Amazing Grace: A Weekend in Prison

Amazing Grace: A Weekend in Prison

Humans are surprising creatures.

They have the unique capacity for acts of tremendous, selfless good. Yet they also carry within themselves the capacity for unspeakable acts of horror. Perhaps even more significant, though, is the capacity humans have for change and transformation.

I spent this past weekend helping with a retreat at a men’s prison.

Several times, I was asked by the inmates and the volunteers if it was what I expected. The truth was I didn’t quite know what to expect from the weekend. I was a bit nervous to enter in. Not nervous for the gate to slam behind me or to be locked into the prison. Not nervous that a riot would start. Not nervous that I would be injured or harmed. Rather, I was uneasy about how I would be received. What would we talk about? What would the men be like? Would they make me uncomfortable or would they be kind?

In the reality, humanity inside the prison is very much like humanity outside the prison. Some of the men were very kind and genuine. Others seemed to want an unhealthy amount of attention. Some wanted to share their hearts. Others wanted to stay only on the surface. Some admitted they made mistakes. Others insisted everything was fine or that they weren’t treated fairly. Some respected authority. Others used each opportunity they had to poke at the officers responsible for them. They reminded me an awful lot of my students and the world around me. Which isn’t all that surprising, but it was different to experience it instead of just think about it.

There was a unique point in the retreat when the group reflected on how God uses all for His good. In our small group, my sister mentioned that God uses everything and that even though they were in prison for something wrong they had done, they were still encountering Him on a retreat. Maybe this time in prison was a good, because God can use all for good. And it was beautiful to see at least some of them agree. They talked about how it was likely that they could have been dead if they weren’t in prison. If they continued on their previous course, it was easy for them to see how it would have led to their demise.

Continue reading “Amazing Grace: A Weekend in Prison”

“All collective reform must first be individual reform”

“All collective reform must first be individual reform”

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””

To Begin

To Begin

You’ve got to start somewhere.

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”

Childlike Trust

Childlike Trust

Kids can get away with so much.

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”

I Need Easter Because I Failed at Lent

I Need Easter Because I Failed at Lent

Lent seemed to be forty days of falling on my face.

As Easter approached, I found myself holding back, wishing the days would reverse and I would have the gift of more Lent.  I was annoyed with myself because I knew better.  The Lents that are the most intense and where I am the most faithful yield the best Easters.  After forty days of extra prayer and penance, I burst with joy into an Easter that truly finds me resurrected and renewed.

This time, I wanted an extra long Lent.  I wanted more time to make up for the ways I failed day after day.  I wanted more time to get it right.

I walked into Holy Week and then into the Triduum with a bittersweet feeling.  After such a pitiful Lent, it didn’t seem as though I deserved to rejoice in the Resurrection.  At some point between Holy Thursday and the Easter Vigil I became convinced of one thing: I am in incredible need of a Savior.

On Ash Wednesday, I had great hopes of competing well and running this sacrificial race for Our Lord.  I wanted to do great things and to show how much I love the Lord.  When I arrived at the altar of repose on Holy Thursday evening, I had to acknowledge that the Lord was the only one professing the depths of His faithful love.  I desire to be a follower of Jesus and yet I quickly become like the disciples in that night of testing.  I run away, I hide, and I wonder what Jesus will do with someone so small and pitiful. Continue reading “I Need Easter Because I Failed at Lent”

What That Homeless Man Needs Is What I Need

What That Homeless Man Needs Is What I Need

The first homeless man I truly met was Tony.

It was cold and we were all bundled up, but I made a concentrated effort to not mention the coldness.  I had only been outside for a few moments and this man had no home to seek refuge in against the frigid weather.  My perspective of the cold was altered in the presence of a man who stood before me after successive days on the streets.

Tony was tall and kind.  In situations where he easily could have been bitter, he chose to not be.  I was with a group of pro-life university students and he never once made me feel privileged or self-indulged.  One Saturday, a student bought Tony a coffee and I watched him graciously accept it, even as his cold hands shakily caused the coffee to spill on his fingers.  My face was etched with the concern and sadness I felt as I watched the scene unfold, but Tony sought to comfort me in this situation.  He told me to not be sad because even in his difficult situation he was still happy.  That momentary exchange made such a significant impression on me.

In a couple of hours, I would return to my dorm room after a filling breakfast and Tony didn’t attempt to guilt me for the luxuries I had in life.  Rather, he came to the cold streets of Pittsburgh to spend time with us.  He accepted money or coffees when offered, but he said he didn’t like to look homeless.  We wouldn’t see him pushing a cart around or laden down with luggage.  Dressed in the warm clothes appropriate for the cold, he didn’t want to accept extra things that he would have to carry with him during the day.

Tony was the first human face I saw of homeless in a personal way.  I heard him talk about how fearful he had been early one morning when the intense cold made it difficult for him to get out of the chair in an abandoned house that he had accidentally fallen asleep in.  The reality of not being able to move for a couple of hours shook him as he faced the reality that he might die alone in the cold someday.  Yet he was also very happy and enjoyed being around a bunch of young college students.  He wasn’t near us because we always gave him things or because we were popular in the area.  Tony enjoyed being with us and some of the students became his friends. Continue reading “What That Homeless Man Needs Is What I Need”

Ever Ancient, Ever New: The Gift of the Liturgical Year

Ever Ancient, Ever New: The Gift of the Liturgical Year

On a plane ride a few weeks ago, I found myself seated next to the founder of a Protestant church. He laughed because he was sandwiched between two Catholics, a married man who had been in Catholic seminary for a little while on his right and me, a Catholic high school Theology teacher, on his left. The conversation was pleasant, but the pastor shared one thing that seemed rather significant to me. Although he founded and now pastors an extremely contemporary church, he said his personal prayer is quite liturgical. This point fascinated me because it spoke of the true desire for liturgy is woven into the fabric of our beings.

As humans, we are bound to worship, whether our focal point is God or something else varies for the individual.  Perhaps overly simplified, the liturgy is our communal worship, the traditional rites we follow to offer praise, thanksgiving, and supplication to God.  Of the various liturgies in the Catholic Church, the highest is the Eucharist, the Sacrament of sacraments.  Beyond the structure of this liturgy is the structure of the year.  Too often I take for granted the beautiful gift that is found in the yearly passing through the major points of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Several years ago, I heard it said that in the Church’s wisdom she developed the liturgical year to satisfy mankind’s love of change and stability.  Having never before thought of it like that, I experienced a new perspective of something that had always been present in my life.  In delving into the rich rhythm of the liturgical year, I have discovered that the feasting and fasting, as well as the ordinary and extraordinary times, provide a healthy balance in life.  Since humanity often tires of the same thing, the Church moves us through different seasons to celebrate and recall the different parts of the mystery of Christ.  Yet constant change is difficult and so the seasons are cyclical, each new year of grace seeking to lead us deeper into these same mysteries of Christ but in a fresh way.

While the Gregorian calendar tells us a month is left of this year, the liturgical calendar is reminding us that a new year is close at hand.  Personally, I like that the two calendars that govern my life are slightly off-center.  It reminds me that I am in the world but not of it.  As a follower of Christ, it calls me to acknowledge that His grace should cause me to see the year in a different way since my sight is imbued with an otherworldly perspective.

With the Church in the first days of a new year, let us consider the gift of the changing liturgical seasons.

Advent: Waiting for Christ’s Coming

The year starts off in joyful anticipation. Joining our hearts and minds with the Israelites, we wait for the coming of the Messiah. Yet knowing that Jesus has already come and ascended, we wait for His Second Coming at the end of time. This pregnant season of waiting calls to mind St. Paul’s words in Romans 8:22-25.

We know that the whole creation has been groaning with labor pains together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

We do not wait without a purpose. As parents of a newborn prepare for the child’s birth, so we make our hearts ready for Christ’s new birth into our hearts and our birth into eternal life. While Advent is culturally forgotten or seen merely as a time of wrapping presents and sending Christmas cards, it should cause us to remember that we need to make Him room, in our hearts and in our lives.

The best Advent I have ever had was the semester I took an Old Testament Scripture class in college. For months we made our way through salvation history, learning about the covenants that God repeatedly offered man and the ways humanity broke those covenants. We ended the semester with a unit on the prophets and, for the very first time, I encountered a taste of the longing that the Israelites must have experienced. Scripture passages that I had heard before were filled with a new life, a new pleading that God would send a Redeemer. While I knew the Savior had already come, I experienced the “wait” in a new way and thus experienced the joy of Christmas in a new way. Continue reading “Ever Ancient, Ever New: The Gift of the Liturgical Year”

A Grateful Mission

A Grateful Mission

Like a mother who gushes with affection over a sleeping child, I often feel particularly fond for my students when they are taking tests.  They seem so quiet, so studious, and so devoted to the task at hand that I find myself gazing at their little, intent faces and being so thankful to be a teacher.

In all honesty, that isn’t the only moment I am thankful to teach, but it is one continually recurring theme.  Moments of quiet, moments of humor, and moments of profound learning make me grateful to teach.  The inside jokes we share and the relationships that are built over time make me thankful to interact with so many high school students.  When I am able to step back from the late papers, endless questions, and constant repetition of directions, I see young people seeking.  Seeking just like I am–for happiness, for joy, for love, for peace, for life.  When I see that perspective, I am grateful for the time to be with them, accompanying them for a short while on their journey to eternity.

It makes me wonder if I have any type of impact.  This little heart inside of me longs so much for a great mission.  And then I remember that I teach.  I interact with young people daily and if that isn’t the rich soil for a great mission, I don’t know what is.  Grades, dress codes, and attitudes can make me forget the mission that is in front of me every day.  Yet every now and then, I will get a glimpse of what God might be doing in souls.  I see that perhaps my littleness might be in the midst of something great right now and completely unaware of it all.

Still, the heart longs to know a difference is being made.  Thankfully, God gives me reminders in little moments.  There is enough to assure me that it isn’t for nothing and yet little enough so that it doesn’t all go to my head.  It is found in class camaraderie when one class writes me up for a detention when I return a little late for class.  I see it in a small group of women who enter into conversation about pursuing true beauty.  It is experienced in random after school conversations and hearing that my class is teaching something.  The look on some students faces as we tackle the problem of evil and honestly question how a good God could allow awful things to happen.  Brief moments, easy to pass by, but ones that remind me that something is happening here and now.

It isn’t because of me.  It is because of God’s grace.  Continue reading “A Grateful Mission”

Proclaim Liberty to the Captives

Proclaim Liberty to the Captives

The Lord is a wound healer.  

I’ve been mentoring a young friend for a few months and the last time we met our conversation turned to wounds.  In many ways, I feel I have had a pretty easy life, one without too many struggles or problems.  Yet I am amazed by how many wounds can be found in this tender, little heart of mine.  As we spoke of how the Lord seeks to heal these areas, I couldn’t help but marvel at what the Lord has done in me over the years.

When Jesus heals, He brings freedom into a place I often didn’t even realize was enslaved.  This heart is far from wholeness, but the work the Lord has done in it is impressive.  My gifted spiritual director has spent hours listening to me sob and choke out stories of hurt and pain.  Some are understandable in their immensity, while others seem nearly laughable in their smallness.  Yet my spiritual director has treated each wound as important and in need of healing.  Often it is he who insists on the importance of the incident while I want to be dismissive of the emotions attached to the memory.

As a person who wants to be seen as logical and rational, it has taken years for me to be convinced of the validity of my feelings.  When I can accept that my feelings aren’t foolish, I am able to acknowledge that the hurt is real and needs to be addressed.  In this, the Lord has rewarded me ten-thousand fold.  Working through the intricacies of my heart has forced me to see that Christ wants to redeem and renew every part. Continue reading “Proclaim Liberty to the Captives”

Saints and Sinners: The Indelicate Reality of Christ’s Church

Saints and Sinners: The Indelicate Reality of Christ’s Church

In college, I took a course called “Theology of the Church” and the professor made certain to cement a specific truth in my mind.  He spoke frequently of how the Church is the spotless Bride of Christ, without blemish or error.  Yet he spoke just as often about how the Church is stained and tarnished, filled with sin and weakness.  Each Catholic must come to terms with this dichotomy if he or she desires to fully understand this living organism we call the Catholic Church.

The saints are beautiful models of following Christ and seeking holiness in the midst of a chaotic world.  For most of the difficulties we face in life, we can turn to a specific saint who had similar struggles.  There are saints who had difficult relationships with their parents or children, saints who were falsely accused, saints who had superiors who treated them unjustly, saints who lost loved ones, saints who experienced poverty, saints who struggled with drinking or drugs, saints who battled anger and violence, and saints who people thought were foolish or incapable.

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Yet we know the Church is not merely comprised of saints.  I belong to the Church and I am most definitely not a saint yet.  So while it is easier to focus on the virtues and gifts of the saints, we also know we are a Church filled with sinners.  We have sinners in the pews, in the choir, in the streets, at the altar, in the diocesan offices, in the Vatican, and in the chair of St. Peter.  Each of us, on our journey to become the saints God desires, must fight our own battles as we acknowledge our sinfulness.  The goal is not to make perfect masks that cover up our imperfections.  Rather, we seek to let Christ into our deepest sins and allow Him to transform us.

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It is with this knowledge of myself, as a sinner striving to be a saint, that I can recognize this reality within the Church herself.  She is perfect: Christ instituted her, the Holy Spirit guides her, and the Father welcomes her members into Heaven, one by one.  Yet she is us: flawed, broken, dragging our weary hearts to Calvary and to Heaven.  All of the romantic notions I have about the Church and her beautiful, soul-shaking theology necessarily contrast painfully with the reality of the Church that I see around me.  Reality is certainly not so romantic and not so obviously beautiful.  Nonetheless, it is still the Church I love.

When we encounter scandal in the Church, it is helpful to remember this inherent dichotomy, one that existed from the beginning of the Church, yet one which will end when we are purified and in Heaven.  While I love quite fiercely different humans within the Church, I also know that my love for the Church is not solely based on these humans.  My spiritual director is wise and I find myself able to share the workings of my heart with him.  My pastor leads me to a deeper understanding of how to encounter Christ in the daily moments.  Yet even should these priests fail me, I would not stop loving the Church.
Continue reading “Saints and Sinners: The Indelicate Reality of Christ’s Church”