Let Nothing Distract

Let Nothing Distract

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?

If Mother Teresa needed simplicity to pursue God’s mission, what makes me think I can follow God without simplifying my life, too?

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.

Continue reading “Let Nothing Distract”
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“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””

I Climbed Mountains

I Climbed Mountains

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”

In the Wake of Scandal, Choose Sanctity

In the Wake of Scandal, Choose Sanctity

I mentally planned for the day.  I supplied myself with some resources, I opened pertinent tabs on my computer, and I waited for the moment.  Unanticipated, I felt a sick pit grow in my stomach and my heart ached a little at the prospect of what I was to do.

So I started with gauging their prior knowledge, as some teachers are apt to do.

“Have you heard about the sexual abuse scandal in Pennsylvania?”  Depending on the class and the age, a few or most heads would nod the affirmative.

“How about Archbishop McCarrick?  The papal nuncio Archbishop Vigano?”  Fewer heads nodded with each question, a few gesturing with their hands to show that it sounded vaguely familiar.

Then, to the best of my ability, I outlined for them situations that had been unfolding for the last several weeks.  I emphasized the lack of clarity and focused on what our bishop is asking from us as a response.  In a textbook we use for class, it says, “One of the few things in life that cannot possibly do harm in the end is the honest pursuit of the truth.”  And while that doesn’t mean that the truth won’t be painful to uncover, I encouraged them to pray for the truth to be revealed, regardless of the personal cost involved.

As I spoke to them, I felt a certainty in the Church settle into my heart and I felt like an older sister or a mother as I gently explained to them things that pained me.  While the circumstances are awful, the Church will endure and new saints will rise up to combat the evils of the present age.

Each generation is converted by the saint who contradicts it most.

G.K. Chesterton

Most of the classes listened closely with sad eyes and asked a few questions to understand the situation more.  One class reacted with more anger and bitterness.  It wasn’t entirely unsurprising because it is a situation where anger is justified.  Yet for young people who are initially uncertain about the Church, the blatant hypocrisy of the scandal is too much to take in.  I saw the scandal through their eyes and I wanted to cry.  My small heart ached and I felt the weight of these sins in a manner that I hadn’t yet permitted myself.   Continue reading “In the Wake of Scandal, Choose Sanctity”

A Heart Like St. Mary Magdalene

A Heart Like St. Mary Magdalene

Tastes and preferences change over time, for which I am grateful.  When I was younger, I didn’t like spicy food like hot sauce or horseradish sauce.  Over the past couple years, I’ve started to enjoy sprinkling (sparingly) some fiery sauce over my eggs or potatoes or whatever might seem good.  The surprising craving for horseradish came as a result of an encounter with a Blue Apron recipe I tried.  After roasting broccoli and potatoes, the recipe called for a creamy horseradish sauce to coat the vegetables.  Since then, I’ve been randomly working the interesting flavor into different meals.

As taste buds change, so also personal preferences change.  What used to be unattractive, has changed over time into something which draws my heart.  St. Mary Magdalene is one person who fits into this category.  I’ve met several people over the years who have loved her and for many of those years, I was a bit confused.  The people seemed to have nothing in common with this well-known sinner-saint, yet they were attracted to her life and witness.  I can now number myself among those who love St. Mary Magdalene.  While I don’t identify very closely with the particulars of her life, I identify very much with her heart.

She was a woman who was forgiven much and loved much.  In an act of total self-surrender, she broke her jar of precious ointment and poured it on the feet of Jesus.  Wiping His feet with her hair, she laid her entire life before Our Lord.  In exchange, she was one of His closest followers, one who sat at His feet to listen to His stories and who was driven by grief to weep at His tomb after the crucifixion.  In her need to be close to Him, she was sent as “the apostle to the Apostles” and was the first to witness the resurrected Christ.

St. Mary Magdalene loved with a love that was all-encompassing.  That need, that desire to be a total gift for the Lord is something that resonates within my own heart.  Earlier this summer while on retreat, I prayed with that passage of Mary anointing the feet of Jesus.  In a way that it hadn’t before, the words of the Gospel moved my heart and invited me to share more deeply in the relationship Mary had with Our Lord. Continue reading “A Heart Like St. Mary Magdalene”

Halloween: A Call to Goodness (Not Another Origins of Halloween Post)

Halloween: A Call to Goodness (Not Another Origins of Halloween Post)

Oh, Halloween! 

This is a day that seems filled with disputes, particularly this year, about the Catholicity or Anti-Catholicity of the festivities.  I’ve never been a die-hard Halloween person, but growing up, we did the typical trick-or-treating and dressing up in costumes, generally not of a religious nature.  Nearly every year I went as something that could be assembled at home.  One year I was a clown, another a scarecrow, and another year an old lady.  (That last one was last year.)  I enjoyed my mom’s creativity and how she pulled together costumes and matched it up with heavy make-up to play the part more authentically.

For a few years in college, though, I spent Halloween on a pro-life retreat in Brooklyn.  We stayed in a monastery where Sisters of the Precious Blood lived and didn’t venture outside.  In fact, I had to remind myself that it was Halloween when I was there.  Immersed in talks about the history of the pro-life movement and the development of the Culture of Death, I wasn’t interested in Halloween or costumes, spooky or humorous.

Then, I graduated college and returned to South Dakota.  My hometown had ramped up their celebrations of the day during the years I was away from home.  Full-out murder scenes were staged in front yards.  Even though they were clearly fake with faces roughly sketched on bedsheet corpses, I found myself oddly sensitive to the horror.  It continues to mystify me that awful acts, when experienced in real life, are entertaining and fun when mockingly displayed.  Chainsaws, torture devices, and bodies splayed open are “all in good fun” during a few weeks of the year.  My heart, though, doesn’t pay attention to the time of the year.  It is bothered by these scenes, regardless how fakey they seem or when they are presented. Continue reading “Halloween: A Call to Goodness (Not Another Origins of Halloween Post)”

Seeking the Face of God, Even in Tragedy

Seeking the Face of God, Even in Tragedy

“We live in a crazy world,” I told my class near the beginning of a class period.

“One of you asked if I had heard of the truck bombing and I thought I had, but I wasn’t sure if it was from last week or this week.  Then I looked it up.  Two hundred and seventy people died and it just sounded an awful lot like several other events.  We live in a world where it is possible to be uncertain if a tragedy like this is news or something from a couple of weeks ago.”

This particular class period, we were reflecting on the Ignatian theme of finding God in all things.  It is easy to find God in bits of beauty–in the sunset, the splendor of fall foliage, or the smile of a newborn.  The difficulty is found in seeing the face of God in tragedy–the shooting in Las Vegas, the 9/11 attacks, or the truck bombing in Somalia.

Practice makes perfect, though, right?  Or, at least, better?

So our class time was spent in small groups brainstorming a few tragedies and then considering how we can see God in the midst of these situations.  I challenged them to go beyond the cliché lines they hear or the standard Theology class answers.  Instead, I wanted them to delve into these painful situations and to truly seek the face of God.

This class period had the most somber tone of all my classes and I found myself telling them that I viewed this exercise in a hopeful way.  Yes, we were talking about a loved one being diagnosed with cancer, terrorist attacks, natural disasters, and struggles in relationships, but we were doing so because we believe God can be found even there.  Perhaps, especially there.

After a group presented how they found God in a particular situation, I opened it up to the entire class.  Time after time, I asked, “Anything else?  Any other ways you can see God in that situation?”  There wasn’t a particular answer I wanted from them, I just wanted them to deeply reflect on all the possible ways God could be found in difficulty.  My hope was that if they did this while a bit removed from some situations, they will be able to try to do it in the midst of suffering.  I want them to remember that God can be found in all suffering.  And I want them to know it in a visceral, heart-wrenching way and not simply a pat answer on a Theology exam. Continue reading “Seeking the Face of God, Even in Tragedy”

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”

Simple Witnesses: The Newly Canonized Fatima Visionaries

Simple Witnesses: The Newly Canonized Fatima Visionaries

May 13, 1917

Our Lady chooses to reveal herself to three children tending sheep in the Cova da Iria.  Tenderly, she tells them to not be afraid and yet she asks them to sacrifice for the conversion of the world.  They are mere children, the oldest one is ten years old, but they agree to offer up their sufferings and sacrifices for love of Jesus and for the conversion of others.

That may seem abstract to many of us.  However, they are quick to concretize this request.  Whenever poor children ask for food, the three children give them their lunch.  As they tend to the sheep, they see how long they can go without water and offer this thirst to Jesus.  Little Jacinta finds out that she will die alone in a hospital in Lisbon and, although she is scared, she chooses to offer this trial up to Our Lady for the sake of others.

We can take as our examples Saint Francisco and Saint Jacinta, whom the Virgin Mary introduced into the immense ocean of God’s light and taught to adore him.  That was the source of their strength in overcoming opposition and suffering.  God’s presence became constant in their lives, as is evident from their insistent prayers for sinners and their desire to remain ever near “the hidden Jesus” in the tabernacle.

Canonization Mass Homily of Pope Francis, 5/13/2017

These sacrifices, though small in the course of human history, are monumental.  Children are shown to be capable of leading the way to holiness.  Their tangible witness is felt in particular in the place one would expect it: Fatima, Portugal.

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It has been a tremendous gift of mine that I have been to Fatima three times.  The picture above is from the most recent trip.  The man in the picture happens to be the nephew of St. Francisco and St. Jacinta Marto.  His father was their older brother, John.  Proud of his close relation, he showed us the page in Lucia’s book where she speaks about his father.

Each time I am in Fatima, I experience a great peace that comes from resting in a place that is so dear to my Heavenly Mother.  My birthday aligns with the anniversary of her first appearance in Fatima and so I have a filial devotion to this particular feast.  As I have read more about the children and how they fervently responded to her words, I have grown an even deeper love for Our Lady of Fatima and her little children.

May 13, 2017

In so many ways, their lives were insignificant.  Francisco and Jacinta were two children who fell victim to the influenza epidemic in 1919-1920.  Their lives were spent in poor circumstances in a town in Portugal for which few people cared.  While generally good children, they were not known to be perfect.  Yet on May 13, 2017, they were declared canonized saints in the Catholic Church.

Indeed, God created us to be a source of hope for others, a true and attainable hope, in accordance with each person’s state of life.

Pope Francis 5/13/2017

Continue reading “Simple Witnesses: The Newly Canonized Fatima Visionaries”

A Laity of Saints: How God Uses the Little for Greatness

A Laity of Saints: How God Uses the Little for Greatness

When I mention that my two older sisters are religious sisters, people often wonder what my parents did to make that happen.  In a way, I understand, because it is mildly unusual in today’s world to hear about young women making vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.  Yet I also want to fight against this mentality that holiness is primarily for priests, religious, and consecrated persons.  Sanctity is for everyone and we need to continue to proclaim this good news.  

If you are what you should be, you will set your whole world on fire.

~St. Catherine of Siena

Venerable Jan Tyranowski recently came into my life and he inspires me in the quest for a saintly laity.  He was born at the turn of the twentieth century in Poland.  For over three decades, he led a rather unremarkable life.  But at Mass one day, he heard the priest say that it isn’t difficult to be a saint.  From that day forward, he pursued virtue and holiness with an incredible ardor.

When Nazis invaded Poland, they deported several of the priests in parish, leaving behind only a couple elderly priests.  Knowing of his deep faithfulness, the priests ask Jan to minister to the young of the parish.  Despite his introverted nature and little formal education, Jan began this ministry even though he considered himself incapable.  He formed prayer groups comprised of fifteen young men each.  Each man was responsible for daily praying a decade of the rosary and striving to live out particular virtues.  The groups were called “Living Rosaries” and Jan chose a leader for each group, investing time to spiritually form each leader.

Venerable Jan Tyranowski never married and never became a priest, yet his life of holiness impacts us today.  The Second Vatican Council called for the laity to live more fully the mission of the Church.  This call was anticipated in the life of Jan and he did this in the midst of a Nazi occupation.  One of the young men who was in his prayer group and was spiritually formed by this simple tailor was Karol Wojtyla, better known as Pope St. John Paul II. Continue reading “A Laity of Saints: How God Uses the Little for Greatness”