The Best Defense is Encountering Love

The Best Defense is Encountering Love

You can, in the broadest terms, call it “Catholic culture.”  However it’s described, though, it’s not something you simply argue yourself into.  Rather, it’s something you experience aesthetically as well as intellectually, with the emotions as well as the mind, through friendships and worship and experiences-beyond-words as well as through arguments and syllogisms.

“Letters to a Young Catholic” by George Weigel

Something I am intent on drilling into my students this semester is that Christianity is necessarily a life of encounter.  It is the tremendous beauty of being able to experience an authentic and lived relationship with Christ while also delving into the rich intellectual tradition of the Church.  Catholicism is chock-full of the “both/and” that makes life so simple and yet so deep.

I teach high school Theology to sophomores and seniors, making it somewhat safe to assume that I am not an advocate of an anti-intellectual, touchy-feely Christianity.  Specifically, one of my courses is apologetics, which is teaching how to defend the faith against attacks.  And there are many, many attacks launched against the Church in every age, no less in this one.  Defending the faith, though, is not merely done through well-chosen words or precisely articulated statements.  These are helpful, but much of the battle is done through actions.  If my students do not love the Church, they will be far less inclined to defend or understand Her.

I am well aware that the love I have in my heart for the Catholic Church is not the norm.  My students need to encounter more than the beauty of truth to be convinced.  I read the Church’s teachings and my heart stirs with the acknowledgement that these are profound truths.  Often when my students hear the Church’s teachings, they hear how their freedoms are being minimized or that they are being told what not to do.  However, if they love the Church, they will see that She is a mother caring for and protecting Her children, even if they do not always understand.

This is where the necessity of encounter comes in.  Catholicism, in Our Lord’s great wisdom, is a faith filled with the tangible.  We hear the words of absolution at Confession, we feel (and smell) the oils at Baptism and Confirmation that claim us as members of the Church.  The incense, like our prayers, rises up to the Heavens as we adore Our Lord in the Eucharist.  On pilgrimage, we travel to the places where the bones of the Apostles and saints of the Church rest.  Oddly, we touch our rosaries and prayer cards to their tombs, praying that we will follow the Lord’s will as radically as they did.  We light candles before altars, hoping that our intentions will be continually presented to Our Lord’s throne.  As George Weigel says throughout Letters to a Young Catholic, there is a grittiness in Catholicism.  In this book, he also says the following:

Catholicism does not rest on a pious myth, a story that floats away from us the more we try to touch it.  Here, in the scavi [excavations under St. Peter’s], we’re in touch with the apostolic foundations of the Catholic Church.  And those foundations are not in our minds.  They exist, quite literally, in reality.  Real things happened to real people who made real, life-and-death decisions–and staked their lives–not on stories or fables but on what they had come to know as the truth.

To be Catholic, George Weigel argues and I concur, means to live in reality.  And as someone who so often feels that people think my ideals mean that I don’t live in reality, that is uplifting to hear.  Being Catholic means living in the greatest love story while also fighting the greatest battle of all time, primarily because it transcends time.  As a romantic with more than a touch of stubbornness, these intertwining elements make the Church my perfect home.  It is not merely a battle of the wits, arguing and defending a supernatural institution to a world rooted in earthly affairs.  It is also, and primarily, an encounter with Love, being transformed by Love, seeking to enter into Love.  If love is not at the heart, all is meaningless and in vain.   Continue reading “The Best Defense is Encountering Love”

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Jim and Pam

Jim and Pam

I have a tendency to resist liking things that other people like simply because other people like them.  Make sense?  Of course not.  But I learned that “don’t give into peer pressure” thing really well in elementary school and it just maybe turned me into a bit of a contrarian.  In elementary school, I was pretty adamant about not liking any of the boy bands or Britney Spears.  I was a sharp critic of modern fashions and I was never the first to have anything trendy.

I like to think I have balanced out a bit and that I allow myself to like things that other people like.  Nevertheless, I do like to go against the flow and not adopt things simply because lots of other people do.  So I’ve heard people talk about “The Office” for years and I was never really interested in learning more about it.  I watched “Parks and Rec” because my housemates were into it at the time, but that was one of the first TV series I had invested in.  When I got around to watching “The Office,” I was surprised that I enjoyed it, once I was familiar with the characters.  And, being the romantic that I am, I fell for Jim and Pam’s relationship. Continue reading “Jim and Pam”

An Encounter of Love

An Encounter of Love

October is known as “Respect Life month” in the Church, but it is important to not reduce this to merely life in the womb.  Pro-lifers are sometimes accused of being only pro-babies and at times that accusation rings a little too true.  Babies, you see, are easy to love.  They are adorable, helpless, and are fun to shower with affection.

Yet while babies are a delight to love, it is the other people I struggle to love.  To be pro-life, though, means to be for the lives of every person, regardless of their personal appeal or state in life.  Such a worldview is one that is hard to cultivate.  However, if we claim to be pro-life we must work to achieve that broadness of heart.

When I was in college, I had multiple encounters with a living pro-life saint, Msgr. Reilly from Brooklyn, NY.  Few can rival his dedication to the pro-life movement.  He stands for hours outside abortion clinics, praying for the people who enter and offering alternatives accompanied by a genuine smile.  While he is located outside an abortion clinic, he is not simply offering love to the pregnant mothers and fathers.  He is loving the doctors, nurses, clinic escorts, men, women, and friends.  Each person who enters or passes by the clinic is shown an authentic witness of love.

My heart is much smaller than Msgr. Reilly’s heart, but I learned quite a bit from him.  Initially, I was all about the babies.  Through his words and witness, my heart began to be changed.  I began to feel love for the mothers and fathers who entered the clinic.  Then I began to experience an authentic love for the clinic escorts who thwarted our every attempt to offer help and compassion.  Finally, I was moved by love to encounter the doctors who performed abortions. Continue reading “An Encounter of Love”

I’m Glad I Didn’t Write Her Off

I’m Glad I Didn’t Write Her Off

It was day two of teaching.  In the midst of a simple roll call, I said her name and she rolled her eyes.

A flash of anger shot through me.

Who does she think she is?  Can she hate me already?

I moved on with class and I reminded myself to love her.  Because, really, that is all I could do.  While I could have made a big deal about it, I have long since learned to choose my battles.  And while I will never say that I always pick the right battles, I have learned to not make all of them battles. Continue reading “I’m Glad I Didn’t Write Her Off”

More Than Rules

More Than Rules

“Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”  (Pope Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est)

Sometimes I struggle to make relevant connections for my students.  Other times, the perfect words come to mind and I am pleased that, despite myself, I was able to connect it to their lives.

I was reviewing the above quote from Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical Deus Caritas Est.  Ethics, I told them, are a part of Christian living but they are not the reason we are Christian.  Intellectual Theology, while beautiful and true, is also not the primary focus of Christianity.  Instead, we are Christian because we have encountered the Living God.  I told them that if Christianity was merely a system of rules, then I could not do what I do.  I would never be able to remain passionate, day in and day out, if I simply presented an intricate system of rules.  It would not bring such joy to my life to belong to an institution situated around rules.

In a similar way, I told them that our relationship with God should in some ways mirror our relationships with friends.

“What are some of the ‘unwritten rules’ of friendship?” I asked them.
“Listen to the other person.”
“Don’t tell their secrets.”
“Be nice to them.” Continue reading “More Than Rules”

Speak Truth

Speak Truth

There is something about truth that attracts.

It isn’t because the truth is always what we want to hear.  Many times, it is the exact opposite.  Truth, however, spoken ardently and sincerely can be a powerful force, a compelling and crushing beauty.

Challenging someone with unadorned truth can provoke change.  And it can be a testament to the great love and respect the truth-teller has for the other.  These reflections I’ve had spring from a rather unlikely source: I watched a movie. Continue reading “Speak Truth”

Not Burdensome

Not Burdensome

During 8th period yesterday, I found myself embroiled in an unexpected debate on modesty.  It was interesting, albeit slightly frustrating, to hear the girls present the woes of being asked to dress modestly.  And, to a degree, I would agree with them that the rules of dress tend to be more strictly enforced for women.  They argued about short shorts and the horror of needing to cover their shoulders.  Even in their discussions, they admitted that modesty was enforced differently by different teachers and that one rule didn’t always work the same for everyone.  The true problem, however, is one of feeling burdened. Continue reading “Not Burdensome”

In His Hands

I pictured placing my little heart in His hands.  And He held it with a tenderness that could only come from Him.

There it was: small and without adornment.

It was devoid of all excuses or justifications.  Yet it was completely known, in a way that the potter knows every intricacy of the work of his hands.  Even with knowing all that was stored away within it, the little heart was completely loved.

That was true rest.

To be loved, but to know that it is without false impressions or because you have successfully hidden your flaws.  As a member of a family, I have experienced this love to a degree.  But to have your heart laid bare with all of the not-quaint details exposed is another matter.

When the world seems to be too much and I have difficulty taking it all in, I find comfort resting in His hands.  There I am known and there I am loved and those facts still astound me.  To be known to the core and loved to the core is what we all desire.  To know that it is without merit and yet entirely good to be received in such a way is another gift.  Nothing I did caused me to be loved like this, but I am.

For a little heart doing so much seeking, it is good to simply be found.

Their Eyes

I live for the moments when their eyes look like they did yesterday.  When I’m opening my heart because for a few moments it feels safe with a class, and their eyes are fastened on me.  I want to read the stories that are written there.  I want to profess my love for them even though it is all heightened and strengthened by the moment.  A few seem on the verge of tears, but all appear to grasp my sincerity and my desire to impart this knowledge to them.

I’m discerning on my feet if I should tell them about that powerful prayer experience I had a couple weeks ago.  And I do.  I talk about spiritual direction and share what I learned from it just the day before.

Maybe some are annoyed with my long preaching session, wondering if it is going to be required knowledge for the test.  But I cannot tell that those thoughts are running through their minds.  I can only see their eyes.  They are pools of experiences–hurt and joy.  And I desire to sit down with them and hear all the stories.  I don’t always feel that keen desire, sometimes I forget that their experiences are just as real as my own.

I’m trying to speak truth into situations that I do not know or understand, but I know they are in them.  Because I’m in similar situations.  It is part of the human condition.

The simple truth I desired to impart was this: Jesus knows.  He knows what it feels like to be in their shoes and to experience the pain they feel.  I spoke about how all of Jesus’ friends abandoned Him at the moment He most needed them.  He knows what it is like to feel betrayed and left alone.  He suffered for the sins and sufferings of the entire world, throughout all of history.  And He did this so that when we come to something that seems too much, He can tell us that He already passed through this, too.

And I asked them to find Jesus in the midst of it all.  How is Jesus loving you in this situation?  He is present in death, in their parents’ divorce, and in the betrayal of a friend.  He is loving us through every situation.

A priest pointed this out to me the other day–I told him I was seeking to see each experience as God trying to convert my heart and he included that each experience was God loving me.  How quick I am to shift the focus just enough that it distorts the image.  It is different to experience all as a means for my own conversion and quite another to see it as an avenue of His love.

“I don’t understand,” one student says.  “How can you find Jesus loving you in your parents’ divorce?”

And I don’t have a clear answer.  I can’t give them a Scripture passage or a Catechism reference to answer it nicely.  Instead, I must tell them that I don’t know how Jesus is seeking to love them in their difficulties, but I know that He is doing it.  That we need to open our hearts, to not pull back when we are wounded and to open them to the Healer.  I am speaking to myself as much as I am speaking to them.

Reminding them that Jesus is present in all, reinforces that belief in me.  All I’ve experienced He has already experienced and has thus sanctified the experience.  And each experience is a new way to receive His love.

All can be seen through the eyes of Love.

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His Human Heart

Jesus loves us with a human heart.

Human hearts are unruly things.  They don’t fit neatly into boxes.  They don’t follow the head as often as we may wish.  They can experience the entire gamut of emotions…in an hour.  They get conflicted, torn, bruised, inflamed, and expanded.

Human hearts can be fickle, quickly following the ebb and flow of the emotions one is surrounded by.  Yet they can be enduring in their sentiments, sometimes for far longer than we would wish them to be.

The hearts nestled within us are the great gifts that may appear to cause us the greatest of trials.  They feel heavy when we suffer or suffer with/for someone else.  At times, we may get frustrated with our responses, the spasm in our heart when nobody else seems to be impacted.

Jesus has one of these.  A human heart pumped Precious Blood through His veins and with that heart He loved.  He experienced anger when the temple was misused.  Jesus felt sorrow when He wept at the tomb of Lazarus.  He was compassionate and merciful to the sinful and the ill as they approached Him.

“He has loved us all with a human heart.  For this reason, the Sacred Heart of Jesus, pierced by our sins and for our salvation, ‘is quite rightly considered the chief sign and symbol for that…love with which the divine Redeemer continually loves the eternal Father and all human beings’ without exception.”   (CCC 478)

The Incarnation is the central point of Christianity.  We believe in a God who desired so much to encounter us, that He became one of us.  He didn’t send a mere messenger, He sent His Beloved Son, He came Himself.

We romanticize the earthly life of Jesus.  Of course life would be easy if we were God, we think.  And then we say that God couldn’t actually understand our pain or suffering, because He never experienced something like this.

He experienced it all.

No, maybe your particular situation is not one that Jesus found Himself in.  Yet on the cross He experienced the suffering of all humanity, in all its forms and intensity.  The “But You’re God” excuse only lasts for so long.  Yes, you have grasped His divinity.  Congratulations.  Now grasp His humanity.  It wasn’t a mask or a mere appearance, it is a reality.

His human heart beats.
I love you.

It aches for humanity.
Yes, I suffer also.

It remains present to us so that we might embrace Him in a deeper way.
“The Body of Christ.”

Your weary little heart needs to know that Christ has a heart like yours.

His heart is tender, vulnerable, open to love all.

This heart desires to dwell within you.

"After this He asked me for my heart, which I begged Him to take. He did so and placed it in His own Adorable Heart where He showed it to me as a little atom which was being consumed in this great furnace, and withdrawing it thence as a burning flame in the form of a heart, He restored it to the place whence He had taken it..."  -St. Margaret Mary Alacoque

Sacred Heart of Jesus, sanctify my heart.