St. John Vianney tried to leave Ars. Not just one time, either, but multiple times. He wanted to leave Ars for the peace and solitude of a monastic life. And while I lack the great holiness and fervor found in the Cure d’Ars, I definitely identify with his desires to leave the world behind and live quietly removed from the chaos.
My spiritual director reminded me that St. John Vianney tried to leave Ars as we meandered down the sidewalk.
“So this high school is my Ars, huh?”
“Yes,” he replied, “there are a few similarities there it seems.”
“He died there, didn’t he?” I said, in an attempt at wry melodrama.
He paused for a moment as my imagination latched onto the idea of decades spent at this one high school, right up until the moment of my death. (I’m a melancholic–we consider death often.)
“You might not physically die at school, but, yes, I think you will die there.”
Last fall, I saw the Church show up in a downtown bar to listen to a talk and grow in community. Last month, I saw the Church show up in an expected place (a church building) but in an unexpected way.
The Knights of Columbus organized a pilgrimage with the heart relic of St. John Vianney. I attended a crowded noon Mass and then waited to venerate the relic. Ever the romantic, I was waiting for the church to clear out and for the chance to approach the relic with ample time to pray. I imagined the crowds would soon dissipate and people would return to work.
That did not happen.
As time passed, the crowds did disperse, but people kept trickling in, causing the line to remain stretched down most of the center aisle. People came after work or on a break or once they picked their kids up from school. For nearly the entire afternoon, the line stretched down the aisle and about three-quarters of the way toward the back of the church.
The few hundred people who showed up at noon Mass surprised me, but the consistent flow of people throughout the afternoon surprised me more. It was a striking response to the distressing news that keeps being unearthed in diocese after diocese around the nation and world. The day before, our bishop released a letter listing priests who have abused minors in our diocese. Hours later, the Church showed up as hundreds of lay faithful and priests were falling on their knees before the incorrupt heart of a priest.
Our prayers were urgent and heartfelt. We need priests who have priestly hearts, mirrored after the heart of St. John Vianney but even more so after the High Priest Jesus Christ. Scandal within the Church simply highlights even more the great need that we have for holiness in the Body of Christ. Acknowledging the fragility of humanity, we interceded for the men whose consecrated hands confect the Eucharist, whose words extend absolution, and whose presence is sought from birth until death–and some of the most significant moments in between.
Last week, fifteen years ago, my sister entered a Carmelite cloister.
At the beginning of the school day, I sat for a couple minutes, looking at my calendar announcing March 19th and remembering what had transpired other years on the Solemnity of St. Joseph. Fifteen years ago, we embraced, believing it might be the final time here on earth. Five years ago, we embraced as she moved north to establish a new monastery. And every year in between, I have recalled with tenderly fond pain the life we have been called to enter into as the family of religious.
I spoke about my sister’s vocation with my sophomores at great length this year. While I didn’t intend to spend so much time on it, they asked question after question and I found myself desiring to share this story with them. They were particularly struck by the great physical sacrifice that is found in the life of a cloistered nun. While I have been able to embrace my sister since her entrance, each time is a gift and never expected or something I can claim as my due. I explained that it is because my sister loves us that it is a sacrifice for her to not embrace us or be present for some of the big moments of life.
“But you didn’t choose that life. Why do you have to make that sacrifice when God didn’t call you to be a cloistered sister?”
Perhaps without knowing it, they stumbled upon the question that must be answered for each family member of a religious brother or sister. Why must I make this sacrifice when I’m not the one with the call?
While personal difficulties can be genuine, regardless of their large-scale importance, sometimes it is helpful to put them in perspective. The Lord cares about what I care about and so I try to be careful to not dismiss hurt feelings, stress, or joy simply because it isn’t life altering. Yet when I do feel overwhelmed or a bit shaken, it can help to focus on the aspects for which I can be grateful.
There are two recent examples that come to mind. The first is my living situation. Currently, I am in the process of moving into a new house, but I am not quite moved in yet. Over the past couple weeks, I have stayed mostly at my parents’ house in the country and sometimes with friends who live in town. It isn’t that difficult of a life, but the slight upheaval of transitional homes adds a bit of extra stress to the day-to-day life.
Yet when I was sharing this stress with a few different people over the last couple of days, I was struck by the fact that I am not homeless. In fact, it is the opposite. I have an abundance of homes–there is the home I am working to move into, my parents’ home where I have my own bedroom when I stay there, and friends who generously offer a room to me when needed. The added stress I feel is real, but the things I can be grateful for far surpass the inconvenience.
This past week, one of my classes watched a movie about the life of Mother Teresa. At one point, right after Mother Teresa had left the Loreto convent, she was shown clearing out her room at a host family’s house. The owner told her they had a lot of spare furniture she was welcomed to use during her time with them. She responded by saying that she needed simplicity so that nothing would distract her from her work with the poor.
I don’t know if that scene happened exactly like that in real life, but her words struck me. Even if she didn’t say that, her life showed that she lived that reality. Perhaps even more impressive, though, was the idea that simplicity gives freedom. It wasn’t a new concept to me, but it was a new concept when I considered it in light of the saint of the slums. Mother Teresa needed poverty in order to be committed to caring for the poor. That may not seem profound to you, but hearing those words evoked a question within me: what makes me think I have more discipline than Mother Teresa?
Her God-given mission was to help the poor. Knowing her own humanity, she knew she had to give up creature comforts in order to remain focused on her mission. Her life of poverty provided the freedom to be generous and sacrificial with her life and time. Material items distract. Compelled by the love and thirst of God, Mother Teresa knew she could not afford to be distracted by lesser things. She created space in her life that could be filled by the presence of God. Fewer possessions crowding her heart yielded greater room to the concerns of the Lord.
In a month-by-month planner from over a year ago, I found the following quote scrawled in the open boxes at the bottom of a page.
The future will be what we make it; let us reflect on this thought so that it may motivate us to act. Especially, let us realize that all collective reform must first be individual reform. Let us work at transforming ourselves and our lives. Let us influence those around us, not by useless preaching, but by the irresistible power of our spirituality and the example of our lives.
Elisabeth Leseur: Selected Writings, pg. 135
Re-finding this quote was a great gift in that moment. I was looking through stacks of papers, discarding what I didn’t need so that I wouldn’t move unnecessary papers to a new home. The old planner brought back some nostalgia as I saw different meetings I had, random notes I had made, and, most importantly, saint quotes I had added to the large monthly planner to motivate me onward.
Servant of God Elisabeth Leseur spoke of personal reform and how only by growing individually can we hope to influence the world. She knew what she was talking about. Through her gentle, persistent witness (and an inspiring journal), her husband was transformed from an atheist to being ordained a priest after her death. It wasn’t because of her intellectual arguments, but rather her living testimony that brought a change into her husband’s heart.
What I have been led to consider frequently is this question: how would it impact my students if I embraced my faith with the radical zeal of a saint? (Replace “students” with “children” or “husband/wife” or “friends” or “siblings” or “co-workers” or whatever makes sense in your life.) Too often I think I can fake it or that my lack of discipline or fervor will go unnoticed by others. Perhaps it sometimes does. Maybe I do fake it and others are unaware. But the most important changes and transformations might be untraceable to me yet rely on my own personal holiness. Continue reading ““All collective reform must first be individual reform””→
Three things I’m thankful for today:
-The song “Kings and Queens” by Mat Kearney–especially the line “Richer than Solomon with you by my side” as he expertly blends Scripture into his songs
-Weekend food leftovers to power me through the start of another week
-Books: owning them, reading them, and anticipating their arrival
There is something about gratitude that shifts the perspective. A few years ago, I was in the practice of writing down things for which I was thankful. They were often small, inconsequential things. Yet, even now, when I look back at those pages in my notebook, I smile at the glimpse into my heart and life during that time.
A random sampling from my gratitude journal: 3. Principal observation on a movie day
5. Peace after expressing frustration
29. Gusts of wind that make crunchy leaves trip down the road
37. The post-run feeling of health (following the post-run feeling of death)
59. Stretching out in bed at night
69. Eyes crinkled in laughter
80. Heavy hearts sharing the burden through conversation
133. Answered novenas in unhoped for ways
172. Solo supper with Grandma
176. My students telling me which gifts of the Holy Spirit they think I live out
241. Laughter with students instead of going insane
Some of the events I remember. For others, I’m not quite certain to what I was referring, but there is a beauty in seeing what moved my heart to express gratitude. Thankfulness is one of those things that doesn’t quite make sense if there is no God. Who else can I thank for the peace I feel after settling an argument? Or for the wind that causes leaves to swirl around on the ground? These would be mere observations or fleeting thoughts unless they could be expressed to someone responsible for them.Continue reading “Gratitude on a January Day”→
When I was little, I remember looking at the Minesweeper game on my family’s computer but having no idea how to play it. (Kind of similar to the Risk computer game…except I’ve never taken the time to figure Risk out.) I would click random boxes and then numbers would appear until, eventually, everything would explode. Not knowing the purpose or goal of the game meant success was unlikely to happen.
However, even now that I know the game, I still find it slightly frustrating that there is no perfect way to start it. Usually you don’t end up selecting a mine right away but sometimes you do. And there is no foolproof way to avoid it. You simply need to begin in a random place.
Sometimes I feel that way with life. Transformations that I desire to happen or significant projects I would like to complete often baffle me by providing no clear entry point. Where does one begin? What is the correct way to start?
For years, I’ve wanted to write a book. When I was younger, it was simply the broad idea of desiring to write a book. Now I know the topic, the title, and the general idea, but I still lack the plan I believe I need to be successful in the endeavor. I want some clear outline or step-by-step process that will enable me to have a fail proof starting point. However, the perfect beginning eludes me. Continue reading “To Begin”→
I love when I am able to find secular examples that point to spiritual realities. When shown explicitly religious media, my students often give what they think are the correct answers based on their years of Catholic education. Yet when it is something that seems a bit unrelated to the class, they tend to have a greater openness and willingness to interact with the material.
On the second class day of the new spring semester, I showed them a TEDx talk called “500 Miles, Two Best Friends, and One Wheelchair.” (Feel free to take a minute…or 19…to go and watch this video.) The image of strangers taking the time and effort to carry a man in a wheelchair up a mountain seemed to obviously gesture toward the Church on earth and the Church in Heaven.
“Through the power of community, I climbed mountains.”
At one point near the end, Justin says. “Through the power of community, I climbed mountains” and it resonated so much that I had to write it down. So many conversations lately have pivoted around the need and desire for community and authentic friendship. While some say community cannot be built, I disagree. I believe community must be built. While we cannot choose to magically connect with people, we must be intentional in how we use our time in order for community to be successful.
This community that Justin and Patrick found was possible because others were willing to be intentional with their time and energy. The pilgrim duo they met in the cathedral in Burgos were willing to wait for them before climbing the mountain leading into O’Cebreiro. Then other people heard the story and decided to wait, too, without ever meeting Justin or Patrick. Community requires intentionality and it reminds us that in this pilgrimage of life we cannot walk alone.
A priest friend of mine often said, “You can be damned alone or saved with others.” I think he was quoting someone but I was never certain of the source. The idea is that Hell is isolation, but Heaven is necessarily communion. Communion with God and with others. The reality of this can be revealed in the many “saint pairs” that have arisen over history. St. Francis and St. Clare. St. Benedict and St. Scholastica. St. Louis and St. Zelie. St. Francis Xavier and St. Ignatius of Loyola. The list could go on and on. St. Teresa of Calcutta and St. John Paul II? Saints live a foretaste of the heavenly communion through their authentic friendships with one another. They “carry” each other up the mountain, using friendship to encourage the other to enter into deeper relationship with the Lord. Continue reading “I Climbed Mountains”→
Whether it is because they are adorable or because we can chalk it up to their innocence, they are able to do things that are unthinkable to adults. The small child that escapes the proper place in the church pew and scampers toward the front of the church is often met with smiles, even if the bishop is offering Mass. A few weeks ago, a child at an audience with Pope Francis ran to the front and when the Swiss Guards tried to block him, the pope welcomed him forward.
They also seem to have the freedom to just ask for things. My nephew once saw some money sitting on my parents’ counter and, after clarifying that it was indeed money, asked if he could have $40. Children are quick to ask for food (even if it is the food you are eating), a drink from your water bottle, and anything else that might be slightly weird for an adult to request.
Yet there is such freedom in their general disposition. A freedom that is nearly enviable when one considers how they present their needs and desires to those capable of actualizing them. It made me consider how freeing it would be to approach God the Father in that way. What would it be like to truly be His child, with all of the fidelity and trust found in the hearts of the little ones? Continue reading “Childlike Trust”→