Every time I go to the ocean or sea I think of where I grew up. Mountains in their majestic reaching for the heavens are beautiful. Forests brimming with greenery and a thick growth of trees are lovely. Sprawling canyons surrounded by arid, desert bloom have a foreign intrigue. But water, rolling and churning as far as the eye can see, makes me think of home.
Some consider that odd since I grew up on the prairie. But I find it necessary every now and then to get somewhere I am able to breathe. When I stand by the water and am able to look until the earth curves, I feel a sense of freedom, a deep breath builds interiorly that needs to be exhaled as all that confines falls away. And though the ocean and sea embody an exotic newness that I’ve never fully explored, they also contain within them a sense of home.
The other day I was driving and spent a long time marveling at how the tall prairie grasses rolled so wave-like under the ever-present prairie wind. The pliant bending of the grasses followed by their rebounding over and over again was simple yet lovely. It made me want to tell my neighbors that the reason I mow so infrequently is because I love our prairie heritage and would love to see the oceanic movements in my own backyard. Instead, I drove on as I gratefully took in the ebb and flow of the grass, resilient and fierce despite the slender bowing.
This need to breathe and to have the space to do so is one of the reasons I couldn’t last long in a big city. As it is, the city I live in causes me to feel slightly suffocated, something I don’t realize until I’m driving into the country and feel myself unconsciously breathing deeper and freer. I thrive on the flat prairie, a gaze that goes on and on with a vastness that yearns to be appreciated.
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.
As a way to prepare for walking the Camino de Santiago, I bought a few guidebooks and researched suggestions online. The book that had sparked the desire to complete this pilgrimage was Fr. Dave Pivonka’s Hiking the Camino: 500 Miles With Jesus. Prior to reading this book, I had only a vague interest in the pilgrimage, partly spurred on by a fellow teacher who wanted to make the trek. I read about Fr. Dave’s journey and I was intrigued.
Casually, with little intention of it actually happening, I made the next logical investment: guidebooks. Then, I chatted with my younger sister, pondering if this could really, truly happen. Finally, we booked plane tickets, bought necessary gear, and prepped for a pilgrimage that was largely unknown to us.
Along the Camino, several of the American pilgrims asked if we were on the Camino Facebook page. It wasn’t something I had looked for or uncovered in my searching, but when I returned home, I joined the group. Since then, I’ve read numerous suggestions people have for others about to make this pilgrimage, appreciated pictures from people currently on pilgrimage, and read the questions first-time walkers have for the more experienced.
One thing that has always struck me is how particular some people are about the weight of their pack. It is, understandably, one of the most significant things to consider, but it wasn’t something I spent a great deal of time analyzing. In retrospect, I should have taken less.
At two separate points of the trip, we mailed things either home or ahead to a later stop. Church clothes that we hoped to wear were shipped ahead when we realized Sunday would be a walking day and Mass would be attended in our everyday Camino clothes. Pajamas were mailed as we just slept in the clothes we would wear the following day. The pack I already thought was small was pared down twice. When I finished the Camino, I resolved that if I ever did it again, I would be far more particular about what I brought along.
St. Peter says to “be ready to give a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15) but sometimes it seems the hope can get lost in a parade of rules. I asked my students what is the cause of our hope and after throwing out several answers, someone finally said the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus was the source of our hope.
“Do you feel like the Good News is good?”
They paused for a moment, almost seeming to sense there was a trick question they needed to skirt.
“Yes,” one student said.
This simple question seemed difficult for them. Someone replied, “Because it seemed like the right answer.” In fact, when I asked a later question (“Why does the Good News not seem good?”) they were able to respond with more answers.
When I go into the prison, so many of the men that come to the Catholic bible study or Mass are able to clearly point to their lives and say, “When I do my own will, I am not free.” It is a profound gift that the men in prison have that I think so many outside prison lack. The doctor, the teacher, the student, the politician, the bus driver, the plumber, the painter, the whatever can look like they have it together because they have some worldly success and their struggles might not be so apparent. The reality, however, is that we are all in great need of being saved. This crashes into the truth that the Good News is profoundly good, but it does require an acknowledgement that I cannot do it on my own.
A few years ago, I had a student who, while not Catholic, was taking a theology class. She expressed to the class a desire to become Catholic, once her parents permitted her to do so. Her peers, as a whole, were shocked.
“Why would you ever choose to become Catholic?!” they asked in disbelief.
These students were thinking of the rules of the Church, I am certain. They were mulling over how we need to make sacrifices (particularly at Lent), how we have to go to Mass on Sunday, how we have to confess our sins to a priest, and the list goes on.
They were thinking of rules; I think she was thinking of life.
If we haven’t encountered Christ or if we have forgotten the encounter(s), we are quick to view life as a series of following God’s commands. It is simply something we ought to do because it is asked of us. Yet the commands the Lord gives are meant to give life. They aren’t hoops to jump through but are instead a path to an abundant, rich life.
Just the other day, a man in prison was talking about how his perception of a family member has completely changed. Before, this man considered the relative a “Jesus freak” and found it hard to swallow when seeing the person post Scripture passages or encourage him to go to church. Now? I’m not quite certain what happened in between, but the man ended up in prison and that changed his perspective by giving him time to really see how his life was going. He said now this relative is the only one he wants to spend time with when he gets out of prison. Instead of annoying, he sees this person’s life as something he wants for himself. This person’s joy, relationships, and success–all of it showed him that life in the Lord can change you. What is more: he desired the change that he witnessed in another.
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 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?
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.
The culture seems to indicate that I should feel a bit like an oppressed victim. Partly because I am a woman and even more so because I am a young, Catholic woman. The “male-dominated hierarchy” that imposes a radical ban on my sex from becoming a cleric is meant to be railed against. And yet I do not imagine myself to be oppressed or a victim. Instead, I feel genuinely free.
Recently, I started reading Breaking Through: Catholic Women Speak for Themselves and I’ve found it to be quite enjoyable. The stories are from women who embrace the fullness of the teachings the Church has to offer, finding within the precepts a path to freedom and joy. In the news and social media, many take it on themselves to speak for Catholic women and how we must feel. Breaking Through makes the bold claim that Catholic women do not need anyone to speak for them; rather, Catholic women have the ability and intellect to speak for themselves. Instead of writing us off for actually embracing the Church’s teachings, others are encouraged to listen to the personal experiences women have had as they have grappled with and eventually embraced the wisdom of the Church. Continue reading “A Law of Freedom, Not Oppression”→
In my foolishness, sometimes I am more inspired by trends than by the Gospel.
Minimalism is a trend that has been around for a few years. Whether it involves paring your wardrobe down to a few essential items or selling everything to live in a van, the belief that less is more appears to be appealing to people today. The reality that minimalism is a trend in a world overrun by material possessions seems to indicate that the Gospel applies to the human person, not simply to the Christian.
There are books that speak about keeping only your cherished items, blog posts galore about capsule wardrobes, and podcasts about how to fully embrace a lifestyle of few possessions. People speak of how there is freedom that is found in ridding themselves of excess and instead focusing on what is needed.
Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. (Matthew 6:19-21)
This passage from Matthew’s Gospel was read at Mass last Friday for the martyrdom of St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher. After watching a short video clip where a young woman experimented with minimalism, I was struck by how many things in our culture are simply the Gospel repackaged and devoid of Christ. I don’t believe these trends are a bad thing, but I find it interesting that lifestyles that would ordinarily be considered burdensome gain traction when shown to be an alternative lifestyle.
Another example is fasting or intermittent fasting. Research done by some scientists indicates that fasting can actually be good for your health. The different studies and programs encourage people to fast for several hours and increase up to full day fasting. Interestingly, fasting can now be considered a healthy, trendy choice. In the Church, fast days are often viewed by the faithful as begrudging days of denial. For me, mandatory days of fasting are strangely always more difficult than voluntary (or accidental) days of fasting.
Finally, abstaining from meat is also being proposed as something to do for the sake of your health. Secular advertising suggests that we should embrace “meatless Mondays” so as to help the environment and our bodies. Some think the Church is irrational for asking adherents to abstain from meat on Fridays, definitely during Lent but encouraged year round. My students can’t imagine what it would be like to never eat meat on Friday and many profess to forget several times during Lent. Something seen merely as a duty can be viewed as burdensome, but when it is undertaken for personal health it is manageable. Continue reading “Minimalism, Fasting, and Meatless Mondays: The Secular World’s Abbreviated Gospel”→