Fear and (Self-)Loathing

Praise the LORD, all you nations!
Extol him, all you peoples!
His mercy for us is strong;
the faithfulness of the LORD is forever.
Hallelujah!
This week our local parish was lucky enough to host Hallie Lord for our annual “Fall Mission,” a series of Mass, dinner, talks, and Adoration (sound familiar, Frassati folks?) to unify and build the faith of our Church community. Ms. Lord published a book titled, On the Other Side of Fear, and she shared much of her experience in overcoming fear in her life tonight. I’d like to share a bit of her story here.

Hallie was a convert to Catholicism, and after experiencing a strong movement of the spirit to join the Church (she had grown up in a “hippie liberal family” in northern California) after witnessing her now-husband’s resurgence of faith, she experienced a strong “New Convert High,” as her spiritual director called it. She was two years removed from her Confirmation, married to the man of her dreams, and her closest priest friend had come to visit for dinner. After the meal, he pulled her aside and struck a somber tone, far from his normal demeanor.
“How are you doing, Hallie? It’s been, what, two years now?”
She told him that things were as good as they’ve ever been. She felt filled to the brim with the love of God. This much he already knew.
“I just wanted to let you know, though, that it doesn’t last like that forever. I’m not trying to be a killjoy, but I believe people handle the rough patches better when they expect them.” He added, semi-jokingly, “If you’re a Catholic and you’re not suffering, you’re not doing it right.”
Hallie was understandably disgruntled, and more than a little in denial. By her own admission, she thought that maybe this cradle Catholic priest couldn’t understand the experience of a convert!
However, within two months, her family’s financial situation had undergone a dramatic downturn, and they spent the next 10 years digging out from under accrued debts, bad luck, and tough break after tough break. By all accounts, the math didn’t work out: her husband had a Master’s degree, was working two jobs, and they were living in relatively inexpensive cities. In retrospect, she says, it was clear that this was a Cross that the Lord had called their family to bear.
Hallie, for years, was fraught with anxiety and crippled by fear. Would their utilities be shut off tomorrow like it had been in the past? Would one medical emergency put them over a financial brink?
Finally, after the birth of fifth(?) child, her daughter Zelie, she reached a turning point. She, like so many times before her dark decade, offered her life to the Lord. He, in His own funny way, confirmed His love for her through an hour-long car-ride with three hitchhiking French friars.

In hearing her message, I was struck by how much room my faith has to grow, and how numbed and distant my heart had grown from Jesus’ lately. Hearing someone else talk about their unsuccessful efforts to ‘muscle’ through trying times, admittedly much more trying than anything I’ve been going through, brought some healthy perspective to my recent struggles.
For 27 years of my life, I’ve heard the message that the Lord offers us crosses and suffering to refine our hearts. For so many of those years, I’ve nodded my head, but not been able to truly believe it.
Tonight, for the first time in longer than I’d like to admit, I started to believe it again. Almost unbeknownst to me, My Way had taken hold of my spirit, and My Faith turned into something that better resembled My Contingency Plans, or, How to Avoid Disaster and Mitigate Risk.
Does that sound familiar to anyone? Are any of you struggling with a life or faith whose boundaries are set by your fears of utter failure? Are any of you living in what Hallie called, the “wreckage of the future”? How may of your daily decisions take into account bad- to worst-case scenarios that invite you to take the safe, least vulnerable path.
But has Jesus Christ ever once called us to safety, to invulnerability? I think you know the answer to that.
Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your life-span?
But seek first the kingdom [of God] and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides.
—Matthew 6:27,33

Jesus does not invite us to live a timid life. Instead, we are called to make disciples of all nations. He does not invite us to safety. Instead, we are told that we will suffer for our Faith, but the Lord’s mercy is strong and his faithfulness can overcome any obstacle or fear.

Jesus calls us beyond our fears, inviting us to walk on the water with our eyes fixed on Him. The Creator and Redeemer of our universe wants us to abide in Him, which is not without its risks, but he promises not only safety and provision, but Eternal Life with He for whom our hearts long most.

Our Worth is in Him Alone

“Am I now currying favor with human beings or God?
Or am I seeking to please people?
If I were still trying to please people,
I would not be a slave of Christ” (Galatians 1:10).

This verse from St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians stopped me in my tracks as I went through the readings for today. I wish I could say I only ever seek affirmation from God, but it’s a point of struggle for me. I am a people-pleaser, and sometimes I fall into the temptation to worry too much about what other people think of me. Thoughts of inadequacy, comparison, and isolation can plague us. How many of us wonder, “Am I good enough?”, “Do I have what it takes?”, “Can I do this?”, “What’s wrong with me?” Or we jump straight to the self-hatred: “I can’t do this,” “I’m not capable,” “I’m not good enough,” “I’m a burden,” “He/She is so much better than I am,” “I’m a mess.”

It is tempting to measure our worth by “standards” of appearance, friend circles, vocational status, career advancements, having that perfect Catholic Instagram photo with a Bible and coffee, feedback from a boss, or the people that seem to have it all together (they don’t). This will only make our aching hearts sick, and the whispered lies about our identity from the evil one will become the deafening norm. It all ultimately boils down to pride and not trusting in God enough—not trusting fully in how much He loves us.

The more we know our belovedness as God’s sons and daughters, the easier it is to let go and live totally for Him. When we dive into God’s heart, we find love and mercy itself. We find that He is always working for the good of those who love Him (Romans 8:28). We find that He has never abandoned us and never will (Matthew 28:20). We find solace, protection, safety, and peace (Psalm 91, John 14:27). We find the One who calls us His (John 10:14). We find forgiveness (1 John 1:9). We find the One who gives us everything just because we belong to Him (2 Peter 1:3). Faced with this reality, it can become easier and easier to totally trust our Lord. Like St. Paul said, “On this account I am suffering these things; but I am not ashamed, for I know Him in whom I have believed” (2 Timothy 1:12). God is trustworthy. Even with our darkest sins and secret shame, He is trustworthy; especially in that, He is trustworthy.

What things are holding you back from relying fully on God? Maybe it’s fear, suffering, shame, or lies on your heart about your identity. Maybe it’s a sin you keep falling into. Maybe it’s an addiction. Maybe it’s someone who hurt you deeply that you’re struggling to forgive. We all have stuff. Whatever it is, let’s start entrusting these things to the Sacred Heart of Jesus today. You are not alone.

A few years ago, I was a counselor for a Catholic camp for teens called Camp Veritas. One thing that is often heard yelled back and forth as the anthem of the camp is:

“What’s the objective of your life?”

“HEAVEN!”

“And if it’s not?”

“We’re wasting our time!”

Amen, amen. Let’s live this way—really live this way, seeking after Heaven rather than the approval of others.

Our worth lies in God alone. His opinion of you is all that matters. And He’s crazy about you. He will never forsake you.

“In Bitterness Is My Joy”

Today’s readings may seem a little harsh: God putting Job in his place, Jesus proclaiming woe to those who reject Him. Why would God point out Job’s insignificance and insufficiencies when he is already experiencing so much suffering?

Becoming aware of our own weaknesses is, in fact, a grace. It can be a struggle, too, for it requires us to learn humility, but it also brings freedom. Being aware of our weaknesses frees us from any pretense of perfection, from feeling as though we have to carry the world on our shoulders, and from a false perception of reality, of the world and our place in it.

It is through these weak points that the enemy will try to break in, through our bad habits and less noble inclinations. As the Church Militant, we are continually fighting the good fight, storming the forces of evil and protecting what is sacred—including, first and foremost, our own souls—from being corrupted. If we are aware of the weaknesses within ourselves, we can mount a defense to enemy attacks. In order to do so, we must put aside our pride and call in reinforcements. The battle is bigger than any fantasies we may have for ourselves of glory and heroics. If we want to win the fight, we have to be willing to take orders from our Master, who is infinitely stronger and wiser than we are.

When we understand this greater reality, we will be able to proclaim our weaknesses without shame. We are mere soldiers in a spiritual battle that is far beyond our depth, but we will receive unyielding support to bolster every weakness, if only we ask it of God.

Today is the feast of St. Faustina Kowalska, the Apostle of Divine Mercy. She beautifully illustrates this idea of confident humility, and her receptiveness to God’s message of Divine Mercy was cultivated by her great dependence on God and the knowledge of her own weaknesses.

We cannot receive God’s mercy if we are not aware of our need for it. St. Faustina shows us though the example of her own life that accepting humiliations leads not to despair but to great joy. When St. Faustina faced trials and injustices, she did not view them through the lens of her own ego but through God’s mysterious economy of grace. She knew she was playing a part in a larger story. When her things did not proceed according to her plans—when she was turned down from several convents, faced serious illnesses, or was misunderstood and ridiculed—she did not cease to trust in God, because her faith was not in her own wisdom but in God’s alone. When she was mistreated, she did not become indignant but instead thought of how Jesus was mistreated at Calvary, drawing close to Him. She was not ashamed of her shortcomings but humbly accepted them, knowing that God created her with those weaknesses for a reason. She used every struggle as a chance to learn to depend upon God all the more and to increase in joyful gratitude for His overflowing mercy.


And you, Faustina, a gift of God to our time, a gift from the land of Poland to the whole Church, obtain for us an awareness of the depth of Divine Mercy; help us to have a living experience of it and to bear witness to it among our brothers and sisters. May your message of light and hope spread throughout the world, spurring sinners to conversion, calming rivalries and hatred, and opening individuals and nations to the practice of brotherhood. Today, fixing our gaze with you on the Face of the Risen Christ, let us make our own your prayer of trusting abandonment and say with firm hope: “Jesus, I trust in You!”
(Prayer of St. John Paul II)

Suffering is the greatest treasure on earth; it purifies the soul. In suffering we learn who is our true friend.

True love is measured by the thermometer of suffering. Jesus, I thank you for the little daily crosses, for opposition to my endeavors, for the hardships of communal life, for the misinterpretation of my intentions, for humiliations at the hands of others, for the harsh way in which we are treated, for false suspicions, for poor health and loss of strength, for self-denial, for dying to myself, for lack of recognition in everything, for the upsetting of all my plans.

Thank you, Jesus, for interior sufferings, for dryness of spirit, for terrors, fears, and uncertainties, for the darkness and the deep interior night, for temptations and various ordeals, for torments too difficult to describe, especially for those which no one will understand, for the hour of death with its fierce struggle and all its bitterness.

I thank you, Jesus, who first drank the cup of bitterness before you gave it to me, in a much milder form. I put my lips to this cup of your holy will. Let all be done according to your good pleasure; let that which your wisdom ordained before the ages be done to me. I want to drink the cup to its last drop, and not seek to know the reason why. In bitterness is my joy, in hopelessness is my trust. In you, O Lord, all is good, all is a gift of your paternal Heart. I do not prefer consolations over bitterness or bitterness over consolations, but thank you, O Jesus, for everything! It is my delight to fix my gaze upon you, O incomprehensible God!

—St. Faustina Kowalska

Rubbish and Righteousness

—[But] whatever gains I had, these I have come to consider a loss because of Christ.
More than that, I even consider everything as a loss because of the supreme good of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have accepted the loss of all things and I consider them so much rubbish, that I may gain Christ
and be found in him, not having any righteousness of my own based on the law but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God, depending on faith
to know him and the power of his resurrection and [the] sharing of his sufferings by being conformed to his death,
if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
—Philippians 3:7-11, from today’s Gospel acclamation

Again we find ourselves confronted by Scripture with questions of value.

Last week I wrote about how a life in Christ changes our definitions of “rich” and “poor”. Yesterday, Grace likened accusatory thoughts or invitations to self-pity to junk mail. The day before, Lauren referenced St. Therese’s “little way,” which is a summation of her belief that her little actions, imbued with the power of the Holy Spirit, were a valuable contribution to her world.

Here again today, we are called to contemplate how much value we ascribe to Christ. Job eloquently describes his fear of the LORD in the first reading; he clearly places a high importance of God’s movements in his life, but his fear is incomplete: Job loathed his life, blaming God, “because in his own eyes he was in the right.” (Job 32:1).

In today’s Gospel, however, Jesus offers another way to look at God’s importance in your life: Bringing about the Kingdom of God is more important than any worldly matter, even those we hold most dear, like our families or grief. St. Paul, in today’s Gospel acclamation quoted above, offers his own version of “Christ above all”.

I am a cradle Catholic, and have been largely spared from crises of faith in my life. Simply put, God has always held a place of prominence. I have always valued my faith.

How does my faith hold up when scrutinized in the light of today’s readings?

How often have I blamed God, or maybe the Church, for making my life miserable? How many times have I longed to live free of consequence and responsibility, knowing in my heart that it’s impossible and harmful? How have negative circumstances in life pushed me away from my faith, turning to other, unsatisfying coping mechanisms. Do I turn to the Lord in times of trouble, truly believing that He can hear my voice, or is He too far away, a distant, conceptual God that probably can’t or won’t work real miracles in my life.

Looking to St. Paul and Jesus’ words: How much have I given up for Christ? Going further, how much have I given up happily, knowing that the righteousness of Jesus far outshines any worldly matter I might hold dear? Are there areas in my life today that I could step out more radically in faith?

How far are we willing to go? What are we holding on to? What little sins, little vices, little omissions, little habits (little little little little… so we don’t notice them piling up) are holding us back from a heart that burns radically for Jesus?

Pray with this question:  Are there areas in my life today that I could step out more radically in faith?

Then pray again.

Then do it.

Invitation to Festivus

Job opened his mouth and cursed his day.
Job spoke out and said:
“Perish the day on which I was born,
the night when they said, ‘The child is a boy!’
Why did I not perish at birth,
come forth from the womb and expire?”—Job 3:1-3

*            *            *

One of the prime tactics of the Opposition Voice is what I call an “Invitation to Festivus.”  Festivus was initially a holiday invented by a character on the comedy sitcom Seinfeld to celebrate the “airing of grievances.”  The idea became so popular that it was taken on in real life and now has formal recognition and its own date, December 23rd, where it is billed as an “anti-Christmas.”  While it is celebrated for the most part as a joke, and to be enjoyed as such, actual Opposition Voice invitations are another matter. It is particularly fitting that these invitations be recognized as in opposition to the gifts and joy that Christ brings.

These invitations have a way of arriving when I am about to begin a worthwhile activity, or even more frequently, when I sit down to pray.  As I try to quiet myself, provocations for anger rise to the surface.  Wrongs in the world, wrongs in my life, people that have failed me or failed at what I think they should be.  “Someone is wrong on the internet” and so my mind starts composing a long letter-to-the-editor rebuttal.  “Someone did me wrong” and my mind conjures up vivid, detailed video footage of the event and every word that was said, or that should have been.

Recently it was a woman who rather outrageously and falsely accused me of doing something wrong.  I was in this particular case quite innocent, and while the matter itself was paltry and insignificant, her words continued to smolder in my mind.  I do not always receive just criticism with grace, but false accusations, even minor ones, invite my ego to a duel onto death.  My face grows hot as the resentment burns to a dangerous level.  Instead of defending myself at the time however, I simply said, rather too quietly “That’s not true” and we awkwardly ended the conversation.

But the furnace has been stoked and the fire continues to rage, as my mind thinks of all the things I could and should have said.  Some eloquent if lengthy depositions in my defense; some could be summed up in four letters.

We’ve all been there.  And that’s the problem—I was there—more than twenty-eight years ago.  This is not a new or recent grievance; it is one conjured up from a stash of hoarded unpleasant memories that were never properly put in the trash.

The self-pity party, with help from my imagination, has been upgraded to a gala.  And then a new guest of honor comes crashing in: Shame.  What is wrong with you?  Why are you so insecure that you are bothered by decades-old criticism?  Why couldn’t you have spoken up for yourself—why are you always such a coward?  Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

How to respond?

The first line of defense is to recognize that most of these invitations are junk mail and require no response at all.  Simply tear them up and put them in the paper trash.  Many of these grievances disappear as soon as they are acknowledged as temptations or distractions.

Second—if that doesn’t work, and it seems to come with a message that requires something more, speak God’s love into it.  In the scenario above, this would take the form of forgiveness:  forgiving the woman who judged me unfairly, and then forgiving myself for a) my weakness at the time and b) my weaknesses now, in the recalling.  Maybe even going a step further and saying “I love you!” by name to BOTH parties.  I realize this sounds remarkably cheesy, but the fact that in practice it is so difficult to do suggests it may be more helpful than we realize.

Third—sometimes God lets us know that this has come to signal something a little more serious, and we are invited to look at what the invitation is really about.  Why does it bother me?  Is there an underlying wound that God wants to heal?

If this wound is not apparent, we should not worry about digging it up.  Sometimes, however, God is allowing it to rise to the surface because it is time to bring it to light and to heal it.  If that is the case, let this be a subject for your prayer time!

It is never helpful to attend a party hosted by the Opposition.  But God Himself loves to hear whatever is on our mind, and He is happy to let us air our grievances to Him in all of their rancor and bitterness.  Let Him be the host.  When He does, there is always a gift exchange, with God being the more generous giver!

Small Things, Great Love

“An argument arose among the disciples
about which of them was the greatest.
Jesus realized the intention of their hearts and took a child
and placed it by his side and said to them,
“Whoever receives this child in my name receives me,
and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me.
For the one who is least among all of you
is the one who is the greatest.”  (Luke 9:46-48)

Confession: I’m one of those people who is prone to getting easily distracted by cute little kids during Mass. Who doesn’t love adorable children, right? But there was one particular Sunday that a little boy displayed profound wisdom. I was kneeling in my pew after receiving the Eucharist. A worn-out looking mom moved forward in the aisle beside me to receive, holding her wriggly son who looked about two years old. As the priest said, “The Body of Christ,” the boy pointed to the Eucharist and said, “Jesus!”

I immediately smiled, and tears sprang to my eyes. “Jesus!” The little boy said it so matter-of-factly, the same as if he were to point to a picture of an apple and say, “apple!”

How quick are we to recognize Jesus around us? Can we, like the little boy, recognize the graces and goodness in our lives and immediately say, “Jesus,” knowing that He is the source? God is always up to more than we can see, and we are constantly surrounded by His goodness, mercy, protection, and attentive care. Are we also living in such a way that others could see the joy and love of the Lord in us and say, “Jesus”?

Today is the feast of one of my favorite saints and one of the doctors of our Church, St. Therese of Lisieux. St. Therese truly exemplified the childlike faith Jesus refers to in today’s Gospel. She freely gave Him everything, saying she “didn’t want to be a saint by halves.” She wrote of being a “little flower,” humble before the Lord:

“[Jesus] opened the book of nature before me, and I saw that every flower He has created has a beauty of its own; that the splendor of the rose and the lily’s whiteness do not deprive the violet of its scent, nor make less ravishing the daisy’s charm…So it is in the world of souls, the living garden of the Lord….He has also created little ones, who must be content to be daisies or violets nestling at His feet to delight His eyes when He should choose to look at them. The happier they are to be as He wills, the more perfect they are…What delights Him is the simplicity of these flowers of the field, and by stooping so low to them, He shows how infinitely great He is” (Story of a Soul, I).

Everything St. Therese did was intentionally rooted in love, even the small things. Her childlike faith was the fruit of selflessness and complete surrender to God. God can work wonders through what we may see as simple or even insignificant acts of love. May we be childlike before Him—quick to run to His arms with confidence, quick to love, quick to acknowledge His grace. Today let us be attune to all the ways Jesus is present in our day, giving Him praise by declaring His name over all the graces He gives us. And let’s do the same for others—loving greatly in small things.

Who Is Like God?

Once when Jesus was praying in solitude,
and the disciples were with him,
he asked them, “Who do the crowds say that I am?”
They said in reply, “John the Baptist; others, Elijah;
still others, ‘One of the ancient prophets has arisen.'”
Then he said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”
Peter said in reply, “The Christ of God.”
He rebuked them and directed them not to tell this to anyone.

He said, “The Son of Man must suffer greatly
and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes,
and be killed and on the third day be raised.”

—Luke 9:18–22

Jesus’s two questions to his disciples—“Who do the crowds say that I am? …But who do you say that I am?”—highlight the fact that He wants us to come to know Him personally, not merely through what we hear from others. He knows that a flurry of rumors and opinions surround Him, but He doesn’t want His disciples to be distracted by them. Rather, He wants them to form their knowledge from their own direct encounters with Him.

Peter’s response—“The Christ of God”—cuts straight to the heart of the matter. Is Jesus a prophet or the Messiah? A conduit of God’s message, or the Source? Peter answers firmly that Jesus is not merely a human leader but is the Divine Redeemer.

However, declaring Jesus to be the Messiah has some troubling implications. If He is the Redeemer, then He is also the Lamb, destined to be sacrificed for our salvation. The disciples do not realize this; they do not yet know the necessity of the Cross, but Jesus immediately and directly speaks to them of the great suffering He must endure.

The truth of Jesus’s divinity was much harder to process than the other narratives floating among the crowds. To be a follower of a prophet required much less than to be the follower of the Lamb. Jesus was asking His disciples to follow Him in the way of sacrifice, to take up their own crosses. It would have been much easier for them to accept an alternate explanation for Jesus’s teachings and rationalize that He didn’t really mean that He would suffer. But it wouldn’t have been the truth.

We are living in turbulent times, where the truth is twisted in a thousand different directions every day. As we try to come to know Jesus, it can be very easy to become distracted by the noise that surrounds us, the many alternative explanations and lies that try to steal our attention and confuse us. But Jesus Himself is the Truth—and the Way, and the Life—and if we focus ourselves on Him, we will find the truth illuminated for us everywhere.

We are called to earnestly seek truth in every situation, not to accept incomplete accounts or one-sided descriptions that may be easier to digest but ultimately keep us in the darkness. The truth is difficult and often uncomfortable, but only the truth will set us free.

Tomorrow is the Feast of St. Michael and the Archangels, who were the forerunners for us in this decision between truth and comfort. For the angels, the revelation that they would be called to serve fallen humanity and bow before Mary as their Queen was difficult to receive. In response, Satan rebelled against God and refused to serve. Michael could have made that choice, too, but he didn’t. Instead he responded, “Mîkhā’ēl,” or “Who is like God?” He knew that even though the path ahead would involve suffering, he could trust God to lead him through it. And honestly, who was Satan kidding? Did he really think he could defeat God? He can whine and scheme and throw tantrums; he can wreak havoc throughout the world; but in the end, he cannot win. He is not like God. Unlike Michael, he refused to acknowledge this truth.

Michael’s words, “Who is like God?”, are very similar to Peter’s: “Lord, to whom else would we go? You alone have the words of everlasting life.” They are kindred spirits in their clear-eyed understanding of their own dependence upon God. They know that God’s teachings are difficult, but that doesn’t change the fact that He is trustworthy. They look to God Himself and find Truth within the Mystery.

In response to the current abuse crisis in the Church, many parishes (including St. Patrick’s Cathedral!) have brought back the tradition of saying the St. Michael Prayer together at the end of each Mass. As we look toward his feast tomorrow, let us keep this prayer on our lips as a guard against the lies of Satan and a declaration of trust in God. May truth prevail, in our own hearts and in the whole world.

St. Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle. Be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil. May God rebuke him, we humbly pray; and do thou, O Prince of the Heavenly host, by the power of God, cast into hell Satan and all the evil spirits who prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls. Amen.