Taking Up Our Cross

Taking Up Our Cross

The first followers of Jesus called their faith The Way. Living the Gospel is a journey and a way of life, one that was so strikingly different from their pagan neighbors that they stood out. It’s no different today.¬†As my grandfather used to say, “We live one way, the world lives another.” Our faith is counter-cultural. To put it bluntly, if you truly live as a Christian, you will not fit in.

This¬†can mean a number of things, and none of them are easy. It can mean going out of your way during a busy, stressful day to help someone, or being patient with a cranky call center rep.¬†It can mean refusing to engage in gossip about a troublesome family member, and doing your best to love them as Jesus does. It can mean being the only one of your friends not to live together before¬†marriage, because your faith teaches that marriage and sex are sacred. It can mean giving up an hour of your Sunday morning to get dressed and visit Jesus¬†at Mass, even when you “don’t get anything out of it” because you know its the right thing to do.

It can mean any form of denying yourself and your wishes, even if they are natural, because you believe that there is a proper ordering of things, and you have the gift of free will.

A¬†wise person once said, “Christianity without suffering isn’t Christianity, it’s Paganism.” We can all be nice and get along. What makes Christianity different? It’s our willingness to bear wrongs patiently in the name of our God. It’s taking up your cross daily, and striving to live according to the Gospel.

Our society has indeed reached a new era of paganism. No, not too many people still believe in Zeus and Mars. The modern gods are Money, Conformity, Relativism and Desire, and the king of the gods, Self.

Everybody has a cross to bear, something that makes you say “I could be a perfect Catholic if that one teaching didn’t go against what I need in my life. It works for some people, but it won’t work for me because of x, y and z.” To live our faith, we need to abandon¬†those thoughts. They are not from God. When Peter suggested that Jesus find a way out of¬†his impending crucifixion, Jesus rebuked him saying, “Get behind me, Satan!” And yet we know the cross¬†was hard for Jesus to accept. He sweat blood as he prayed, “Father, if it is¬†possible, let this cup pass from me; yet¬†not as I will, but as you will.”

Accepting our cross is the hardest thing we’ll ever do. And we’re going to fall on occasion. But God knows this, and he loves us anyway. The beauty of our faith is that we¬†know that if we leave the right path,¬†our Good Shepherd loves us so much that he goes looking for us, eager to forgive us, bring us back, and help us follow the Way.

Jesus-The-Good-Shepherd

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My Patron Saint

My Patron Saint

“Which Saint are you going to choose for your Confirmation?” It’s a question I heard about as frequently as¬†“What are you going to be when you grow up?” The dreaming, the imagining and the pressure was pretty much the same for both questions.

I always thought I would choose St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. Elizabeth is a pretty name, I thought. And living in Maryland, I remember the time my parents took me to Emmitsburg to see her shrine.

elizabeth

St. Agnes was a favorite of mine as well. Patron saint of girls? I’m a girl, so that’s cool. She was always a favorite. The martyrs are all inspiring.

agnes

Finally,¬†push came to shove and 7th grade came around. I had to make a decision. “No, you can’t just pick a pretty name,” my teacher said. “You have to pick a saint whose example means something to you. Which saint¬†lived a life that you would like to imitate?”

Well, now things changed. St. Elizabeth became a nun. I did not want to be a nun, at least not yet in my life. In fact, I decided right then and there to rule out every female saint that was a nun, which¬†seemed like 90% of them. The mothering ones didn’t quite appeal to me either. That narrowed it down to the early martyrs and a handful of others, including:

St. Joan of Arc.

joan

That’s it! That’s the one! There’s an adventure story if you ever heard one. God told her to put on men’s clothes and lead the French army to victory, which ultimately led to a martyr’s death by burning, all the while fixing her eyes on¬†the crucifix and calling out the name of Jesus.

I always had a sense that someday there would be some sort of revolution or underground movement, or that Christianity would go underground (like the early days), and I would be heavily involved as a leader. More childish nonsense, perhaps. But it lasted the whole of my childhood, and St. Joan of Arc fit that narrative.

Did I imitate this saint’s path to holiness, like my religion teacher said I should? Looking back at the last few decades, I might not be much of an underground leader, but I’ve definitely gone against the grain. I still love that I chose St. Joan of Arc because her attitude of “who cares what society thinks” has been a big inspiration for me. Maybe¬†the Holy Spirit¬†was guiding me there, knowing that I would soon face a lot of things that would set me apart. As much as I love her,¬†I’m ashamed to say I don’t ask her intercession nearly as often as I should.¬†I’m trying to get better at that so she’ll know me when we meet¬†in heaven.

Who did you pick for your Confirmation saint, and why? Are you still happy with your choice? Do you talk to them much?

When Necessary, Use Words.

When Necessary, Use Words.

Truth be told, I’m rather non-confrontational. I don’t seek out arguments. And if there’s one skill I learned at the auto body, it’s patience and calm under fire.

That being said, it seems rather ironic that I’ve always had an interest in¬†Catholic apologetics- studying, explaining and defending the faith against misconceptions (and the occasional outright lie).

As Christians, we are called to evangelize. What does this mean? St. Francis of Assisi is famously quoted saying, “Preach the Gospel at all times, and when necessary, use words.” Our love should be the primary witness to Christ in our lives.¬†No one likes a pushy door-to-door Bible salesman, or the people who confront you at the mall on Sundays when all you want is a new pair of jeans.

When Necessary, Use Words.

But what about those times when words really are necessary?

I usually don’t start discussions about differences in faith. My general philosophy is that no one is converted in an argument. If someone asks me questions about my Catholicism, I’m happy to answer. I love religious discussions. But I usually don’t go looking for debates.

Recently, thanks to¬†social media, I’ve been involved in a few of these. The first¬†was quite amicable. It was difficult, but everyone involved was respectful and polite. I truly believe that the participants were seeking the truth.

The second of these was markedly different.¬†It was with¬†a stranger: a professed atheist. He started poking me a little, but he¬†seemed polite enough. It was civil, so I entertained him¬†for a bit. But as the conversation wore on, he lost his cool. He¬†started getting rude. And then he¬†crossed the line: he¬†referred to his¬†atheism as “the way, the truth and the life.”

That’s when I knew who was talking. I said a prayer and ended the conversation.

So what’s the takeaway? How do we handle conversations about differences of faith? Do we never discuss religion at all, be friends with everyone, and go through life never making waves? But what about all the misinformation out there? Don’t we need to be witnesses to the truth of the gospel, and aren’t words necessary at times? How should we handle things like this?

+AMDG+

Hope and Lemonade. Or Limoncello.

Hope and Lemonade. Or Limoncello.

“The Lord delights in those who fear him, who put their hope in his unfailing love.” Psalm 147:11

One of the greatest consolations in the world is getting a glimpse of God making lemonade out of your lemons (or limoncello, paisan).

I finally know¬†why I have MRKH/infertility. It’s because of the Fall of Man and the general evil and sin existing in the world from the beginning. That’s it. That’s all. That’s why.

What has recently become therapeutic for me is exploring the what now.

I’ve been dealt a lemon, thanks to the existing evil in the natural world. How am I going to give this lemon to God and let Him create something beautiful with it?

I’m coming to believe that this is what “hope” means for those dealing with suffering or grief. We get so hung up on “hope” meaning waiting for a baby, a miraculous cure, or whatever kind of candy we can get from the miracle store. But that’s not how it works. Hope means believing that there will be something beautiful to come. God¬†will turn our lemons to lemonade, and our limes into Key Lime Pie. If we place our hope in Him, God¬†will make sure that our suffering is used to create¬†a greater good.

The best part is when you being to sense the wonderful things coming from His kitchen.

The Author of Life

The Author of Life

The infertility stories in the bible have one thing in common. They all end in a miraculous pregnancy. Abraham and Sarah conceived in extreme old age, despite the sins they committed in their distrust of God’s promise. Hannah cried in the temple and vowed to give her child to God, if only he would grant her request. God said yes, and Samuel was born. Elizabeth and Zachariah, the parents of John the Baptist were infertile and advanced in years, yet God answered their prayers, regardless of Zachariah’s doubt.

Some will¬†point to these stories and say that if you pray hard enough, you will¬†conceive a child. They claim that if you’re still not pregnant, it’s because you don’t have enough faith. There are even a number of books that espouse this notion.

I call bullshit.

You heard me.

The point of these biblical stories about miraculous cures of infertility point to one big TRUTH:

We are not the author of life. God is.

God is in charge. God has a plan. God has the ultimate power to do whatever he wants, whenever he wants, in whichever way he chooses. Human beings may cooperate with God’s design, but we are not the ones in control. Period. He proves this time and time again in Scripture. Mary, a virgin, conceives.¬†Lazarus is raised from the dead. Job’s life goes in all over the place. The widow’s oil and flour is always replenished, and as God cares for the sparrows and the fields, so too will he care for you (Matthew 6:26).

In our world, there are many beautiful, wonderful, faithful women who never conceive. Infertility is a symptom of our fallen world. It is not their fault. It’s no one’s fault.

God gives each of us different gifts, depending on his plan for our life. This is why we pray for his will, and for and increase in faith and trust on our part. Just because God¬†can¬†doesn’t mean he¬†will. And even though he may say “no” or “not yet,” he always has a perfect plan.

Faith of Our Fathers

James and I went to our beloved Williamsburg, VA for the long 4th of July weekend this year. One of the wonderful things about Williamsburg is that each time we visit, I am struck by a different facet of our nation’s history. One of the things that really hit me this year is the prevalence of religious faith in our story.

Friday at 12:00, we gathered with a crowd to hear a¬†reading of the Declaration of Independence on the steps of the courthouse. Before the reading, the man doing the introduction said, “Let us begin with a prayer.” I heard a voice in the crowd remark, quite shocked, “Prayer?” As shocked as he was to hear the mention of public prayer, I was shocked to hear his shock. In my mind, I thought, “Yes, you unfortunate¬†product of secular indoctrination. Prayer was acceptable in 18th century America. It was a part of life. Just wait til you hear the language in the Declaration.”

Later that afternoon we listened to a speech by Patrick Henry, where he informed all of us that he faithfully read the Scriptures twice a day without fail, an hour in the morning and an hour at night. His religion shaped every bit of his politics. Why, he even talked about Thomas Jefferson, and how even though evidence shows him to be a Deist, his faith in a God had a profound influence on his work.

Saturday morning, we took a drive down the Colonial Parkway to Jamestown. I haven’t been since I was a little kid, and James had never been at all. We had so much fun exploring something new together. It felt like our honeymoon all over again.

When we got to Jamestown, there was more evidence of God in our history. Check out this monument:

 

"Lastly and chiefly the way to prosper an achieve Good Success is to make yourselves all of one mind for the good of your Country and your own, and to serve and fear God the Giver of All Goodness, for every plantation which our Heavenly Father hath not planted shall be rooted out."
“Lastly and chiefly the way to prosper an achieve Good Success is to make yourselves all of one mind for the good of your Country and your own, and to serve and fear God the Giver of All Goodness, for every plantation which our Heavenly Father hath not planted shall be rooted out.”

Religion is part of our history. You can’t erase it.¬†It is so fundamentally embroiled into the fabric of this nation and her people that you cannot re-write the story without it. Our forefathers created a nation on the idea that there IS a God, and that He is the ultimate source of our inalienable rights to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.

This is why we have our Faith.

So many things in life are completely out of our control. I don’t know about you, but right now I feel like I’m at the breaking point. There’s way too much stress and not enough things that I can actually enjoy. Today I made a list of all the things that are bringing me down that I can’t do much about. Then, I made a list of what I can do to make my life better.

Trying to cheer myself up in the midst of all the turmoil in the world and upheaval in my life, I decided to start spending more time doing something I’ve always loved. I’ve decided to read more. I’ve decided to learn more of the skills I need to get the job I really want. As for my living situation, I can’t afford to improve it in the traditional sense, and I can’t move in with James since we’re not married yet, but I can make a plan to make myself a home. I can stay out of the house as long as possible. I can stay at libraries and Panera’s and Starbuck’s writing on my laptop (that I have yet to buy). I know it sounds ridiculous, but I need to do something. I really want a home. No, I’m not “homeless” in the traditional sense, but we had to leave our house in the mortgage crisis and move in with my grandmother, and I’ve felt “without a home” since December 2010. Isn’t there a psychological term for that? I need to do something.

I will not be “homeless” forever. James has been the one constant in the last year, and every time I’m with him, I feel at home. No,¬†we still don’t have a wedding date. But as soon as he gets a job we’ll set one, and then I’ll have a light at the end of the tunnel. Right now I’m still in an “S” curve. His uncle (a priest) encouraged us to pray 1,000 Memorare’s to the Blessed Virgin. We’re coming close to 500 this week. I’ve always believed in the power of prayer. It has never failed me in the past. I know God doesn’t always answer things in the way you’d like him to, and he always has his reasons. Still though, this has been a serious test of faith. Praying for a job is starting to feel like praying for a pony.

My mom says that her father always told her that times like these are why we have our faith. I have to constantly remind myself that God has a plan and that this isn’t as stupid and meaningless and hopeless as it seems. Maybe there’s an answer I haven’t found yet. I hope it’s coming soon.

What’s the point of Confession?

Last night, in the midst of all the shopping and wrapping and baking, my fianc√© and I¬†decided to go to our parish penance service.¬†If you’re not¬†familiar with Catholic penance services, they do a few readings from the bible, have a short homily, and then everyone lines up to receive the Sacrament of Confession. Several priests from other parishes were there to hear confessions, including one from my beloved old parish, St. Mary of the Mills.

Going to confession is one of those things that provokes¬†a lot of uncertainty from people, whether they are Catholic or not. Plenty of people argue that there’s no need for it. Why tell the priest your sins when you can tell God yourself?

The official answer is that through the Sacrament of Confession, God forgives us of our sins and grants us the grace to be stronger in the future. This is a textbook answer that works for some. It’s not compelling enough for everyone.

There’s no answer that would satisfy everyone, but the reason I go is pretty simple. It’s wonderful to be able to tell someone all of your problems, and have that person listen, give you a thoughtful answer, and tell you not to worry about it anymore. That’s basically what confession is. Most priests will listen as if they’re your best friend. They’ll give you advice you never thought of. They’ll tell you that God forgives you.¬†When you’re really troubled,¬†it makes a huge difference to¬†hear someone actually say, “I absolve you of your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

The best part of it all is that there is someone who will listen. They’ll listen, and they’ll never tell a single soul. It’s sacred. Confession is an¬†opportunity to talk to someone in total secrecy and know that they have your best interest at heart. With everything that goes on in life, how could you not want to take advantage of that?

Dating on Faith: How important is Spiritual Compatibility?

It’s time-honored¬†advice, marry someone with the same religion as you. Or at least, be compatible on a spiritual level. What does this mean, really?

From the time I was a little girl, my parents told me to marry a fellow Catholic. Marriage, they said, was hard enough without a difference of faith. This was a little surprising coming from my mom, as her dad was Catholic and her mother was Lutheran. When I got a little older and went to Catholic University, I still held on to this belief. It took a few years to realize though, that there was more to faith than a religious label.

Plenty of people say they are Catholic, or Lutheran, or Jewish, or Episcopalian, or whatever. It’s¬†easy to¬†find someone with the same religious label as you. What is NOT easy, though, is finding someone with the same view of God.

You can tell a lot from¬†a person by asking one simple question: “What would this person do if¬†God¬†showed up at their front door?” Some people would fall to their knees and beg forgiveness. Some people wouldn’t care. My family would answer the door and say, “Hey man! How’ve you been? We’re just sitting down to dinner. Want some spaghetti?” If you’re type who would invite God as part of the family, find someone who shares that. At the end of the day, a person’s ingrained view of God can affect everything!¬†A person’s¬†relationship with God affects every aspect of their life. This includes¬†how they treat others, how they raise their children, and how they deal with the trying times of their life.

Like a lot of naive young women, I learned this the hard way.¬†Spiritual incompatibility¬†can make you lose sight of who you¬†are.¬†It wasn’t until I found my James that I remembered why my faith was important. James’s faith reminded me of my dad’s faith: a strong belief that God is a friend, a member of the family. God is a sweet, loving father who will always be there for you, no matter what you do. Go to church on Sunday, pray every day, at least just to say “hi”, because God loves you and wants you to be happy. Love God with all your heart, love your neighbor as yourself, and put your family first no matter what age you are.

It usually takes a while to figure out what kind of faith someone has. You can listen to them talk all day, but you’re not going to know who they really are until you spend some time with them. Faith isn’t just a personal thing, it’s a life changing, cultural thing. For me, it took a lot of mistakes and years of searching to figure out what was important to me. It’s not all bad, though, and I wouldn’t change a thing. Without those years of searching, I would never have found myself, my fianc√©, and my faith.

Why I Go to Mass

Last night, before Mass,¬†James and I¬†were sitting in the pew at St. Patrick’s. The stained glass windows were black, and the warm glow of candles from the altar created a calm atmosphere. The choir was practicing a chant of Ave Maria. I felt as people must have felt for the last 2000 years. In walks the young priest, wearing that dress. Sure it’s not a dress, it’s the old pre-Vatican II non-pants priest daily wear. Seeing priests in it always makes me feel as though I have been transported through time, or that time is still completely. I am seeing what people saw in 1980, in 1880, in 1780, in 80. (Ok maybe they didn’t wear that back in 80 AD but you get the point.)

Once the priest is done suiting up in the sacristy, the procession begins: altar boys holding candles, the lectors, the priest in his white chasuble. The songs are ones that have been used for generations. There’s something about being at Mass at night. It’s timeless.

Balcony of the Haggia Sophia
Me in the Haggia Sophia, where Mass was said for almost 1000 years.

James and I were at church last night because yesterday was the feast of the Immaculate Conception. Basically that means that on December 8, we celebrate the belief that God allowed Mary to be born without the stain of original sin in order for her to later be the mother of Jesus. Born Catholic, I have always gone to church. Even during times of my life when I felt far from God, and confused about what I believed in, I still went to church. Blame it on my Catholic school upbringing. I think the reason I have never quit church, no matter how dismal I felt about my life or about God, was that to me, the church is home. The traditions, the prayers, the vestments, and the songs from 200 or 500 years ago all make me feel that I am part of something that is way more important than any other something I have ever been a part of.

I have taken many theology classes in my life. I have studied the history of the prayers and the songs, the saints and the creed, the schisms and the councils. Studying, though, can only get you so far. Sometimes, people study so much that they lose sight of what really matters, that God became Man to teach us how to love one another. They care more about the letter of the law than the spirit of the law. No matter how doubtful I ever feel about God, about people, about where my life is headed, coming back to Mass reminds me why I keep going. The Church is our mother, the home we come back to when all else fails. That is the way I felt last night.