A Posture of Humility

This week, I helped facilitate the confession line for a group of middle schoolers. Many were nervous; several had not gone to confession in years. I tried to help settle their nerves and calm their fears before going in, assuring them of God’s great mercy and that there was nothing to be scared about. A few children inspired me with their eagerness to enter the confessional—one who hadn’t been in six years, as well as one who had just gone last week. They didn’t allow any apprehensions to hold them back from receiving God’s mercy and forgiveness. They simply went forward with a sincere trust that by humbling themselves before God, they would experience grace. And what inspired me the most was that all these kids, even the ones who were most nervous, came out of the confessional beaming with joy and relief.

Kneeling in the shadows of the confessional, coming face to face with the reality of our sin and articulating it aloud—this is not something that demeans or diminishes us. Rather, it ennobles us, for it unites us more closely with our Creator as part of His Divine Body. By kneeling down and making ourselves small, we become part of a greater whole. Yet many of us hesitate to take this posture of humility. Sometimes a sense of perfectionism holds us back from admitting our mistakes, even to ourselves. But this sort of perfectionism is ultimately rooted in fear—that our faults will make others think less of us, or that God will be disappointed in us (as if He doesn’t already know all that we’ve done!). So instead of confessing our sins, we live in denial of their existence—and then we never receive the graces that will help us overcome them. We never come to understand that our goodness does not come from ourselves, but from the God who loves us so much that He laid down His life to redeem us in our sinfulness.

Jesus Himself has taken the ultimate postures of humility: on the Cross, with His arms spread open in surrender; and in the Eucharist, where He comes to us as Bread and Wine, food for us to consume. Through these gestures of love, He offers Himself as a gift to us. His arms are open wide to receive us; His Flesh nourishes and strengthens our souls. He offers His Body, broken and crushed, to heal us of our own brokenness:

For my Flesh is true food,
and my Blood is true drink.
Whoever eats my Flesh and drinks my Blood
remains in me and I in him.
—John 6:55–56

This week I also mourned the passing of John Aroutiounian, with whom I co-taught a Confirmation class three years ago. I was so moved by his eulogy, which reflects on the mystery of redemptive suffering and illustrates the fullness and meaning of his short life. John was very intelligent, had multiple prestigious degrees, and likely would have gone on to have a remarkable career. Yet when presented with a more humble calling—to suffer deeply, to physically waste away, to witness to the strength of the human spirit and the dignity of life even amidst great affliction, and to lay down his life at just 26 years old—he did not hesitate to embrace this cross. During his life, John fought to defend the dignity of every human life—even our enemies, even those who are inconvenient to us. He was a pro-life advocate and volunteered as a suicide hotline counselor. He believed at his core that life, every life, was worth living, and that each human soul has incalculable, eternal worth. He gave no greater witness to this conviction than through his own suffering and death.

We all have a natural desire to protect and shelter ourselves and our loved ones against suffering. However, it is through those painful experiences that we encounter the true meaning of our existence. Only when brought to our knees by suffering do we realize how deeply we must depend on God. A happy, complacent life can cause us to forget that, in the words of St. Thérèse, this world is our ship, not our home. We are meant for something greater; our deepest desires will not find fulfillment in this world but point us to the fulfillment that awaits us in heaven. And the path to heaven is through the Cross, following in the footsteps of our Redeemer.

Indeed, the fear of suffering can be worse than actual suffering. For when God allows us to suffer, He provides the graces in that moment to bear crosses we never thought we could carry, as long as we surrender to Him, acknowledge our own weakness, and trust that He will use every second of our pain for His divine purpose. Only by lowering ourselves into the depths of our humanity can we be raised into the divine Light. If we accept our crosses with a posture of humility, our suffering will surely bear fruit.

In Your Hands

Packing up my things for yet another move, I came across an old diary from my childhood.  It had two entries: in the first, January 1, 1985, I resolved to write daily, a fresh start to a new year full of promise.  The second, dated much later, noted that the first resolution was short-lived, but I was going to try again effective immediately.  The rest of the diary was empty.

My prayer journals, begun in college and early adulthood, were not that different.  They had a few more entries, but in general were filled only with good intentions, their pages primarily blank.  When I did write, the entries were mostly letters to God, filled with angst and longing, trying out new resolutions and then repenting for having failed.

“Have you ever thought about letting God answer you?” asked a friend one night.  I was stunned.

“What do you mean?” I wondered.  God didn’t talk to me.  That was for saints and other people; I didn’t hear God’s voice, and certainly didn’t expect him to “answer” me in my journals.

I remember that conversation well, and I know the date because it sits atop the first entry in a new journal.  The second I dated the very next day, and details an adventure I never expected.

As I prayed in this new way, inviting God to speak to me, I found myself walking along the beach next to Jesus.  I can still picture it, though our conversation was shy and awkward at first.  “What do you want to show me?” I asked Him.

And my mind went back to a night I had wished to forget.  I was young—probably five or six years old—packed in a car with several older children.  We had been that night to see a special outdoor summer movie, a showing of the cartoon the Jungle Book.

I had not seen many full-screen movies—this may even have been my first.  A sensitive child, I was transported into the story, imagining myself as little Mowgli, cute and adorable, befriended by Baloo the bear, and Bagheera the panther, who protected him from the Shere Khan, the tiger, and the evil cunning serpent Kaa.  While Shere Khan was the greater villain in Kipling’s story,  I was more deeply afraid of Kaa—the ugly evil serpent whose hissing twisted terror into my mind and heart.  Kaa would fill my nightmares for years to come, giving form to everything I feared and hated.

After the movie, as we were driving back, some of the older children started a game imagining each of as characters in the story.  I don’t remember who was who, but that I was disappointed when a cuter younger girl was chosen to be Mowgli.  But then someone asked, “Who should Grace be?” and whether mischief or malice or just misfortune, they seized on my greatest fear:

“Grace is Kaa! Grace is Kaa!”

Seeing my fear and dismay at their choice, they pounced with glee and began to torment me, inventing and explaining all the reasons that I was Kaa.  “You aren’t cute and adorable—you are skinny and ugly!  You are bad!  Everyone hates you!”  I felt as though I were being stabbed repeatedly, with a knife that broke the skin and sent blood coming out.  With each word the cutting intensified, and seemed to echo every hateful thing anyone had ever said to or about me: “You are ugly!  You are bad!  Nobody could ever love you!”

As I relived this memory in stark detail, I started sobbing, hemmed in by hateful voices, feeling again the pain and the stabbing, as blood gushed out of each stab wound.  I cried out in anguish, “Make them stop Jesus!  Why are you letting this happen to me?  Why aren’t you stopping them?  Make them stop, Jesus!”

And just then I heard Him speak. “Grace, the knife is in your hands…”

And I looked down and saw I was holding the knife, the knife that was cutting me so badly.  And I realized suddenly that the power of the scene was not in the past, but in the present.  Because those words had been spoken one time long ago by people who had long forgotten them—had perhaps never really truly meant them.  But I had embraced them, believed them, and was repeating them to myself ever since.  I had taken every subsequent hurt and criticism as further evidence that they were true. These lies had power because I had myself given voice to them.  I held the knife.

*            *            *

On a recent healing retreat, we were taught about such wounds as entry points for the Opposition Voice.  We are all hurt—in big or little ways—and into that hurt the Opposition speaks lies.  Lies about our goodness, lies about the goodness of God.  Lies about His love for us, or our worthiness to receive it.  What matters is less the words that are spoken, or the events that happen to us, but how we receive them and what we then believe.

Healing comes when we recognize and name these lies, the spirts of opposition, and renounce them.  “In the name of Jesus, I renounce the spirit of shame…of unworthiness….of fear…of hatred…”  “In the name of Jesus, I renounce the lie that God does not care about me…the lie that I am ugly…the lie that I am bad/unworthy/unlovable…”

I have found, both in my own experience and in praying with others, that it is very important to say these renunciations out loud.  Sometimes our difficulty in giving voice to them is a sign of their importance, which has often been unconsciously buried.  Many times simply saying the words of renunciation brings a new tangible experience of freedom.

In a comparable way the Church has insisted on the sacrament of Confession, and the speaking aloud of our sins.  Bringing them into the open, into the light, by speaking them out, is the beginning of healing.  The Opposition thrives in secrecy and darkness in which shame in particular can fester and grow.  Jesus came to bring light.

In today’s first reading the Israelites are struggling with the conditions in the desert.  They begin to complain against God, wishing they had never left Egypt.  This is evidence that they have embraced the deadly lie of the Opposition Voice:  “God is not good.  God doesn’t care about you…”  These deadly lies block their ability to receive God’s love and gifts.  And so visible deadly serpents come into the camp and sting them, to be a sign of what is happening spiritually.

God gives the Israelites an antidote to the serpent’s venom: Moses mounts a bronze serpent on a staff, and whoever looks at it is saved.  They look and see their sin, the image of the lie they have embraced.   The recognition of the lie, of the sin, is the first stage of salvation.  But it is not the end.

Jesus Himself will be lifted up, to show us graphically what sin does.  But more than that—to show us what Love does.  That Love is stronger.  That God is good, that He loves us—so much so that He would die for us.

As important as it is to renounce evil, we must also claim truth.  “In the name of Jesus, I claim that truth that I am chosen by God…that I am loved by God…that I am beautiful… that God died for love of me.”

In Confession, we are absolved when after speaking our sins, the priest, in persona Christi speaks God’s words over us:

“God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, + and of the Holy Spirit.”

And in so doing, the priest makes the sign of the cross—that we might look up and place ourselves in the hands stretched out to welcome us home.

In Your Hands

Photo by Vladislav M on Unsplash

 

Stay Close to Me, My Child

I was moved deeply by today’s psalm… 

“The Lord is close to the brokenhearted”

Lent is a penitential season – a season for us to grow in self-awareness, to look inward and acknowledge our sins and weaknesses.  It is a blessing to be reminded to reflect in this way, especially as we are called simultaneously to be drawing near to Christ’s Passion, reminding us to do this in the presence of the Lord.  Facing our weakness and sin without being immersed in God’s mercy and grace can be detrimental.  In our self-reflection, guilt will likely come up and this is a wonderful thing inasmuch as it draws us to contrition, confession, God’s grace, mercy, forgiveness and freedom.  If we have confessed, we must trust God’s forgiveness and allow ourselves to receive that mercy and blessing.  Though at times, guilt, rather than being constructive and leading us to God, can be destructive.  At times it may tempt us toward focusing and dwelling so much on ourselves and our sin that, instead of drawing us to God’s grace, it draws us further away from Him as we dwell on our failure, our weakness, our inability, our hurt pride, or our disappointment. Did you notice a pattern there?  Note the emphasis on ourselves. This way of thinking is subtly undermining God’s power and revealing that we may be trying to achieve holiness in our own power. Now, we mustn’t fall into even more destructive guilt upon realizing this, but ask God for forgiveness, trust in His mercy, and be led to dwell on the awe-someness of His power. We can’t achieve holiness in our own power – it is only in humbling ourselves, receiving His power and His divine life within us. 

This is the goal of a penitential season – to increase our self-awareness of our weakness, not so we may dwell in it, wallow in it, and so be led further into a self-centered mindset, but to understand our weakness and so empty ourselves to allow Christ more fully in.  To feel true sorrow for our sins and weakness so we understand better the Lord’s love for us and be drawn more fully into it.  Receiving the sacraments of confession and the Eucharist are beautiful and integral ways of encountering God’s grace during this time, in addition to personal Lenten commitments (personal prayer, fasting, almsgiving). (NOTE: if you haven’t been keeping up with your Lenten commitments very well, don’t wallow! I’m right there with you. Let’s ask for the Lord’s forgiveness and strength in these last couple weeks. He wants you to draw close to Him. It’s not too late to have a beautiful Lent!) 

The key is to approach this time in close proximity to the Lord and His grace.  He is close to the broken-hearted.  As sins and weaknesses are revealed to you this Lent, even throughout the day, immediately invite the Lord into those places.  As you reflect, keep Him close.  The Lord desires a truly contrite and sorrowful heart, and wants to bring His mercy into that heart – in fact, when He is invited in, he can’t help but rush in.  Love and mercy are who He is.  In his Confessions, St. Augustine writes to God that he is recalling his “most wicked ways and thinking over the past with bitterness so that you may grow ever sweeter to me” (2.1.1, emphasis mine).  It is my prayer that our Lent does not draw us further into our guilty selves, leaving us feeling self-pity or disappointment or with a hurt pride, but that it draws us ever more deeply into the sweetness of God.  As we are emptied out and His love pours in, He will heal us and lead us into deeper freedom.  We cannot do it.  It is only in His grace. 

Thank you, Lord, for your inexhaustible love and mercy! Thank you that self-awareness may help us know your sweetness all the more. Lord, we invite you into our hearts now and throughout this season of Lent. Draw us close to your heart. We come to you with hearts sorry for our sins and we ask your forgiveness. Help us to see ourselves the way you see us, most loving Father. We surrender and consecrate the remaining days of Lent to you in gratitude for this beautiful season. In the precious name of Jesus, we pray, Amen.

One of these choices is not like the other

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As an actress, I have frequented circles where the pursuit of life, love and the absolute virtue of self-expression reign supreme: Live your truth. If it’s you and it makes you happy, go for it. The universe is looking out for you.

These messages are found not only in my artist circles—they saturate all of our relativistic society and egalitarian culture, where nothing is objectively true and all is subjective; where no one or no One can be Lord over the “almighty” individual. It is all too clear who is the ruler of this world (hmm…does this make anyone want to shout the conquering cry of the Angel of Victory?)

This is in no way to stand in judgment over any colleagues or friends—far from it. I too lived this way during my “cherry picking” days and had some problems with claiming absolutes, especially where the Church was concerned. Without being rooted in my identity as a daughter of the Most High or knowing about the the infinite treasures and wisdom of Holy Mother Church in a meaningful way, it was all too easy for me to think that I was doing alright as long as I was a “good person;” that I had my life over here and could put God someplace else to visit when it was convenient.

Slowly, mercifully, over the years of deeper conversion, the Lord convicted me. He opened my heart to the immensity of His unique, personal love for me (and for each of us). He opened my eyes to the spiritual reality and battle of our existence, where there is indeed an absolute choice to be made.

Moses says, in no uncertain terms:

Today I have set before you
life and prosperity, death and doom.
If you obey the commandments of the LORD, your God,
which I enjoin on you today,
loving him, and walking in his ways,
and keeping his commandments, statutes and decrees,
you will live and grow numerous,
and the LORD, your God,
will bless you in the land you are entering to occupy.
If, however, you turn away your hearts and will not listen,
but are led astray and adore and serve other gods,
I tell you now that you will certainly perish…

Easy enough choice, right? When looking at the eternal bliss of Heaven or the infernal horrors of Hell, who would willingly choose death over life? Yet that is the trap so many of us fall into when we willfully turn our hearts away from God for whatever reason, refusing to listen to the Truth—the Truth of His love for us, and the responsibility we have as His children. And not only listen to the Truth, but to joyously and actively choose to obey.

In the Gospel today, Jesus shares with His intimate friends a harrowing picture of the sacrifice He will make for the salvation of sinners. Knowing the infinite value of our souls and the passing temptations of this world, Christ then invites us all to make that choice to deny ourselves, daily take up our cross, and follow Him; to choose eternal life over eternal death. Today we celebrate the Feast of Saints Perpetua and Felicity, who give witness to this in a powerful way. As St Paul writes in Romans 8:18–

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us.

In this life, we should strive for nothing short of sanctity—Heaven is the realm of Saints and that is our true land. This is something I have to constantly remind myself of whenever I’m tempted to be “led astray and adore and serve other gods:”

When I care more for the opinions of others and it feels easier to keep my mouth shut in conversation rather than defend my Catholic faith and beliefs; when I let talk venture into uncharitable gossip because it’s all in “fun;” when I let jealousy poison my opinion of another person rather than seeing that person, and the gifts He has bestowed upon me, through the eyes of God; when I’d rather scroll through social media or watch Netflix rather than pray with Scripture or the Rosary.

Every day in countless small ways and in all sorts of places—at work, on the train, on the streets—the Lord invites us to die to ourselves, to love Him, to walk in His ways and to keep His commandments. We can turn away from Him, piercing His Heart with our refusal, or we can turn to Him with our whole heart.

I have come to relish the moments when someone asks about the Divine Mercy image at my dressing room table, or notices my scapular peeking out, or learns that I attend daily Mass and bi-weekly confession (working up to weekly, Padre Pio!). Yes, even the moments of wide-eyed disgust when passersby see me, a young woman of color, standing outside Planned Parenthood in prayer. These moments of encounter open the door to astonishment and plant the seeds of grace.

The world around us is hungry for Truth and real Love. The universe and the gods that we make in our own image will never satisfy our deepest desire for God.

When we ask for the grace to live boldly and joyfully the proclamation that JESUS CHRIST IS LORD, that there is no other, and that we were made for so much more than what the world offers—we will receive it.

When our seemingly ordinary days are colored by the extraordinary fact that Our Lord’s sacrifice and His infinite love for us, that Heaven is real (as is Hell), and that we have a choice to make—who knows how many souls we can win for the Lord?

Let us join with the universal Church in prayer for the Holy Father’s intention this month–that Christian communities, especially those who are persecuted, feel that they are close to Christ and have their rights respected.

Be faithful. Be authentic. Most of all, be not afraid. The victory is His.

Choose life, then.

Choose life.

Sts. Perpetua and Felicity, pray for us!