I Find God Here

I Find God Here

“Why do you come in here to be with us and teach us about Jesus when you could do that outside?” one prisoner asked during a meal on the prison retreat.

“I do teach about Jesus to people out there.”

“Why do you come in here?”

A few months ago, I would have said it was because my sister started getting involved in prison ministry. Or that I became interested when a priest I had known for a long time became the prison chaplain. Yet neither of those things really answers the question of why I keep coming back.

“Because I find God in here,” I said. “I guess it is actually a selfish reason.”

He looked at me, a bit taken aback. “You find God in prison?”

Continue reading “I Find God Here”

Quit Striving: You Are Already Valuable

Quit Striving: You Are Already Valuable

For the past few semesters, I give something called ‘The Preference Test‘ as a way to lead into the Argument from Desire when speaking of God’s existence. This test gives a series of would-you-rather questions but proposed in a slightly different way. I understand why the students sometimes find it silly because it pits options like You are loved against You are not loved. It seems easy enough to be clear about what you would truly prefer, but so many times the students struggle to admit that they desire something when intellectually they are convinced it doesn’t exist or isn’t real.

One question asked if they would rather have their value be innate or dependent on their abilities. This one is always interesting, because the hard-working, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mentality comes out in full force even if it isn’t really what anyone would truly want. I asked what they preferred. Did they prefer to be worth something just because they exist or did they prefer to strive for worthiness?

So many of them argued that culturally our value is based on our net worth or the skills we’ve acquired or how gifted we are. I told them I understood that, but asked how do you want your value to be determined? Still some insisted that they would prefer that measuring rod of value.

Interestingly, some seemed to fear nobody would work hard if they just knew they were valuable. I wonder if it is because they work hard to be good and then they wonder what it would be like if everyone had value regardless of their skills. Perhaps it is because they feel validated by meeting certain expectations and don’t know what it would mean if those measuring rods were broken and thrown away. Who would they be without grades or athletic giftedness or money or determination?

And it just made my heart ache to see them striving so much. So many of our problems seem to stem from not knowing our true worth or identity. If we all fully understood it, perhaps we wouldn’t be compelled to step on other people or gossip or give up or lie or do whatever we do to get ahead. Or whatever we do to numb the feeling that we aren’t worth anything or can never amount to much. People suffer from not knowing their own true value more than being too full of their own giftedness. I’m quite confident that the ones who seem the most full of themselves are so because they recognize within themselves a radical insufficiency.

Continue reading “Quit Striving: You Are Already Valuable”

The Grace of Lesson Plans That Get Overthrown by Questions

The Grace of Lesson Plans That Get Overthrown by Questions

The lesson plan for the day was to discuss the argument from efficient causality.  Yet they managed to completely derail that plan.  When students ask questions that are about the faith and yet truly interest them, it is nearly impossible for me to continue with class as planned.  Interiorly, I am torn between following a schedule or curriculum and the desire to answer questions that organically spring up in their hearts.

Nine times out of ten I go with the questions they present to me.  I don’t believe I’ve ever regretted it, I only wish that each class would then magically divert itself in the same way.  Genuine curiosity and ponderings aren’t things you can manufacture in other classes.

“So is this argument saying that all things are caused to be by other things?  Or it is saying not all things are caused to be by other things?” I asked.
“I have a question that kind of relates but is off topic.  If God is caused or even if He isn’t caused, what is the point of life?  Like why did God make us?  What is our purpose?”

Those questions, dear readers, will definitely sidetrack me.  When senior boys are curious about why they were created and the meaning of life, I will dropkick lesson plans to spend time answering some of the biggest questions of life.

This is the class that argued with me about gravity objectively existing.  The day before this class, instead of working on an assignment they chose to ask me a thousand inane questions about my car, my hometown, and where my parents live.  So hearing one student start a conversation about the purpose of their lives and why God made them, and then hearing several other students jump in with follow-up questions, was a pure delight.  The only problem was the lack of time before the bell would ring.

To begin to answer their questions, I went back to the beginning.  The Trinity.  I spoke of how the Father and Son pour out a love that is so strong that it is another person, the Holy Spirit.  Within this communion of love, there is nothing that is lacking.  God was perfectly satisfied within this exchange of love.  Therefore, we are not needed.  God didn’t need us. Continue reading “The Grace of Lesson Plans That Get Overthrown by Questions”

Who are You, Lord, and who am I?

“Who are You, Lord, and who am I?”

St. Francis of Assisi prayed this simple phrase.  I remember learning it in college during a class about St. Francis and St. Clare.  Part of me was consoled that even a great saint like Francis prayed to understand God and himself.  Once I went to a prayer group at college and was asked if I had any prayer intentions.  I responded with this prayer of St. Francis and I think some of them questioned if I was having a great crisis of faith.  I wasn’t, but the prayer was one I had been pondering for a while.  It came up again a couple nights ago as I sat in adoration.

My students have certain perceptions of who I am.  My co-workers, friends, and family have different perceptions of who I am.  As I sat in adoration before Our Lord, I was wondering who I really was at the core.  Am I actually how I am when I first meet someone, reserved and quiet?  Or am I more truly myself in front of my class, fairly serious but enjoying laughing with my students and sharing Jesus with them?  Or am I most the person I am when I’m home with just my parents and we’re playing cards or drinking coffee some Sunday afternoon?  Or is it when I play with nephews and niece?  Or when I am confessing my deep-rooted sins?  Or when I’m cut off in traffic?  Or when a student challenges me in front of the class?  Or when I’m deep in prayer?  When am I most myself?  My desire is to be consistent, but I find that each situation seems to pull out a different facet of my personality and I change depending on my environment and surroundings.  It isn’t that it is necessarily a bad thing, but it leads me to wonder what I am at the core.

In actuality, I think I know myself quite well.  The question, I suppose, is less one of who I am and more one of how do I bring who I know myself to be into the different situations life affords?  At times I feel a bit envious of my older sisters who are religious sisters.  People expect them to behave in certain ways.  I teach Theology in a high school, but there is still the pressure to conform, to act certain ways so that one doesn’t appear “holier-than-thou.”  I know that in many ways, I am quite innocent of the world.  Yet people often believe that innocence is the same as naive.  While they are related, I think there is a difference.  I don’t view myself as wholly lacking in wisdom or judgement.  However, there are many things I don’t know about and experiences I have never had.  That doesn’t bother me.  What bothers me is when lack of experience in some things seems equivalent to childish.  I’m young and innocent in some ways, but I’m not immature, just a bit shielded from the foolishness of the world at times.

So I found myself asking the Lord who I was to be.  How can I live for Him without bringing Him up in every conversation?  It isn’t necessary to always speak of Jesus with words.  My life should proclaim Him.  People can get frustrated if you always point to Jesus and I don’t want them to become deaf to the Gospel because I misuse it.  Yet I also don’t want to feel like I must cover up my faith because it might cause inconvenient conversations or situations.

It is quite easy to live in my little bubble and instruct my students to be bold in standing up for the faith.  Because when I find myself in those situations, it is so difficult to be bold.  Instead of asking how I can best proclaim the truth, I find myself wondering how I can adhere to my principles without making people dislike me.  Perhaps St. Francis wondered such things also.  Lord, who am I?  Who do you desire me to be?  And, Lord, help me to know the truth about You.  Who are You, Lord?  Because that answer changes everything.

*Art by Robert Zund*

I’m Busy

“No, I can’t.  I’m too busy.”

I’m a bit surprised to hear these words uttered by my three year old nephew.  I don’t think he really knows what those words mean.  I asked if he had given a hug to his grandma and he said he was too busy, as he tiredly walked away from me. He has heard this phrase but he doesn’t understand how to properly apply it.  My brain thinks briefly of The Princess Bride and the misuse of the word “inconceivable.”

Then I think about my conversations with my relatives and I realize that I am very quick to fall back on, “Life is busy.”  It is a nice conversation filler but it doesn’t really tell one anything.  Which is partially the point–life is filled with many things but I don’t want to fully articulate them right now.  Life is either busy or nothing is going on.

Somewhere along the line I began to think of busy as success or as the necessary answer for how my life is going.  Because I can’t say I don’t know what I’m doing with my life.  I can’t admit in casual conversations that I’m at times frustrated with the Lord and myself.  Or that I want to sit in my classroom and cry some days while other days fill me with over-the-moon excitement and joy.

“I’m busy.”

Oh the contradiction!  Here we are at the “busy” part of the year that revolves in essence around a quiet manger scene. The God of the Universe enters into our chaos, confusion, and hurt and the world for a moment seems to be still.  We are enraptured by the glint in the newborn’s eye, in the soft giggle, in the squirm of chubby arms and legs.

I need to come up with a better response than, “I’m busy.”  I’m present.  I have time for you.

The Wedding Feast of the Lamb

The day was cool with a hint of coming winter in the breeze that ruffled my hair and made me grateful for tights and boots.  Winding roads meandered through the sylvan surroundings and we followed them at sometimes dizzying speeds.  Arriving at a church to which we had never been, we soon occupied a special pew reserved near the front.  It was the day of my sister’s wedding but there was none of the pre-wedding frenzy that accompanies the typical wedding.  Bows were fastened to the end of each pew, programs were passed out, and a video was rolling.  Other than that, very little would lead one to believe that a wedding would soon take place.

I glanced around hoping to see my sister, wondering if she would be tucked away or kneeling in a pew silently praying.  Music began to issue forth from a keyboard and the bridal procession began.  It was a lengthy procession, including guests from far and wide.  Nearly a dozen priests and a bishop were numbered in that group.  My sister was there, too.  Her veil was fastened securely on her head and her simple wedding gown did not quickly attract the eye, except perhaps as an oddity to the random stranger that would stumble upon this blessed affair.  For those of us present and invited, it was no surprise.  Her hands were secured around an unlit candle and her face was serious but serene. 

My sister’s veil was black and her gown was a simple brown dress fastened with a rough cord.  The cord was adorned with three knots.  Poverty.  Chastity.  Obedience.  A firm denial of all that the world offers as important and desirable.  She was armed with a wooden rosary, hanging from her cord.  They would not later produce flowers with which to ornament themselves.  Rather my sister prayed her vows and was then given her crown.  It was a crown of thorns.  And it was striking. 

Very little do weddings typically speak of the crosses that are to come in the marriage.  It may be alluded to, perhaps said outright, but often the joy and happiness of the day are the primary focus.  There is a definite goodness in that.  Here, though, the cross was very evident.  Yet they did not run from it.  Rather they embraced it and clung to it.

She laid on the floor and stretched her arms out in a cruciform.  It was the beauty of the marital embrace in a form that is seen too little.  Her Spouse bound her to Himself and asked her to become one with Him.  He beckoned her, called her name, and delighted in receiving the fullness of her heart.  The gift He gives is that of the cross but not without the hope of the resurrection and the nourishment of the Eucharist. 

The wedding unfolded in a beautiful way and before long we were watching them process out, priests, sisters, and bishop.  A typically long post-nuptial reception line was formed.  There was remarkable joy.  It was not women being oppressed or women surrendering their hope for marriage or women wondering what point life had.  Instead it was the picture of women who know who they are, women who know their purpose, and women aware of the radical love the Author of Life has for them.  There was peace and there was beauty.

At this unusual wedding I realized something that I want at my wedding.  Barring any dramatic revelations from the Lord, I intend to someday get married and raise a family.  Yet this wedding, in its very nature, pointed to the Person who should always be central in such a life transforming moment.  There was no conceivable way to misunderstand who was the central focus.  From beginning to end, God was being worshiped and praised.  It was His love that was being celebrated, along with the love my sister bears.  Many weddings often focus too much on the couple and not enough on the Lord.  At this wedding I realized that I want my guests to leave my wedding with the clear idea that God was the center of it all.  Yes, I want a gorgeous dress and I want to have beautiful pictures of the day.  Of course I want a well-executed reception and lovely music to delight our ears.  Primarily, though, I want the guests to leave the Mass thinking, “Our Lord came to us in the Eucharist…and this couple promised to strive to reflect the love of Christ and the Church.” 

I’ve been to weddings where I could sense something was lacking, a depth or a sincerity.  It was evident that they loved each other but perhaps a little less evident that they loved the Lord.  Yet I’ve also been to weddings where I was moved by the witness of the couple and grasped the beauty and gravity of the sacrament they were entering into.

She cut the cake, she posed for pictures, she laughed, and she cried.  It was a day of graces and a day of some sorrow.  My heart lurched and broke and healed.  This was the Wedding Feast of the Lamb being lived out on Earth.  I spoke rather few words to her, hugged her several times, and sometimes just watched her with love as she spoke.  There is an ache in my heart and perhaps there is this ache residing within every living person.  It is an intense longing, a feeling that there must be something far greater, far more lasting than this fragile life here.  An ache for union that can never be fully lived in this world and yet my little heart so greatly desires it.  It is an ache in me that desires this exact type of wedding yet also reminds me that I long for marriage and family with an earthly husband.  This is the longing for Heaven, for Our Lord, and for a life completely surrendered to Him.

There is a breaking within me that cannot be articulated and cannot be measured.  This is a place where sorrow and joy blend into a beautiful, ineffable disposition.  It is not mere emotion or a passing feeling.  Life is sorrow and joy and beauty and, eventually, eternal.  In these days before eternity there is searing pain that cuts through hearts and severely strains and changes relationships as we know them.  Yet in the midst of this sorrow there is an abiding peace and joy that reassures us that all of this is worth it.  It convinces us that tonight will pass and morning will spring eternally in our souls.  This temporary separation will give way to a communion that is beyond comprehension.  My heart must be re-created to endure this deep communion lest is burst of happiness.  That is the process it is undergoing now.  The chambers are being widened, the heart is being enlarged, and the desires are being purified.  Yet it will all be worth it.  We shall be gathered in from off the streets and ushered into the banquet of the Lamb.  He will rise, take us by the hand, slip a ring on our finger, place sandals on our feet and wrap a robe around us, and say, “Well done, my good and faithful servant…enter into the joy of your master.”

True Romance

I am a romantic.  Secretly, yet not too secretly.  My students would probably be surprised, people who know me casually would probably be surprised, but in my heart of hearts I am a sappy romantic.  I enjoy romantic movies (this meaning North and South, Pride and Prejudice, and Jane Eyre (yes that last one is Gothic romantic, in my mind) not more modern romantic movies like the Titanic.).  Despite my “sensible” nature (in quotes because this is what I would prefer to think of myself, not what is necessarily true), I love the feeling in my stomach when I know the couple will end up together and that they will be madly in love. 

For example:
(Skip to 2:45)

That clip just fills my romantic heart with joy.  Laugh if you wish, reader, but I was made for a wildly romantic love.  And you were, too.  I just too often think only of Mr. Thornton as the lead character instead of Our Lord.  What a far more intense love Jesus has for me than any other man ever could.

Our Lord proves His love for me over and over again, even though it is not necessary.  My existence is proof of His enduring love but He desires to delight my heart.  A brief story to illustrate how He does so.

On Thursday evening I was planning to go to a Theology on Tap at a local ale house (sounds so much better than a bar, aye?).  Social outings are always a feat for me because it takes a great deal of personal convincing (as well as telling other people that I will be there so as to make it necessary for me to actually make an appearance) for me to arrive at anything beyond Mass after school.  Since I do not live in town, I need to stay at school for a couple extra hours if I go to any events in the evening.  It isn’t really that inconvenient, there is certainly enough work for me to do, it is just difficult when I sometimes feel like collapsing into a bed at 3:30 pm. 

Anyway…I was going to go to the Theology on Tap but I left school a bit late.  The event was to begin at 7 pm and I left only 10 minutes to get there.  I was tired, hungry, and running late.  Driving downtown I got mixed up about which street it was on and it was making me even later.  At about 7:10 I was pulling into the parking lot only to find it full.  So I drove out, down the street, and came back.  I was starting to convince myself to go home, eat, and sleep.  That sounded more appealing to me every second.  I began to plan what I would say the next day if someone asked me why I didn’t show up. 

Looping around the parking lot I still didn’t find any spots.  I decided to take one more turn about the lot.  “Lord, what do you want me to do?”  The tension was that I felt like I should go yet I wanted to just go home.  I saw a man was talking on a cell phone at the back of an apartment building.  Seeing me, he began to point.  I was confused.  Then I realized that the spot he was pointing to was for a business that was closed at this point in the evening.  I pulled into the spot, got out, and the man waved and smiled at me.  For a moment I thought he was one of the people that I would be meeting there, but I soon realized they were two separate buildings. 

Walking into the ale house I was laughing inside.  The Lord helped me find a spot.  More importantly, the Lord was able to quickly answer my prayer in a very tangible way.  I asked Him what I was to do and He had a man point to a parking spot for me.  It didn’t leave too much to wonder about.  The whole evening was a blessing.  Afraid that I would walk in late, I entered the establishment to find that many of the people were still getting their drinks.  When they began to move into another room for the talk, a couple of people waited for me to get my drink.  Everything was working perfectly.  The talk of the night was excellent and I was able to socialize afterwards. 

The Lord provided for me.  Driving home that night I was filled with thankfulness.  He knows what He is working with.  It is hard for me to break out of my shell but the Lord desires it of me.  Nevertheless, He helps do some of the breaking. 

The little gifts He offers to me are sometimes dismissed or received with a sense of entitlement.  While I build dreams of romantic proposals or fantastic encounters, He is offering to me His heart.  I acknowledge it briefly, perhaps, and then sit and wait impatiently for the day when I will receive the affections of some Prince Charming.  This is an exaggeration, but not as much as it should be.  I am still very much of the world.  Knowing that Christ alone can fill me, I still try to run after the fulfillment that society tries to offer to me. 

Sometimes it takes a random stranger pointing out a parking space at a bar for me to begin to think that the Lord is in love with me.  Am I still longing for marriage?  Yes.  Do I still hope for some romantic swept-off-my-feet love?  Of course.  Despite all that, my desire is to desire the Lord more and more and to realize that He alone can provide the true love that I so desperately need.

Simple Beauties

I like simplicity.  And I like beauty.  I am continually amazed by things that would be so easy to pass by or discount as being of little importance.  A simple cup of coffee from home on the way to work with the sun shining on the plains filled my heart with joy.  The Sacred Host exposed in vulnerable love as voices rise like incense to fragrance Our Lord’s throne.  A glorious sunset that mixes the palette of colors into a never before seen array of splendor.  The simplicity of a humble priest who, with eyes closed in a concentration that must have been often etched upon Our Lord’s face, raises his hand to absolve me from my sins.  The moment in the confessional when you say the Act of Contrition and you are struck for the first time by the words “but most of all because I have offended Thee, O God, who art all good…”  My heart desiring the simplicity of a human love that will rival all fiction and will lead me steadfastly to Heaven’s embrace.  The conversations with dear sisters placed hundreds of miles away from me.  This song.  A beautiful red tomato freshly picked from the garden and an apple harvested from the nearby tree.  This picture:

A moment to stop, look around at the countryside, and breathe in a deep breath of crisp autumn air.  The silence, the peace, the luxury of looking across the land and seeing no human person in sight.  The knowledge that I am because He always is.