To Praise You For All Eternity

To Praise You For All Eternity

When we’ve been there ten thousand years,
Bright shining as the sun,
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we first begun.

(Amazing Grace)

When we started singing Amazing Grace, I recalled that this was very moving for me during my first prison retreat. It didn’t seem like it would be the case this time as those gathered sang semi-enthusiastically.

Then we approached the final verse and I was overwhelmed with a fierce love for these men and a great desire to spend eternity with them. I gazed around the room and saw the guy who reminded me of some of my students and heard the obnoxious men behind me who were chatting or making noises during parts of the Mass. I thought about the men who struck me as a little creepy in how attentive they were to all the young female volunteers. And I thought of one of my favorite prisoners standing beside me who has grown deeper and more devout since I met him four months ago. Thinking about all of the men–the ones I like and the ones I am uncertain about—I felt a great desire to praise God with them for all of eternity.

My heart had a burning desire to turn to my prison friend next to me and say, “_____________, I want to spend eternity with you!” But it seemed like I’d be coming on a little strong. And although it would maybe weird him out, he would probably just laugh and say, “Okay. Calm down, Trish. But, yeah, I know what you mean.” I didn’t tell him that, but everything in me wanted to do so. Instead, I just looked at these men and imagined all of us in Heaven.

Lord, I want to spend eternity with these prisoners.

I imagined us praising God forever and chatting about past memories. “Remember when you came into the prison and met us for the first time, Trish?” And I would tell them I did. We would laugh—that we met in prison of all places but that God used each of us to help draw the other toward Heaven. “Remember the terrible prison food?” And we would all rejoice that we would never, ever again eat that food.

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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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Rome’s Concreteness

Rome’s Concreteness

The following night the Lord stood by him and said, ‘Take courage. For just as you have borne witness to my cause in Jerusalem, so you must also bear witness in Rome.’

Acts 23: 11

The readings for our pilgrimage to Rome were rather perfect. For a few days, they focused on Paul’s arrest and subsequent journey to Rome to stand trial. As we visited the Basilica of St. Paul’s Outside the Walls and walked old cobblestone roads, the Scripture readings came alive. Here was the place Paul had come in chains, insisted on preaching the Gospel, spoke to the Christian community, and later died for Christ. It felt more real, more alive when in the place where so many important things happened.

When he entered Rome, Paul was allowed to live by himself, with the soldier who was guarding him.

Three days later he called together the leaders of the Jews. When they had gathered he said to them, ‘My brothers, although I had done nothing against our people or our ancestral customs, I was handed over to the Romans as a prisoner from Jerusalem. After trying my case the Romans wanted to release me, because they found nothing against me deserving the death penalty. But when the Jews objected, I was obliged to appeal to Caesar, even though I had no accusation to make against my own nation. This is the reason, then, I have requested to see you and to speak with you, for it is on account of the hope of Israel that I wear these chains.’ 

He remained for two full years in his lodgings. He received all who came to him, and with complete assurance and without hindrance he proclaimed the Kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ.

Acts 28:16-20, 30-31

In excavated catacombs, in the ruins of the Roman Forum, and in the expanse of the Colosseum, the reality of what had transpired in this ancient city rang clear. We prayed before Paul’s chains, momentarily visited the area where he was believed to have been beheaded, and stood near where Peter was crucified. Traversing beneath the current basilica, we stood before the bones of St. Peter, our first pope, and experienced the feast of Pentecost in the square just above. Everywhere we turned we were encountering concrete reminders that the apostles had visited this place.

I love several particular verses in Romans, but I couldn’t help but be struck anew that this was a letter written to the Roman people. And as a girl from the plains of South Dakota, where anything from the early 1800s feels old, I couldn’t help but be a little jealous that little Roman girls and boys get to grow up reading a letter written to them by St. Paul. How loved that letter must be! How beautiful to read: To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Then to read at the end of Romans as Paul lists numerous people to greet for him, real people who were working in the vineyard of the Lord and who knew Paul.

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Divine Revelation

Jesus loves the poor.  Today in class we read the story of Lazarus and the rich man from the Gospel of Luke.  The rich man neglected the needs of Lazarus and his punishment was hell while Lazarus was in the bosom of Abraham.  As happens fairly often, I find myself teaching my students, trying to drive home a point that I am simultaneously realizing I do not live by. 

“Jesus is saying in no uncertain terms that helping the poor is necessary.”

The interior dialogue is one that my students cannot see and one that I wish was different.

“Trish, what have you done to help the poor?”  Apart from a few isolated instances, I am loathe to say that I have done very little.  I am quick to reassure myself that I am not that rich man, I would never be so calloused.  But perhaps I am, in many ways.  I am quick to reassure myself that some are called to embrace radical poverty.  However, some are not, I remind myself.  I think of unused clothes in my closet and then I think of those who go without many clothes at all.  I think of the slight pain I feel on a day of voluntary fasting and then I remember the involuntary starvation of people around the globe. 

I’m not going to lie, at times Pope Francis makes me uncomfortable.  He is crashing into my world, he is kissing the feet of inmates, he is embracing the disabled, and it is disconcerting.  Not because I dislike the imprisoned or the disabled.  Rather it is because I find myself falling short of the Gospel message in many ways and I don’t like that truth. 

The Gospel is radical.  Some of my students are under the impression that everyone has heard the Gospel and that it isn’t something that is difficult.  Yet there must be a reason that people grew angry with Christ and persecuted Him.  They didn’t drive Him to the brow of the cliff because He told them that their lifestyle was perfectly acceptable.  He challenged them.  Today He still challenges us.  The Bible is both a book of comfort and a book of seemingly impossible challenges.  I am to be meek, humble, loving, sacrificial, trusting, repentant, merciful, poor in spirit, and so much more.  I will be hated by all for the sake of His name and will be handed over to be killed.  I will be given the words to speak at the proper moment and I will not defend myself against the accusations of others. 

We are so quick to make the Bible a good story that Christianity is based around without realizing the radical implications for our own lives.  In order to fully embrace Sacred Scripture I will need to accept the gift of transformative grace.  I will not live on bread alone but on every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.  The Gospel is challenging and if what is being preached about the Word of God is not challenging us and calling us to change, then it is not the Gospel!  If I read the Bible as it is meant to be read then I cannot be content to be complacent.  I can never say that I have done all that I need.  The message of the Gospel calls for continual conversion. 

The story of the prodigal son fit in perfectly with the recent words of Pope Francis.  I was telling my students about the beauty of the mercy of God as He is depicted in the father in the story of the prodigal son.  The father doesn’t wait for the son to even reach home but races out to meet him.  And he doesn’t wait to hear the son’s plea to simply be a servant but he gives him the best of everything out of gladness that his son is home.  “The Lord never tires of forgiving, never!  It is we who tire of asking his forgiveness.”  All of Heaven rejoices when one repentant sinner returns home.  Even as I am explaining this to my students, I am realizing in a deeper way the truth of this.  God doesn’t forgive us begrudgingly.  He doesn’t sigh when we approach the confessional, slightly irked that we have done again what we just promised we would strive to never do again.  He isn’t like me.  He doesn’t wonder how I could be so dense, how I could be so self-centered.  Rather, He races to me with open arms and rejoices in my repenting.  What a God!  He calls us to be what He created us to be and yet when we fail, He calls us to return to Him and begin again.

I do not sacrifice enough for the poor.  I do not love my students as I ought.  I seek after acceptance and affirmation more than holiness.  I fall into being judgmental when it isn’t my place.  Yet God is calling me to overcome these failings with His grace and begin again.  The Word of God is living and effective.  It is cutting to the heart of the matter and revealing the truth of who we are and who God is.  It is uncomfortable and disconcerting.  But it is compelling and captivating.  It rebukes, consoles, reassures, revitalizes, convicts, elevates, and embraces.

I hope my students are learning at least half as much as I am.

“Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.” –St. Jerome       

I’m Worn…

I’m Tired I’m worn
My heart is heavy
From the work it takes
To keep on breathing
I’ve made mistakes
I’ve let my hope fail
My soul feels crushed
By the weight of this world

And I know that you can give me rest
So I cry out with all that I have left….

My prayers are wearing thin
Yeah, I’m worn
Even before the day begins
Yeah, I’m worn
I’ve lost my will to fight
I’m worn
So, heaven come and flood my eyes

Let me see redemption win
Let me know the struggle ends
That you can mend a heart
That’s frail and torn
I wanna know a song can rise
From the ashes of a broken life
And all that’s dead inside can be reborn
Cause all that’s dead inside will be reborn
–“Worn” -Tenth Avenue North

That was how my week ended.  It found me filled with a great sense of tiredness and my inability to be perfect and teach as well as I desire.  I want perfection or at least success.  It is hard to remind myself that God is desiring my faithfulness far more than my success.  My competitive nature wants to win and even though I don’t quite know who I am in competition with, I can feel that I am not winning.  Perhaps part of my mopey feelings stemmed from remembering that I was a natural at school as a student but am not quite a natural as a teacher.  For some reason I assumed that those two went hand-in-hand.  But, alas, they do not.

I received some criticism, some fair and some unwarranted, from a student as the topping to my Friday.  Those words echoed in my mind throughout that evening and into the rest of the weekend.  We are an ungrateful society but it is difficult to find gratitude in the faces of students who don’t even want what you are offering.  So I spent the weekend wondering what God wanted, frustrated with my students and more so myself.  If I was less stubborn and bull-headed I might have considered quitting or finding a different job in the near future.  This sounds dramatic considering the conversation that took place wasn’t earth-shattering.  Primarily what topped the feeling chart was that I was tired of not adequately communicating the love I have for Jesus and the Church and wondering why I was in a position so obviously ill-suited to my temperament.  Yet the weekend continued on and all of this pondering and wondering led to much fruit.  On Sunday I watched “Beyond the Blackboard” and I began to put my situation in perspective.  The movie is about a teacher who faces seemingly insurmountable odds and yet, of course, she manages to come out ahead and be a wonderful inspiration.  I knew the ending would be triumphalistic but it was what I needed to get me back into a “I can make a difference and help people” mindset.

So I decided to pursue a course of change.  For a melancholic, this is a quite a feat in itself.  Monday I started all of my Apologetics classes with my students writing down what they like and dislike about my class.  I encourage charity and criticism with the intention of being constructive.  For the most part, my students were very good.  While my ego was wounded a bit in the reading of them, I found much that encouraged me.  Some students were encouraging since I was a first year teacher and others told me to not take it too personally because religion isn’t well-liked by many people.  It also reconfirmed the realization that no matter what I do, I will never please all of them at the same time.  The weekend gave me time to build things up and feel as though everybody hated me and my class.  Some of the students claimed to have no complaints, others had some reasonable complaints, and others took the opportunity for what it was worth and, hiding behind the anonymity of it, let me have their unadulterated criticism.  I shared with my mother that I was beginning to partially understand how God could be frustrated with us–I have only 115 or so students that I am trying to please while God has 7 billion.  No matter what I due, someone will be displeased.  God does things far better than I and still people are continually unsatisfied with what He is offering.  Too often I am among that number.   

I wonder at times if the Lord has placed me here not because of anything I can teach my students but rather because of something that He desires to do in my own heart.  Perhaps in some way teaching can convert my heart like nothing else could.  Sometimes my stubborn heart is my downfall and at other times it is that which keeps me from giving up and surrendering the battle. 

Lord, I am still in this battle until You take me home.  But I renewed my desire again today that it be Your classroom and not mine.  You are a much better teacher.