A Scandalous Mercy

A Scandalous Mercy

“If Hitler repented before he died, after all he had done, would he be able to go to Heaven?”

You know, just some light, casual conversations on a Friday afternoon.

“Yes, if he repented….You don’t like that answer, do you?”
“No, I think he should be in Hell.”

“Let me ask you a question,” I said, knowing that sometimes asking questions is the only way to escort them to the doorstep of truth. “Where do you draw the line? How many people can someone kill or order killed and get to Heaven?”

“Ummm….none.”
“So nobody who has ever killed anyone could have a conversion and go to Heaven?”
“No.”
“Are there any other sins that you think God should be unable to forgive?”
“No.”
“But do you see the problem with choosing what is too much for God to forgive?” And he did, but he still wasn’t convinced that God should forgive Hitler if he repented.

This interaction prompted a much longer conversation than I expected. Our starting point was the Gospel for this upcoming Sunday and it bothered some that the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the wandering son were all received with joy and the ones that remained weren’t so celebrated. The father in Luke’s Gospel extending abundant mercy to the younger son was troublesome and annoying to them. Why does the one who wanders get a party and the one who stays gets nothing?

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Eyeliner and Reality

Eyeliner and Reality

I was expecting a lot of things for my retreat, but I wasn’t expecting that not wearing eyeliner would be one of them.

By most standards, I don’t wear much makeup. Despite the fact that my mother has sold it for my entire life, I don’t like even really talking about it or experimenting with it or purchasing it. I utilize it, but I don’t really care about it. On retreat, I eliminated it from my morning routine for a few practical reasons: I wasn’t going “out” anywhere and it seemed it would only look worse when I would inevitably cry as the Lord worked through different matters within me.

The second or third day of not wearing eyeliner, I found myself looking in the mirror, slightly bewildered. That is what my eyes actually look like? My fair complexion and light hair is exactly why someone created eyeliner and mascara. Without it, my eyes aren’t as emphasized and everything looks a little paler.

Since I was on a silent retreat, I leaned into the discomfort rather than away from it. It wasn’t about vanity so much. I would look in the mirror and I would remind myself: these are your eyes. This is what they actually look like. And as the days passed, they seemed more mine. It stopped seeming like I was missing something that ought to be there, but rather that I was seeing reality. When I left retreat, I found that I wanted to keep seeing those eyes that are really mine and in the way they actually are.

(Stick with me, guys, I promise this is not an entire post about makeup!)

I’m not swearing off eyeliner: it does what it is supposed to do–it makes my eyes stand out. But I realized on retreat that I never want to forget what my eyes actually look like. It was a perfect physical takeaway from the tremendous interior work that the Lord was doing during that time of silence. The entire retreat was one of re-crafting my eyes to see me how the Lord actually sees me.

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Basic, but Beautiful

Basic, but Beautiful

I have a feeling that for the rest of my life when I return from a retreat, I will only be able to speak of graces and revelations that are profound in their magnitude but elementary in their complexity. This doesn’t bother me, but it was a bit surprising when I came to this conclusion a few years ago. While I’m not saying the Lord can’t reveal anything new to me, I think the revelations will primarily be a deepened understanding and solidifying of truths I already know, albeit superficially.

This understanding came about when I returned from a beautiful retreat. It was enlightening and life giving. Yet the main take-away was nothing new: God loves me. In fact, it seemed laughably basic. Didn’t I already know God loved me? Yes, of course. But after that retreat, I knew it in a deeper, more significant way. I experienced the love of God and it left behind a smattering of old truths seen with new eyes.

Sometimes, the students insist we all keep teaching them the same things. Sometimes, it is true that unnecessary repetition happens. But, it is also true that learning something as a child is quite different than learning about it as a high schooler or an adult. They believe that since they have heard the words before, they know it. Knowledge, however, is something that can be known with the head yet not known with the heart. It is often important to repeat well-known truths because they haven’t journeyed yet from words the mind understands to a reality the heart lives from.

High school students are far from the only ones to do this. The familiar sometimes seems uninteresting when actually we just haven’t plumbed the depths of it yet.

Jesus loves me.
God became man.
The Lord is faithful.
Trust in the Lord.
Jesus rose from the dead.

All of these truths have been heard by Christians innumerable times. Yet how many of these truths have fully penetrated our hearts? How deep of an understanding of the Lord’s love do we actually have? Do we really know and experience the faithfulness of the Lord or do we simply parrot the words? We can stay on the surface with these realities or we can bore down deep and imprint these words on our hearts. Like the circles within a tree, each experience with a particular truth can be packed in deeper and deeper, each additional layer increasing the beauty and profundity of the simple reality.

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Particular Love

Particular Love

During “contemplative time” last week, I had my students reflect on the Resurrection account from John’s Gospel. Fresh from my own ponderings, we discussed the whole “John as the one whom Jesus loved” bit.

“Doesn’t Jesus love everyone?”

Yes, of course.

“Why does John even bring it up?”

I mentioned that perhaps it was because John had encountered the particularity of Christ’s love for him.

And they brought up something that is ingrained in us from our earliest years: the sense of things being equal or the same.

“Doesn’t Jesus love us all the same, though?”

No, He actually doesn’t. They seemed skeptical, perhaps because we automatically begin to assume that Jesus might love me less if He doesn’t love us all the same.

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Truth and the Balancing Act of Teaching

I hesitate to say this too soon.  Mostly because I have one class period left and that could very well be the class where it all falls apart.  But so far, so good.

Today we spoke of truth.  Specifically objective and subjective truths.  My first year, I naively threw around bold statements like, “The Church is the fullness of truth” and the thing was, I didn’t know they were bold claims.  I was simply saying what I believed and had been taught.  How that translated in the minds of some of my students was that I hate every other religion and think they are stupid.  Or something to that effect.

It is a delicate balance, this teaching high school students thing.  I do not want to tip-toe around and offer the truth with an implied, “I’m sorry that I believe this, but here it is” attached to it.  However, my students aren’t quite ready for the fullness of truth.  There is something to be said about trying to put them in the best possible frame of mind when presenting the teaching of the Church.  Sometimes I come on with too much and sometimes I am a coward by choosing to say too little.  It is an art and I’m not very artistic.

Last class period, I think it went pretty well.  I didn’t want to argue with pitting specific religions against each other.  Instead, I chose the logic route.  Logically speaking, can all of the world religions all be completely correct in their teachings?  Some teach there are several gods, some teach one god, and others profess no god.  Can they all be correct?  Logically, the answer must be no.  I used this to apply it to the different religions.  Is it intolerant to say that not all of the world religions can all be correct?  You can argue that no religion is entirely correct, but you cannot argue that they are all completely true.  I then encouraged them to seek the truth.  Obviously they know what I believe to be true.

My hope is that I intrigued them and challenged them to evaluate their beliefs.  I want them to be grounded and I want them to actually believe what they profess to believe.  If they will honestly pursue the truth, I am convinced that they will find it.  That they will find Him.

Rule #1: Be Controversial

Sometimes when I really think about the “controversial” issues of today, I am completely baffled by the fact that they are controversial.  Society has made these issues into emotional issues and situations that prevent one from really looking at the truth objectively.  I find it interesting that my high school students have been almost more instrumental in my grasping the extent of society’s depravity than the past eight years of college and high school.  My students are not depraved but they give me a window into the mind of society.  And I find it to be quite frightening.  I am realizing, as I told a friend a week ago, that I wasn’t the typical high schooler.  As I speak to my students I waver between feeling as though we are in the same generation and then thinking that we are in completely different generations.  But, to be honest, I often feel that I am in the wrong era altogether and that I would have fit rather nicely into the 1800s. 

My viewpoint into the culture made me slightly frantic this week.  If my students, who attend a Catholic high school in a rather conservative state with typically traditional values, seem this affected by the culture, I was quick to bemoan the fate of the entire world.  Especially after listening to their defense of their opinions, I was convinced that we, as a society, do not understand truth.  My students aren’t stupid and they don’t seem to hold beliefs that they think are radical.  There is also an interesting mixture within most of them, they don’t exactly buy the Church’s teaching on human sexuality (for example) but they appear open to know more about it.  This doesn’t mean they come off as accepting of it, rather they appear to be skeptical of anything the Church says that doesn’t mesh with society.  Yet many of them are hesitant to say they flat out disagree with the Church’s teaching.  These opinions provide an interesting blend of hope and despair for me.  I have come again and again to the realization that I do not know how to accurately convey my beliefs or the Church’s teaching to them.  I accept what the Church teaches but I cannot properly show them how this should impact their beliefs.  Multiple times this past week I have felt acutely the limitations of my abilities and knowledge.

What do you do with a society that makes truth seem bigoted and intolerant?  How do you present a truth that is immediately labeled as hate speech or offensive?  The truth is remarkably offensive.  Don’t believe me?  Take a quick look at the videos below. 

The original TV clip
His defense of “hate speech”
The Media Portrayal

Why does this continue to surprise me?  Perhaps because our culture is very good at pinning “radical” and “extreme” to things that are simply not in line with the secular media.  If you say things often enough and loud enough, people will begin to think that they are true.  So when you begin to speak the Truth, be it ever so softly and charitably, it comes off as cruel and unjust. 

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you!  How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!  Behold, your house is forsaken and desolate.” –Mt. 23: 37-38

It lead me to wonder how one could possibly win.  Not because I am making the transformation of a culture into a competition, but because it seems that the odds are so against the truth.  Even the fact that when the Church teaches the truth it doesn’t make any head-way in many modern minds, points to a culture so “open-minded” that it is closed off to truth.  Modern progress seems to be running full speed away from everything good, true, and beautiful.  And the issues that seem to be the most fundamental–marriage, families, life, and the human person–are the most attacked now. 

“It is true that I am of an older fashion; much that I love has been destroyed or sent into exile.” -G.K. Chesterton

Perhaps I should have been more encouraging when one of my students asked what we should do when the whole of society seems to be opposed to what the Church is teaching.  I told him that we need to be prepared to be martyrs for the truth.  That we will be at least verbally mocked and crucified is seeming to be a closer and closer reality.  It is not something that will take place when I am old and gray but is gradually sweeping society right now.  The hope in this is that Our Lord knows all of this.  And the times of greatest persecution and evil are the very times when He raises up the greatest of saints.  They give hope and inspiration that standing with the truth is something that is only fully rewarded in Heaven.  As for now, we are the Church militant, battling anything contrary to that which is true.  Not just “true” by our standards, but is actually and objectively Truth.

“Strive even to death for truth and the Lord God will fight for you.” –Sirach 4:28

This causes me to think of the book of Daniel with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.  Like them, we should refuse to serve the gods that society worships and refuse to conform our lives to the tune that is being played.  Instead, even in the midst of the flames of persecution we should bless the Lord.

“Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his mercy endures for ever.”

If only I was "The Giver"…

Sometimes I wish I wasn’t a teacher so much as “The Giver.”  Instead of hoping they will be open to what I have to say or open to a new experience, I want to give them something.  And I don’t want them to have the option to say no.  I suppose this is one of the reasons that if I was God, I would have done things remarkably different.  I wouldn’t have done them nearly as well, of course, but as a selfish human being I would make a selfish god.  I wouldn’t let people choose to love me or reject me.  I wouldn’t offer my very self only to have it pushed back in my face.  When I offer a mere piece of my heart to someone, be it a student or otherwise, and I feel it is rejected or not fully appreciated, I pull back and desire to not surrender any soft part of my heart to anyone.  My love is still very self-centered, still very egocentric, and feeling motivated.  I would want to force people to acknowledge my greatness as they should.  We should all thank God that I am not Him.

Even on behalf of God I desire to be “The Giver” and not simply allow free will be operative in the lives of my students.  Today I told my five classes that part of class tomorrow would be spent in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.  For at least 15 minutes in each class, we will be before Jesus.  I know I am not naturally a very emotive person and so I purposefully over-emphasized my joy so that they could see how excited I was.  The looks on their faces varied from amusement at my obvious enthusiasm to dismay at the prospect of suffering through mandatory adoration. 

I was not so naive as to assume that every student of mine would leap for joy at the prospect of spending 15 minutes in the chapel tomorrow.  While I know some of my students are glad for the occasion, the general feel of nearly every class was a picture of unwilling surrender.  They aren’t excited for tomorrow but it is a necessary consequence of going to a Catholic school.  They must suffer unwillingly through monthly mandatory Masses, morning prayer over the intercom, dress code, Theology classes, and bi-annual adoration time and Reconciliation services.  Accepting that the system will not change for them, they are resolved to not reveal any joy that might betray their distaste for the religion that is forced upon them.  Yes, that is an exaggeration for some of the students, but, unfortunately, not for a sizable faction.  Some students will write that they wish they weren’t forced to take Theology classes or go to Mass every month and I wonder to myself what they thought Catholic school should be like.  If I was to ask them, the undesired answer might be, “Nonexistent.”

So as I tried to share my joy with my students, I also spent some time talking to them about why they dislike adoration or why they find it difficult/boring.  The answers I received weren’t altogether surprising but they did reveal an aspect of the culture that I find extremely troubling.  Among the top contenders for the most popular reasons why adoration isn’t a wonderful prospect is that their minds wander, they can’t think of what they should do, and it is boring.  However, the response that seemed to draw the most agreement was that they don’t like the silence and they find it awkward.  For 15 minutes they are asked to sit silently and pray.  I do not think the silence is so difficult because they long to talk to their friends, although that is certainly a temptation for them.  I believe the silence is so difficult because they are completely unaccustomed to it.  That is troubling.  We have an entire generation, an entire world that is inundating itself with so much noise and busyness that a few minutes of silence is awkward and difficult.  No wonder they ask me why they can’t hear God speak to them or why they don’t think God is listening to them.  They haven’t even paused to listen.  To really listen.  Because when I tell them they need to be quiet and listen to the Lord, they stop to do it for a minute but then any time beyond that seems superfluous.  One of my students said that adoration didn’t need to be so long, that he could say everything he needed to in about a minute.

I don’t have the time, it seems, to teach them this silence.  I, the introverted melancholic that I am who loves silence and solitude, cannot give them the joy of stopping and being still that I am blessed enough to have.  That is why I desire to be “The Giver” and simply bestow it upon them.  So that they may simply experience what it is that I mean and not just hear about it.  I want to make them see what adoration can be like if they allow themselves to be still.  While I can still their bodies and mouths, for the most part, I cannot reach in and still their minds and souls.  They can spend 15 minutes running from the Lord’s graces while I spend that same time praying for their hearts to be open.  Yes, I would override their free will and make them accept the Lord’s graces into their lives.  Ah, but there is the problem—would I mandate love for Love?  How much greater is the joy when a student, like a little rosebud, begins to open up to the truth that he is hearing and develops a greater desire for that life-giving truth.

While I cannot make them acknowledge the God who loves them so radically, I can continue to present the Truth to them.  And I can continue to grow in how I present this truth so as to make it more appealing and more palatable to their 21st century tastes.  How much this teacher has to learn!  I cannot give them the experience of peace in the arms of Our Lord, this is true.  However, I can give them my prayers through Our Lady and Our Lord.  And those, my friends, they cannot refuse.