the five blocks to my parents’ home in order to do what I could.  But I had no idea what had to be done.  Twenty-one years on this earth prepares one for absolutely nothing, especially when it comes to the task of laying a parent to rest, and all that such a task entails.  The following quote pretty much sums up the entire experience of being a child who is suddenly faced with this ordeal –

 “What happens when the light first pierces the dark dampness in which we have waited?  We are slapped and cut loose.  If we are lucky, someone is there to catch us and persuade us that we are safe.  But are we safe?  What happens if, too early, we lose a parent – that party on whom we rely for only…everything?  Why, we are cut loose again and we wonder, even dread, whose hands will catch us now.”

I have to say, with no small amount of amazement and gratitude, that I was lucky.  I was lucky because I had my brothers and sisters to lean on – emotionally while I waited for them to arrive, and physically once they did.  I was lucky because my grandfather was there to help me console my mother.  I was lucky because my mother had passed on to me some the tempered steel that is her willpower.  I was lucky because I had friends who let me know that I was in their thoughts and hearts, no matter how far away they were.

But most of all I was lucky because I am, after all, my father’s daughter.

Fathers are not only role models for their sons:  they are their daughters’ first heroes as well.  My father’s body – frail and debilitated as it was by Parkinson’s, Ankylosing Spondylitis, and a heart attack – housed an indomitable spirit and active mind.  Some of us have trouble getting up in the morning because we haven’t yet had a cup of coffee, or we went to bed too late.  My father literally had trouble getting out of bed in the morning because his body fought against him every day.  But each and every morning, he woke up and faced a day of intense physical suffering without so much as a peep of complaint.

That is extraordinary bravery and strength in an ordinary life.  And that is always how I will remember my father – as a brave, strong man who, despite his physical afflictions, lived a life of faith, hope, and love for the sake of his family.

I have only a small measure of my father’s profound faith, and mine is shaky at best.  I am cynical and jaded, and have been known in the past to consider love as being both arduous and futile.  But being my father’s daughter means I have more of him in me than I think or than is outwardly recognisable.  I may not have had much time with him, but I have a lifetime ahead to appreciate and treasure his legacy.

It is a simple legacy – but then again, “all the greatest things are simple, and many can be expressed in a single word.”  In my father’s case, there are four words that will always come to mind when I think of him.

Bravery.  Fortitude.  Perseverance.  Strength.

And so, on the side of my right thigh, more or less in the middle, is a tattoo:  a green infinity symbol, with one side twisting into the word “brave” and the other side adorned by a red poppy.  It is the second of three tattoos that I have, and I had it done in August 2012, some months after I said my last farewell to my father in the Notre-Dame-des-Neiges Cemetery here in Montréal.  It is not a tattoo that was picked out of a book or drawn out of whimsy onto a napkin.  It is a reminder of my father – because to me, José Victor Olaguera was known simply as “Poppie,” and for me, he was a man who was, until his last breath, forever brave.