Only to bring him to life

Only to bring him to life

I am going to hold a pistol to the head of the Modern Man. But I shall not use it to kill him–only to bring him to life.

Innocent Smith in Manalive, GK Chesterton

The priest at Mass the other day posed the question: if it was possible to know, would you want to know when you would die?

As a melancholic, death is never too far from my mind and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. While I don’t have strong feelings about the question one way or the other, I was thinking of some of the benefits of knowing when I would die, even if there is wisdom in not knowing. Sometimes, when death is clearly imminent, it compels us to truly embrace living. When our time is definitively short, we can move from passive existence to passionately experiencing life.

Is that type of wholehearted living reserved only for those who know death is at their door? Could I do that now? If people are able to live more when death comes close, could we just do now what we would do if we knew?

It made me consider how I would change my life if I knew the times of other events. Besides death, there are many other things that seem to be unknown yet shape how I live. For example, if I knew within the next year I would meet someone I would marry, would it change how I live? I believed that I would. What if it was five years, would that change how I live now? Yes, it would. What if I knew I would never get married? Again, yes.

And then I asked myself an important question: why?

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Noli Me Tangere

Noli Me Tangere

Part of the way through the Easter Vigil Mass I realized something I had subconsciously believed even as I intellectually knew it wasn’t true. I realized that COVID-19 wasn’t confined to Lent. The absence of public Masses wasn’t just a wild Lenten penance. It was a reality that was going to endure for who-knows-how-long. In the midst of a time of penance and sacrifice, it was somewhat understandable to accept and embrace this unasked for restriction. Yet in the time of Easter joy, how did one continue to embrace this cross, even while gesturing toward the empty tomb?

Intellectually, I was fully aware that this was an enduring thing. Yet after passing into the Easter season, I have been pondering this odd cross-section of joy and sacrifice. Of course, it is possible to be joyful in the midst of sacrifice. Love, nearly by definition, involves sacrificing ourselves for the good of the beloved. Yet long, protracted sacrifice in the middle of a liturgical season set aside for rejoicing, feasting, and innumerable alleluias being uttered? How does one do that?

I don’t exactly know, but I am trying.

It helps that I try to often remind my students that we are in the Easter season and should do something special to celebrate this time. At times, I find myself recording videos for them and thinking I need to do this, too.

It has surprised me how I can sometimes enter into prayer when I am praying “remotely.” Like when Pope Francis had some time of adoration during the Urbi et Orbi blessing a few weeks ago. Sitting on my couch in front of my computer and adoring Jesus in Rome seemed kind of silly. Yet as I prayed alone yet communally, I found that I was able to enter into prayer. It wasn’t a perfect scenario, but it worked in that moment. This was a moment of joy, to find myself with Jesus even as I was separated from His Eucharistic presence.

So here we are, fully into the Easter season, steadily working our way through the Easter Octave, filled with joy and yet still experiencing sacrifice. But I guess that makes it a bit like that first Easter Sunday when St. Mary Magdalene encountered Christ at the tomb. In her desire to keep him near, we see Jesus saying to not hold onto Him. Wasn’t this miraculous triumph over death the fullness of joy?

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A Thousand Deaths

A Thousand Deaths

When Jesus was confronted with untrue accusations, do you remember what He did? As the Sanhedrin gathered false testimony, as Pilate presented questions given by the chief priests, as Jesus struggled beneath the weight of the cross and the jeers of the people, as Jesus was maligned while on the cross, do you remember what He chose?

Silence.

How hard it is to not rush to our own defense! When situations are misrepresented, when intentions are skewed, when honest questions are left unanswered, it is a tremendous act of the will to not attempt to set all things right. Sometimes, it is necessary to provide clarity and correctness and other times it is completely unnecessary. And sometimes it is necessary to try to show the misunderstandings, but to ultimately fail in convincing them of their skewed view.

We always feel the pains of injustice acutely when it offends our own sense of justice. I look at the lives of the saints and martyrs and I tend to think about how glorious and courageous were their deaths. Yet each of those martyrdoms was preceded by many, many small bloodless deaths. St. Paul didn’t only suffer beheading in Rome. Before that, he was imprisoned, he experienced riot after riot when preaching the Gospel, he was looked upon with distrust by the Jews and the Christians after his striking conversion, and he spent much time in chains for the sake of the Gospel. His final suffering, the death of a martyr, was simply the last death he experienced in a long line of dying to self.

Most of our stories won’t be quite that dramatic. We probably won’t sit unjustly condemned in terrible prisons awaiting our cruel deaths. We will, however, suffer in other ways. And it will be in ways that will be easy to want to reject or feel the need to correct. As Jesus heard false testimony, I am certain He had at least part of a desire to simply say, “I didn’t say that. That isn’t right. You weren’t there. You are intentionally misrepresenting me.” Instead, He suffered in silence with the Lord. He knew that the truth would be revealed and He rested with the Lord in the midst of being misunderstood. He invites us to do the same, in the small and the large sufferings of our daily life.

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A Sacrifice of the Will

A Sacrifice of the Will

I purchased it several years ago, but this Lent I decided to start reading Hinds’ Feet On High Places by Hannah Hurnard. While I don’t want to give too much away for those who may be interested in reading it, I do want to focus on one point that has struck me repeatedly throughout the book.

Several times, Much-Afraid, the character followed in the story, is called to sacrifice her will for the Shepherd’s will. This story is an allegory of the Christian life, but the repeated need to make altars upon which to lay one’s own will, is rather striking. Each time, she assembles an altar from whatever materials lie close at hand and then she places her own will on the altar. A fire alights from somewhere and consumes the sacrifice, making a burnt offering of her very will.

There Much-Afraid built her first altar on the mountains, a little pile of broken rocks, and then, with the Shepherd standing close beside her, she laid down on the altar her trembling, rebelling will. A little spurt of flame came from somewhere, and in an instant nothing but a heap of ashes was laying on the altar.

Hinds’ Feet on High Places, pp. 71-72

In the midst of reading this book, the coronavirus has swept the nation and world. It felt very real when my bishop suspended all Masses. Suddenly, I was in a similar position to the people I ministered in Honduras, who go without Mass for undetermined periods of time. It was something I never considered happening here. During the season of Lent, I suddenly felt like a tremendous sacrifice was being asked of me. Yet the end probably won’t come at Easter, with the beautiful Triduum marking the end of the wandering in the desert. Who knows how long we will be left to wander in this sacramental desert.

The Lord asked us to place our wills upon the altar and to accept them being made into a burnt offering, a living sacrifice for the Lord. Arguments about what ought to be done aside, I am confident the Lord can use this time to shape us, to pull us out of the normal and help us see the miraculous in what we mistook for ordinary.

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Vanity of Vanities

Vanity of Vanities

I don’t generally consider myself to be vain. Perhaps I have a sort of intellectual vanity, but physical vanity doesn’t usually seem to be my downfall. There was an article I read that said my personal hell would be that every time I open my mouth to say something intelligent, something completely idiotic would come out instead. Based on how strongly I felt that, I assume I must have a rather decently sized strain of vanity when it comes to if people think I am smart or stupid.

A few weeks ago, I asked some of my family if they would rather have people think they were smart or beautiful. For me, the answer was pretty clear—I don’t care too much about beauty, but I care a great deal about intellect. So it seems I would be rather virtuous when it comes to physical vanity.

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There Is Always Hope

There Is Always Hope

I don’t recall exactly what it was about. During parent teacher conferences, I spoke with a parent and it was either about the grade, the student’s faith, or something, but whatever it was, the parent ended with, “So there’s hope?” And I, filled with a conviction that stretched beyond the moment, replied, “Yes. There is always hope.”

I felt the weight of that truth in the moment after the parent left.

Always. Hope endures despite all difficulties.

For someone who often skews toward pessimism, it is helpful to remember that hope persists, even when it seems illogical. I mean, we worship a God who rose from the dead after three days. He chose the most unlikely people to pass on the faith, who continually misunderstood Jesus and ran away when scared. Yet this Church still lasts. In spite of corrupt popes, Church scandals, intense persecutions, harsh dictatorships, and every other difficulty, we see that life can still burst forth from death just as the frozen ground will one day again yield to the gentle strength of new flowers.

The other day in class, I found myself saying, “Death isn’t the worst thing.” For me, it was obvious that this was true. I spent much of my first year of teaching hoping for death. Not in a morbid or depressed way. Rather, I was thoroughly convinced of the glory of the Beatific Vision and I was also thoroughly convinced that I wasn’t yet experiencing it in a room filled with angsty, complaint-filled teens.

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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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The Beloved One

The Beloved One

Is John the most arrogant of all the disciples?

Throughout the Gospel of John, essentially whenever John refers to himself, he doesn’t use his name. Instead, he says “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” At first glance, it might seem like pure arrogance, pride over the fact that John was one of the “inner three” Jesus drew particularly close to Himself.

Or it might be something else entirely.

When I discuss this title with my students, they are a bit surprised that John refers to himself as the beloved disciple. But then I try to draw their attention to the other claims John could have made.

John, the only disciple at the foot of the cross.
John, the one who leaned his head near the heart of Jesus and sat next to Him at the Last Supper.
John, the disciple who arrived first to the tomb after the Resurrection (because he ran faster than Peter).
John, the youngest of the disciples.
John, the one to whom Jesus entrusted His mother.

What do we see instead? John, the one whom Jesus loved.

There are several unique roles that John played, but when writing the account of Jesus, he chooses to simply be known by the fact that Jesus loved him. More than everything else, the love of Jesus is the most precious to John. He is the beloved disciple.

Contrary to what we might think initially, his belovedness is not in conflict with anyone else’s belovedness. It isn’t John, the one Jesus loved more than all others or to the exclusion of all others. It is simply: John, beloved by Jesus.

It is a title we could all claim.

Is that what I see first, though: my belovedness?

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Learning the Way of the Cross

Learning the Way of the Cross

Lord, what are you saying to me in this situation?

I was in the chapel with a class of students as we prayed the Stations of the Cross. Only a few were actually praying the words out loud. Others were loudly flipping their papers every time they needed to turn a page. Some acted like genuflecting was a gargantuan task when I know they will go work out at the gym after school. Others were barely alert, kneeling and standing only because the people around them were doing it.

Frustrated and a bit angry, I wondered what I should do about it. It wouldn’t go well to stop them all to tell them to pray louder or ask for more of them to pray. Telling them to not act like kneeling was difficult would only draw attention to it if they continued to carry on in that manner. So I tried to forget about their indifference and enter into the Stations myself.

Interestingly, the words of my spiritual director kept coming to mind. He mentioned that teaching and following the Lord might look like the Stations of the Cross. My life might have to resemble that suffering if I was to do the Lord’s will. And here I was: actually praying the Stations and feeling so done with the antics of teenagers.

Lord, what can I see in this?

As I watched them mechanically perform the proper actions, I thought about how they don’t care. Ah, Lord, sometimes I don’t care, too. I imagined myself on the couch watching a movie and the Lord inviting me to pray yet not caring enough to do so. I pondered the Lord asking me to love my neighbor yet realizing that I do not do that very well at all. The very thing I was lamenting in my students was rooted deeply within my soul, too.

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My Ars

My Ars

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.”

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