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This essay is a bit of a sequel to an article I posted over a year ago. To better understand where I’m coming from in this post, you should first read Inside a church scandal.
I once knew a priest (former, last I checked) who blew the whistle on what had been an ongoing theft of over $300,000 worth of church offering money by a fellow priest who suffered from a serious gambling addiction. The story ended sadly for the whistle blower priest, as he left the priesthood over the situation, very bitter over the way he felt he’d been treated. I do not know this for sure, but I suspect he also left the Catholic Church altogether.
Suppose this embattled former priest went on to start his own nondenominational church. What might that church’s perception of its own history be like at the beginning, and then later in fifty years or so when all the original members including the founder were gone?
It just so happens that a different former priest, himself once embroiled in his own church scandal, actually went on to do just that. The former priest is Dale Fushek, the original founder of the LifeTeen Catholic youth movement. The nondenominational church he went on to found is the Praise and Worship Center.
So what happened?
Back in the summer of 1994 I spent some time with a good friend who was living in Mesa, Arizona at the time. That was the summer I spent in Hermosillo, Sonora, and I passed through Tucson quite a bit both before and during this internship. My friend and I visited each other a couple times that summer, and he had to take me to St. Tim’s parish, where they had this awesome teen Mass. My friend couldn’t stop raving about the celebrant priest or the teen Mass.
And so it happened that I got to attend some of the early LifeTeen Masses and listen to Father Dale’s dynamic preaching, and feel some much needed spiritual uplifting from going to Mass. Having grown up in the Catholic charismatic movement I felt right at home with the upbeat and spontaneous worship music which still managed to fit in seamlessly with the order of the Mass. It was at St. Tim’s parish that I bought my very first “New Catechism,” within months of it first coming out. I would go on to become a leader in LifeTeen a few years later when the movement spread to my own parish.
Fast forward to about fifteen or so years later. By then I’d moved to Colorado, gotten married and started my family. One very ordinary Saturday evening I walked outside of my current small town church after Mass when a couple I’d never seen approached me. They recognized me as the song leader or cantor.
“It was great to sing that song again,” she exclaimed. The song was I will choose Christ by Tom Booth. It had been a LifeTeen standard and made its way into my church’s hymnal.
“Yeah, I learned it from LifeTeen–I was a leader back in graduate school,” I replied.
“Oh were you? That’s wonderful,” she said. “We used to attend St. Tim’s parish, where it all started. We couldn’t get enough of Father Dale and his amazing preaching.”
“I visited there a couple times. I know what you mean,” I replied.
Then she dropped the bomb. “Did you hear what happened to him?”
She proceeded to tell me that a few years ago there were some allegations of sexual misconduct. That part didn’t surprise me. In the thick of the Catholic priest sexual abuse scandal allegations were flying all over the place.
“So Father Dale was put on administrative leave while they were investigating, and he couldn’t preach or celebrate Mass…”
Sounded reasonable to me.
“…But Father Dale just couldn’t stop preaching. I mean, he just had to preach. So when he kept preaching anyway, then he got laicized and excommunicated.”
The paid leave came about as a result of the allegations of misconduct. The excommunication came about after Fushek founded his own nondenominational church.
The couple explained that the bishop who excommunicated Fushek was the type who was set in his ways and not open to working with others, including Father Dale. I had heard about Bishop Olmsted before through a colleague of my husband who used to live in his diocese. This colleague described Bishop Olmsted as a “My way or the highway” type of bishop.
After this encounter when I had some spare moments I looked up Dale Fushek to see what I could learn. This involved reading through some pages of the Praise and Worship website, which struck me as a fairly typical nondenominational faith community site, though with a lot more emphasis on unconditional love and acceptance than what you’d expect from a more conventional nondenominational community. It also involved reading through some stories of the allegations themselves.
It appears that out of ten allegations of misconduct only one of them got even close to a conviction–it sounds like it was some sort of deal to accept one count in exchange for the others being dropped.
The impression I got from what I read was that the most believable scenario is that at least some of the stories are true and Fushek had some serious problems while he was a priest. It certainly would not have been unreasonable for Bishop Olmsted to have believed they might be true and relieve him of his priestly duties during the investigation. In fact, that’s standard procedure. I have a church job. If someone accused me of anything like that I believe I would be suspended until my name was cleared. Humiliating and all but understandable. Those bishops who did not take those precautions would be forcefully accused, tried, and sentenced for covering up for sexual predators by the media.
However poorly knowledge of sexual misconduct by priests may have been handled by bishops in the past, even the hint of such allegations is taken very seriously today. Bishop Olmsted didn’t do anything unreasonable in temporarily suspending Fushek.
But anyway, Fushek got through the legal proceedings, kept running his church, and wrote a book all about his experience and how the Catholic Church, especially Bishop Olmsted, who he claimed represents all that’s wrong about the Catholic Church, treated him horribly and was out to get him all along. His church is well attended and seems to be thriving. Dale Fushek is still a dynamic preacher and the music is fabulous.
I personally will never know the entire story, and I don’t really care to. One thing I am absolutely certain of, though, is that Fushek and those who followed him to his new church and their spiritual descendants are going to hold to a different version of what happened than Bishop Olmsted and all those who played some part in dealing with the difficult situation resulting from one of the stars of the diocese being accused multiple times of sexual misconduct and then not following their directions.
Fifty to a hundred years from now individuals will be able to decide for themselves what kind of person Dale Fushek was and they can shore up their position by choosing the version of history which best suits them. Some will believe that he was a renegade and rebel and eventual heretic who got exactly what he deserved (or rather, got let off easy compared to what might have happened, say 500 years ago), and that the Catholic authorities in his life did the right thing, especially the part about how they made repeated attempts to work with him on a resolution before taking the nuclear option. Others will believe that the power hungry Catholic Church (as usual in bed with the local authorities) once again couldn’t handle a maverick and very effective pastor and they attempted to stifle his calling as preacher by censoring him and sending the police to bully him, that he was mercilessly excommunicated and that much like the prophet Jeremiah who couldn’t hold the words of God inside he simply had no alternative but to (reluctantly) found his own church so he could preach freely once again. After all, one of Fushek’s more famous quotes is: “I feel like I never left the Catholic Church. They left me.”
After my children’s school talent show featured at least two of the movie’s songs, and I’d heard bits and pieces of “Let it go” sung multiple times around the house, a couple days ago I finally watched the movie Frozen. Warning: spoilers ahead.
My husband had seen it earlier, having watched it with our daughters one day while I was at work. My oldest daughter had already seen it in a theater with some friends. My husband expressed some consternation over the way these Disney-Pixar movies typically portray the male characters, and he’s convinced it’s getting worse. Now that we have a son, he’s deeply concerned about the message he will get should he watch those movies. I’m wondering what kind of ideas of manhood our daughters are absorbing.
My husband is right in that the movie Frozen pretty much sets the men up to either be villains or failures. The character Kristoff, who helps Anna with her quest to go find her sister and bring her back home, despite having made his living by braving the winter elements up to the point at which they meet, from that point on blunders his way through the elements only to have Anna repeatedly save his butt by her quick thinking and athleticism. This, despite the fact that up to that point Anna pretty much spent her life locked up inside her castle.
In the climax scene Kristoff is just about to perform the heroic act of true love which will save Anna’s heart from completely freezing, but is prevented from doing so by random movie stuff–I had a difficult time following that particular scene but it involved a lot of snow, ice, and wind. He was close, so close, but Anna beat him to it, actually sacrificing herself to save her sister Elsa’s life. Don’t worry if you haven’t seen the movie–it all ends happily ever after. Later on, Kristoff has a chance to vindicate his love (Anna) by confronting the villain who cruelly took advantage of her trust, but Anna brushes him aside and goes and punches the villain herself.
I don’t have a problem in principle with a woman confronting her own villain, but it bothered both my husband and me to see her go about it in a way that showed utter disrespect to the good man, the one who actually did love her. I realize that in real life, we women often make the mistake of treating our men that way, but we don’t need to have that behavior reinforced in our movies.
The movie was actually set up more to be a girl’s quest. Elsa inexplicably shuts Anna out of her life, and runs away when her emotions get the better of her and she can’t control her power to freeze everything around her. Anna goes after her to find out why, as well as to bring back summer. Although poorly developed, there is a story line about how Elsa has closed herself off from Anna for fear of hurting her, but Anna doesn’t know why, but finds out during the course of the story. They have to both learn to trust each other, work with rather than suppress their feelings, and they discover that love conquers all, even the power to create an eternal winter. All of this could have taken place without involving any men at all. The loud and clear message was that they didn’t need any men to help them in the slightest. So why bring the men in? My husband says the men were put there in order to be brushed aside. And I can’t argue with him on that point. It would be better to leave men out than to bring them in for no other reason than to insult and otherwise dishonor them.
My issues with the movie are a bit more general than decrying the disrespectful way the heroine treated the man in her life. I’m not as concerned about how men in particular are treated, but I had some real issues with how people in general were treated in that movie. It happened that the man Kristoff took the brunt of such poor treatment, but it’s applicable to men and women alike.
The scene in the movie which bothered me the most was the troll scene. When Elsa strikes Anna once again with her freezing power, that time it hit her heart, which would in the end kill her. Just like Anna and Elsa’s parents had in the beginning, Kristoff takes Anna to see the trolls, because they can help.
The trolls do help–they tell Kristoff and Anna that only an act of true love can unfreeze her heart–but not until after they thoroughly demean Kristoff to Anna. They believe that Anna is Kristoff’s lady friend and they take it upon themselves to inform Anna about every last weak, annoying, or disgusting habit Kristoff has. No detail is left out. The trolls do say that even with all those qualities Kristoff is a good and likeable guy, but primarily, he’s a “fixer-upper.”
The humor in the trolls’ song stems from the fact that many of the habits and characteristics mentioned do tend to be more the habits of men. They were poking fun at the ways in which men often behave privately in ways they wouldn’t behave publicly.
But that’s the crux of what bothers me. We all have things about ourselves we’d prefer others not know. We all have bad habits and secret sins. We are all a work in progress, or to borrow the terminology of the trolls’ song, “fixer-uppers.” When two people get to know each other more intimately than most others, as in having been raised together, or gotten married to each other, then they will know about more of these private matters about each other.
A loving sibling or spouse or best friend will protect the dignity and honor of the loved one by not broadcasting the loved one’s secret faults and weaknesses. A loving person will not set out to deliberately humiliate the other by sharing all those details with someone the other person considers to be special.
And yet that is exactly what the trolls do. They sing a very long and torturous song detailing all of Kristoff’s faults. It’s clear that they and Kristoff go back a long ways so they know about these things. Both Kristoff and Anna weakly protest this litany of Too Much Information, but in the end they find there is nothing they can do but shrug it off. Trolls will be trolls, I guess.
Although the trolls have behaved in an unloving manner towards Kristoff, and it’s clear that this is how they normally behave, they are the ones who know that ultimately, it’s love which will solve Anna’s problem (and along with it all the problems of the world). They can rattle off in a most unconvincing way this line about it taking an act of true love to unfreeze Anna’s heart, but it’s clear they know absolutely nothing about such an act because they don’t practice even basic love. They treat someone they love in a most disrespectful manner. After the song you are left to believe that either Kristoff is incredibly stupid for having allowed them to get so close to him, or they have utterly betrayed him. But the movie acts as if none of that is any big deal. They get the secret to unfreezing Anna’s heart and the story moves on.
It’s a little bit murky what the ultimate act of true love ends up being because there’s so much action surrounding it. The best I can gather is that Elsa is fending off her pursuers who want to kill her by throwing ice at them. Anna, although much weakened from the cold and her heart being more and more frozen, somehow manages to catch up with Elsa and puts herself between her and one of her would be killers. Meanwhile, Kristoff, who’s riding as fast as he can on his reindeer, just can’t get close enough. Elsa, aiming for the killer instead hits Anna and she freezes solid, while the killer’s arrow bounces off her now frozen hand.
When Elsa sees what happened she immediately breaks down crying and hugs Anna. And it’s that breaking down in tears, that regret over what she’d unintentionally done, which turns out to be the act of true love. Anna then thaws out and Elsa from that moment on miraculously knows exactly how to control her powers. Somehow, though, that same regret and tears expressed the very first time Elsa accidentally hurt her sister as a child didn’t have any kind of positive effect.
From the point of view of the epic story, I found that epic act of true love to be lame at best. Crying over your mistakes and realizing how your actions have hurt someone you love is a very good start, but it is not the sum total of true love. Nor is true love something you’re suddenly going to learn to perfection after an entire lifetime of being decidedly unloving.
And finally, you don’t make the epic transition from selfishness to sacrificial love while still maintaining all your other unloving characteristics. Anna may have been willing to die for her sister, and for a few seconds of screen time, she actually did, but there is no indication that she cultivated that kind of love in her ordinary dealings with the people in her life, and certainly not Kristoff. Once the dust (or should I say, the ice?) had settled, she was back to disrespectfully brushing Kristoff aside, as she with perfect technique punches the villain so hard he falls off the bridge into the water.
In the end, Anna and her sister are close again. Elsa figures out overnight how to control her powers. It turns out her parents’ advice to stuff her feelings as a way to control her power was the worst possible thing she could have done. She needed to let herself feel her emotions and most of all, to rein in this power with the greater power of love. Anna recovers physically from the exertions involved in her epic sacrifice but gives no sense of heroic love having in any way changed her into a more habitually loving person.
In fact really, the overall though rather subtle message I get from the movie is that love is basically cheap and meaningless until some substance to it becomes necessary to move the story. The trolls can talk about love right after acting very unloving towards their friend. Elsa finally gets in touch with her inner pain and that’s called love, and in the movie it’s powerful enough to thaw an entire frozen person as well as end the eternal winter–at least the second time around when it was convenient to the story line.
There’s also the more harmful message that no matter how unloving you might be in normal life, when the opportunity to demonstrate epic love comes your way, you will quickly rise to the occasion and do it unflinchingly… and then go back to business as usual. Although I do believe heroism can happen like that, and yes, people do rise to the occasion even with no prior moral preparation, I don’t think it is smart to count on that happening. Heroic love is actually a choice you make and a way of conducting yourself every day of your life. Most of the time it manifests in the ordinary things, but those ordinary things prepare you for the extraordinary epic moment if you get one. First of all, we don’t all get our epic moments, but we are all called to love. The choice to not love in the ordinary matters could be a choice to not love at all. Second, for every unexpected hero who does rise to the occasion and act heroically even after not having lived heroically up to that point, there are probably hundreds who completely blow it.
Heroic love, like anything else, needs to be practiced. There may be the occasional prodigy, but most of us are going to behave in stressful times just in a more exaggerated manner as we normally do. If I’m not practicing love in my ordinary moments, odds are good that I will completely blow my epic moment when it presents itself. Rather than encourage me to practice love day in and day out, the movie Frozen instead encourages me to selfishly fantasize about being some big hero in some hypothetical future epic moment while making no effort to actually prepare myself for that moment. And unlike in the movie where love won out in spite of the characters’ lack of virtue in ordinary affairs, in real life not cultivating virtue in ordinary life is more likely to lead to an eternal winter of frozen heroism.
This may be odd timing from the point of view of the Liturgical calendar, this being Holy Week and all, but it makes sense every time I interact with my little son.
Baby A is nearly one year old and on the verge of walking. He began rolling over onto his tummy at four and a half months and has been efficiently moving through the baby stages—staring at, then using his hands, creeping, army crawling, crawling, and pulling up to his feet using the furniture or my legs, letting go of his hands for a second or two to stand on his own. None of this is anything unusual. It’s what babies do. And yet it’s cute and worth recording and celebrating. OK, I’m terrible at scrapbooking or even recording events, so I couldn’t tell you the specific dates that A reached certain milestones, just that he did reach them. Still, I’m eager to be there with him as he reaches the next big milestone—walking on his own.
When A was just a few months old and still spending lots of time in a sling on me, my good friend’s preschool aged daughter asked her mom if she could “pet Baby Jesus.” I was right there and she could see the top of my baby’s head, the rest of him being covered by the sling fabric. Her mom explained that it was A, not Baby Jesus, while I stooped down so the little girl could pet him.
Ever since then I’ve been thinking about how Jesus really was a baby once and how He too went through all the important baby milestones and did all those cute and adorable things that babies do—the things that my baby A is doing right now.
When Jesus first came into the world He was pretty helpless and completely dependent on His mother for everything. He couldn’t even pick up His own head. If He got hungry or needed comfort, or needed His diaper attended to, He couldn’t speak a word, but instead had to communicate through the intense mother-baby bond.
He must have spent long minutes simply staring at His mother’s face as all newborns want to do. Then He probably nursed and fell asleep.
The One who brought the entire universe into being by speaking the words, the One who Himself is the Word of God, as a baby could not speak one single word. If His mother missed His earlier cues He might have had to resort to crying.
The One who fed His people manna in the desert and brought water out of the rock to satisfy their thirst was fed by His mother’s milk.
The One who holds the world and everyone in it in the palm of His hand had to be carried everywhere He went.
Of course, as He grew, Baby Jesus learned to do a few simple things for Himself, like reach out and grasp an object within His reach and pass it from hand to hand. My own baby went through a long phase where he would stare at his hands as if they were the most fascinating things he’d ever seen. I wonder if Jesus ever stared at His hands like that? Did He know that one day those hands would touch hurting people and heal them? Did He know that one day those hands would impart His entire self into a piece of unleavened bread on Passover and would ordain His own disciples to do likewise? Then shortly after those hands would be pierced and nailed to a cross. Did He have some kind of special knowledge about His future? Or did He have to learn His path one step at a time as all other humans do?
One day, baby Jesus rolled over. A few months later He figured out how to use His arms to pull Himself forward and get from one side of a room to the other. Then He crawled and became truly mobile. Then His mother had to put the dangerous and fragile items out of His reach and watch Him a bit more closely. Did Baby Jesus ever get into stuff He shouldn’t? If so, was He perfectly obedient to Mary’s redirection or was that something He had to learn too? The Bible says He learned obedience. Did it start with submitting to simple redirection?
My baby A loves to make talking sounds. He’ll say simple words like “yeah” and “uh oh.” Other sounds he makes sound like “mama” or “Okay.” He seems to know that when I say “hugsies,” he should wrap his little arms around me and rest his little head on my shoulder. He often does that when he’s tired or just feeling extra affectionate. He smiles and laughs a lot, and the simplest things can entertain him (or me) for a long time. He loves to interact with me, my husband and my daughters. They each have their unique ways of loving on him and playing with him.
I think of Baby Jesus laughing and cooing at His mother and father, getting tickled by them, playing little games with them.
I think of His mother trying to get some household tasks done, perhaps cramming them in during Baby Jesus’ naptime, but being slowed down because the little guy needs to be held and does not want to be put down. Maybe she slings Him up on her back and keeps going. Maybe she holds Him on her hip and keeps at it one handed. Maybe Joseph is able to lend a hand but since they’re poor, he probably has to spend a lot of time in his shop earning a living through his carpentry work. On other occasions I think of Baby Jesus as perfectly content to play with a few toys while His mother works nearby.
And then I wonder if Mary ever fell behind on the housework because she’d nursed her precious baby to sleep and just couldn’t take her eyes off His sweet peaceful face or stand the thought of laying Him down. Let me hold Him in my arms for just a few more moments; then I’ll wash those dishes, or fold that pile of laundry.
I have to wonder at how much Mary knew about this child she had birthed into the world. Sacred Scripture would indicate that she at least knew the basics. He was conceived in a most unusual way—the Holy Spirit overshadowing a virgin. He was announced by an angel. The angel told her His name and that He would be given the throne of David and be called the Son of God, that His kingdom would have no end. Mary’s cousin Elizabeth called her “the mother of my Lord.” Mary knew that because of her Son all generations would call her blessed. When the shepherds visited them shortly after Jesus’ birth, they told Mary and Joseph what the angels had told them about Jesus—that He was the Savior, the Messiah.
The most haunting revelation about Jesus, though, came through Simeon, the old man in the temple who had been previously told by God he would live to see the Messiah. He recognized Him in the eight day old infant and declared he was now ready to die in peace for he had seen God’s salvation. He went on to tell Mary that her child would be opposed by many and that her very soul would be pierced by a sword.
So, if she didn’t already understand it by that time, Simeon’s words to her made it abundantly clear that being the mother of the Messiah as well as the way He would obtain salvation was not going to be all roses for her. By the time her Son was eight days old, she was informed that His work would be established in suffering—hers as well as his. It strikes me as appropriate that she heard this prophecy on the occasion of Jesus’ circumcision, perhaps His very first human experience with suffering at the hands of men. Despite what people say, circumcision is a painful procedure when performed without anesthesia, and they didn’t keep any around in the temple.
Although Mary might not have known the details—nowhere in the infancy narratives are the words “Crucifixion,” “scourging,” or “crown of thorns” mentioned—by the time her baby was eight days old she knew that He was God, and that He would suffer greatly, and that meant she too would suffer greatly. I ponder this and wonder what it would be like to nurse, hold, and play with my own baby while knowing those kinds of things about him that Mary knew about Jesus. Would it take away from the joy of raising this child, or would it add depth to it? We also know from Sacred Scripture that Mary surrendered herself completely to the will of God which included offering up her Son to die as He did. Her fiat to the angel Gabriel beautifully foreshadows Jesus’ own words to His Father indicating His human acceptance of Good Friday’s cup of suffering.
I ponder what it means to surrender myself completely to the will of God for my life, the way Jesus did and the way His mother did. Holding my precious little son, I think about how Jesus was once the exact same age and adorable in the sense of being cute (in addition to being worthy of our adoration). And like Mary I find I have a lot to ponder in my heart while contemplating Baby Jesus.
I mentioned previously that the most important component to one being able to effectively evangelize is an interior life. So what is an interior life?
Father Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange in his tome Three Ages of the Interior Life states that a genuine interior life begins when a person’s intimate conversations within himself turn towards God. Those conversations running through one’s head are a good place to start because we all have them. They can involve replaying a recent conversation with a coworker that didn’t go well, or one that went exceptionally well. They can involve rehearsing an upcoming confrontation that must take place, or reliving a pleasant memory. They can also involve dreaming about and planning for the future, or simply mentally composing a shopping list.
In one sense, beginning an interior life can be as simple as becoming aware of our interior dialogues. Who are we talking to, really? Our own self? A friend or loved one we imagine to be there? A negative inner voice running us down?
Once we become aware of our interior conversations, the next step is to direct them to God. Instead of talking to ourselves or some other person we imagine to be there, we can talk to God. Talking to God is more commonly known as prayer. Prayer is the basis of the interior life. It also changes everything. If we are truly talking to God, well, he’s not part of us in the same sense that those other voices are. This means that we can’t just fill in his response. If we are truly talking to him, then at some point we have to listen for his response, which means we also have to learn how to “hear” him when he speaks. At that point, God’s presence is making an impact in the way those interior conversations go. We have made the transition from simply talking to ourselves to prayer. From that moment on we have an interior life (as opposed to just interior noise).
Once we have entered into interior prayer, even the most basic form, we have opened ourselves up to God making His presence felt, making Himself known to us, and making His mark on us, even going so far as to completely transform us from the inside out. But prayer itself is its own science as it were. There are guidelines on how to pray well, how to open ourselves up to God’s presence safely (meaning being sure we are interacting with God and not some deceiving spirit). It’s one thing to begin addressing our thoughts to God. It’s another thing to become tuned to God where we are truly listening to Him, and where we truly recognize His voice when He speaks. Developing an interior prayer life takes time and goes through fairly predictable stages which many Church approved Christian mystics such as St. John of the Cross and St. Tereas of Avila have written about. Practicing and learning the art of prayer is developing that budding interior life.
Although prayer is a deeply personal and often individual activity, it does not take place in isolation. Our personal prayer life must be firmly grounded in the life and teachings of the Church, beginning with prayerful reading of Sacred Scripture. The Bible is a collection of books written by various inspired human authors over a long period of time and which have undergone a discernment process where they were determined by humans acting under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to be the words of God. The canon of the Old Testament was in place when Jesus entered creation. The canon of the New Testament was settled in several Church councils near the turn of the fourth century AD. The bottom line for us is that we can trust what the Bible says to be true, especially when we respect the Church’s interpretation of its overall meaning. When we believe God to have spoken to us through His word in Sacred Scripture, and what we heard conforms to Church teaching, we can trust that He really did speak to us.
Once we have made the connection in prayer with God, then God Himself will guide and direct our prayer and our interior development with the ultimate goal of completely uniting us with Him. This is where the various stages of the interior life come in. Actually being united with God is much more than expressing the intent to be united with God. It’s also much more than feeling close to God during an especially wonderful prayer experience. This union, when it happens, would be consistent and unhampered by our own sin and impurities.
As could be logically deduced, the early stages of developing an interior life where the soul is moving towards complete union with God are going to be heavy on the purification process. God reaches out to us and initially accepts us at whatever point in life we happen to be when we find Him (or rather, when He finds us). There is no need to first get our lives cleaned up or made acceptable for us to begin the journey. Rather, we bring ourselves to God as we are now, including all our sins and imperfections. God loves us so much and is so happy to see His love returned even in the most imperfect and frail way, that He looks right past all our interior garbage and warmly welcomes us. He is like the father in the famous parable of the prodigal son who has been waiting and watching for a long time for our return, and upon seeing us runs towards us to embrace us.
Next comes the celebration. I’m referring to that interior sense of well being and comfort one gets upon first beginning the prayer life. Everything seems amazing and brand new. Being with God is just awesome and you can’t get enough of Him and the wonderful blessings He is pouring out on you.
At some point, though, God in His great love and wisdom begins to purify the soul because all those sins which God was so happy to overlook initially really do get in the way of the soul reaching its full potential. If you think of total union with God as two puzzle pieces fitting perfectly together, or a key fitting into a lock, then imagine how that union would be inhibited if one of the pieces of the puzzle were seriously deformed, or if the key to the lock was damaged. God cannot change to conform to us and our unique manner of damage, which means that we must change to conform to Him. The sin needs to be systematically removed, and the damage repaired.
We ourselves can do nothing to heal our own damage, so God does not require us to do so. However, He does ask us to fully cooperate with Him as He does the work of healing and purifying our souls. The soul begins to feel God’s purifying action in various ways which include suffering and a sense of dryness or even boredom in prayer, and otherwise less than pleasant experiences. It’s actually a really good sign when prayer which likely was very easy at first becomes more difficult and unexciting, so the best thing to do is to persevere in prayer and keep one’s focus on Jesus. The suffering (which could be big or small–but it all matters) while unpleasant is actually accomplishing a very important work, and so should be welcomed, or at least tolerated with an attitude of complete trust in God who knows what He is doing, and who does everything for our good.
Sin runs deep in a soul and pretty much taints everything, so it’s a big job to get rid of it. Purification can take many years and won’t feel good, but it’s an important part of the process. We won’t be able to be completely filled with and united with God as long as we continue to hold onto sin. When we become aware of sin, the best thing to do is turn away from it and bring it to sacramental confession as soon as possible. God imparts His grace to us through this sacrament in ways that we may not realize or understand at first. Sacramental confession works closely with personal prayer and suffering to purify us of sin. We can think of these as specialized tools Jesus uses in His delicate work of soul repair.
In my own life I try to consider every last bit of suffering I face, down to the seemingly trivial matters, as a means to my goal of growing in holiness. It’s not that I look for suffering (life throws plenty of that my way without my help), and it’s not that I enjoy it or anything. But when I recognize that I’m feeling pain, I turn my thoughts to Jesus and ask Him to use it to accomplish His work in my soul. I also ask Him to help me to cooperate with what He’s doing. I remember what it is I most want in life, which is full union with God, and that helps me to see whatever it is I’m going through as a means to that end. I think about Jesus Himself, and how much I long for Him and love Him, and I turn my inner self towards Him. He is always there with me. Sometimes I feel like I have connected with Him or felt His presence, but sometimes I have to simply take it on faith. Either way, though, Jesus helps me to remember what it’s all for, and why as the expression goes, it’s all good, even the experiences that don’t feel good.
Growing an interior life–a relationship with God leading to full transforming union–has many challenges along the way. The first is that after an initial period resembling a honeymoon where everything is easy and wonderful, it gets more difficult, sometimes boring, and it involves all kinds of suffering, because quite frankly, getting rid of sin hurts. But it’s worth it when you consider the ultimate goal.
Another challenge is that it’s very easy to get deceived in prayer because it’s not as if we can see or hear God with our natural senses. It’s easy to carry on a conversation with God where we ourselves are filling in His part of the dialog rather than really listening for His responses. Also, God may not always respond to us in predictable ways and we could totally miss it or substitute it for what we want Him to say or what we think He ought to say. That gets very tricky, and many sincere souls have fallen astray by thinking they heard God speak in a certain way and then getting attached to the message and acting on it in ways which led to further error. It can be a really nasty vicious circle.
This is why it is very important to be grounded in the Church. This means attending Mass, going to confession, actually reading the Bible during prayer, and educating ourselves about Church teaching, especially moral teaching. A concept which really helped me came from the book Holy Abandonment by Dom Vitalis Lehodey. There are two general ways in which God expresses His will to us. The first is His signified will, which covers God’s basic laws. These include things like the Ten Commandments, the moral teachings of the Church and any other way in which God guides us through His Church. God’s signified will is non-specific, in that it applies to everyone and is not specific to the individual circumstances of one’s life. The second is His will of good pleasure, which covers those things God wants an individual to do and include specific vocations or ministries, and details such as what kind of house to live in or which job to accept or which geographical location to live in.
In a lot of ways, God’s will of good pleasure is more exciting and interesting because after all, it concerns what God is calling me (and only me) to do. For this reason, we are all tempted to skip over attending to God’s signified will and instead concern ourselves with His will of good pleasure. However it is very important to know and follow God’s signified will because His will of good pleasure will always fall within the boundaries of his signified will. He will never tell you to do something which goes against His signified will. A common extreme example that people are fond of using to illustrate that principle is the absurd notion that God would ever tell someone to go out and rob a bank. God’s signified will indicates that stealing is wrong, so therefore His will of good pleasure for an individual will never include stealing. If you ever feel like God is telling you to do something contrary to His signified will, then you need to assume that you are not hearing Him correctly. Hearing God wrong is OK; it just means you have more growing ahead of you. It only becomes a problem when you get attached to the message you think you heard and place the message above God and hold onto the message even when it clearly violates His signified will. It also follows that the way you begin discerning whether a message is actually from God is that you know and value His signified will and you automatically reject anything contrary to that. For the Catholic, that means we strive to live in conformity to Church teaching–all of it. When we discover an aspect of our lifestyle to be in disagreement with Church teaching, we don’t insist that the Church change; we allow ourselves to be changed. But in order to find those discrepancies, we need to study God’s law and surround ourselves with people who also value it.
Since I know I have non Catholic readers, I want to address something really quickly. As a a Catholic I consider myself to be bound by Catholic Church teaching, including rules such as having to attend Mass every Sunday (or Saturday evening). Obviously, non Catholics do not consider Mass attendance to be applicable to them. I’m not going to argue that point here–we will disagree. I just want to state that many similar disagreements between Catholics and Protestants essentially boil down to a difference in perspective concerning whether a given matter has to do with God’s signified will or His will of good pleasure. A Catholic sees Mass attendance as God’s signified will, a non-negotiable. You don’t even consider skipping Mass unless you’re ill. A Protestant (who isn’t anti-Catholic) would view Mass attendance as part of God’s will of good pleasure–something which clearly doesn’t apply to them but which He may be calling at least some Catholics to do. Ditto for being Catholic. We Catholics believe that Jesus really did establish the Catholic Church and that it’s His will for everyone to be a part of it. Protestants, on the other hand, believe that God calls some people to denomination A, others to denomination B, and for some incomprehensible reason, He even calls certain ones to the Catholic Church! Attempting to resolve this difference in perspective goes beyond the scope of this essay, but I wanted to at least acknowledge it.
Going back to the original purpose of this essay, which is to give a very basic overview of the interior life, I can summarize it by saying the interior life is a general term used to describe a soul’s genuine relationship and interactions with God. Not everyone who claims to be relating to God is actually doing so; therefore an interior life, while individual in nature, has to be lived out and discerned in the context of the Church which has through inspiration and experience set out principles for safely navigating the spiritual world. The Church context includes Church teaching and practice, sacraments and community.
The Northern Colorado plains at the base of the Rocky Mountains boast three seasons: Summer, winter and windy. According to the calendar, windy season happens towards the end of winter and for that part of springtime that isn’t so hot that it blends in with summer. When I refer to springtime I’m talking strictly about that calendar period of time spanning from March 21 to June 21. The calendar says it’s spring. We experience it as wind.
Soccer season for the kids begins right around the Spring Equinox and goes for about six weeks. Practices twice a week on the field in front of the elementary school. Games every Saturday morning. Children and coaches in the field running around, kicking balls already buffeted by the wind. Minivans and SUVs parked in neat little rows with parents inside. Some of the parents are texting; others are playing games on their smart phones. I am writing this essay, while hoping my baby keeps calm in the car seat. We are all staying safe from the wind which is causing our vehicles to sway.
My good friend is in the minivan just twenty-five feet away. When the weather is better we can both be seen by the playground supervising our too-young-for-soccer children, catching snatches of conversation when our children will let us. Today we’re both in our vans, while her daughter and my daughter make their way to their water bottles, holding hands against the wind. I think about moving to my friend’s van so we can visit, but it’s too much trouble to move the baby, and I have some work to do. My own van is way too cozy. It’s kind of like my waterbed in the morning when I know I should be getting up but instead stay put for another five minutes of sprawl time. She has a preschooler and a toddler in her van, so she too stays put.
The wind blows and the children brave it while attempting to hone their ball handling skills. My van shakes. I type another sentence. My baby moves and coos but seems content.
The wind is only the beginning. I’ve had children in soccer for three years now. They have practiced and played in rain, sleet, snow, bitter cold, and more wind. Occasionally they’ve enjoyed a sunny day for a practice and game. The league provides oversize jerseys which can be worn over coats on game days. On the sunny warm days they look like dresses. Either way, they help the parents and referees keep the teams straight.
If some extra terrestrial visitors were to fly over the soccer field today, they would probably assume that we earthlings engaged in a unique form of child torture. We make them get out and run around in the wind while we sit inside our warm vehicles playing with our electronic toys.
On the other hand the children don’t seem to mind. My preschooler who is not on a soccer team is also out braving the wind. She came back to the van to tell me she’d made a new friend. They are happily sliding down the slide. We’ll be here for an hour and a half or so. Then we’ll go home and make dinner. I might treat my crew with hot chocolate. I’m hoping the wind succeeded in helping them expend some of their boundless energy and that they will all sleep very well tonight.
Kids, coaches and balls out in the field braving the wind. Moms, babies and electronics in the neatly parked vans. First game this Saturday. The local insanity we call soccer season is well underway.
Christian evangelism is a bit of a touchy subject these days. Non Christians are understandably uncomfortable with the thought of being viewed as one of their Christian friends’ “projects.” Examples of ways to evangelize badly are numerous, and it seems so many approach it as a war to be waged. The recent movie God’s Not Dead from the Evangelical Christian world is one example, as reviewed here. In the Catholic world, the sheer abundance of online pages dedicated to proving us as the True Church and shoving it in the faces of our Protestant brothers and sisters is actually embarrassing to me as a practicing Catholic.
Unbelievers are uncomfortable with this for fairly obvious reasons. Christians are uncomfortable with this too but may not realize there’s a better way. And so we sadly come to the conclusion that evangelism is simply not something we are called to do. We might feel guilty about it, assuming that our unwillingness to shove our faith into others’ faces is due to a fundamental lack of fervor and courage on our part. Or we might conclude that when Jesus commanded us to go out to all nations and make disciples, He didn’t really mean us, or if He did, He surely didn’t intend for us to actually use words to do it. We even have a quote attributed to St. Francis which goes something like this: “Preach the Gospel. Use words if necessary.” For the record, St. Francis never said that, and he actually used a great many words to preach the Gospel in his day.
I personally was stuck in the midst of this cognitive dissonance for many years. I didn’t want to be the sort of Christian who used the Bible as a weapon or shoved my faith in people’s faces, because I don’t like being on the receiving end of this. Being a Catholic who has spent my entire adult life hanging out with Evangelical Christians I have run into my fair share of the anti-Catholic variety. I have gotten into debates with such people in which my entire life of faith (imperfect as it is) and my own knowledge of Scripture and my own experience of God were smugly brought into question and repudiated, and somehow the fact that try as I might I couldn’t find one single thing about my faith which truly contradicted Scripture made me a complete idiot in their eyes. It’s not a fun place to be. More importantly, it’s not a conducive environment for conversion of any kind to take place. Needless to say, I do not wish to return the favor.
In the course of my life I noticed something interesting. I do not have a lot of friends who have become Catholic as a result of anything I said or did, but there have been a few. There have also been a few friends who became Christian and something about me, my words or my actions, played a role in their conversion. None of those converts were people I ever intentionally set out to evangelize or change in any way. We had a fairly normal friendship, hung out together, talked, shared, laughed. In some cases we hardly ever interacted. I once had a classmate stop me on my college campus and proceed to pour out her life story to me, chronicling many problems which were very much over my head. She ended the conversation by explaining to me that she knew I had a connection to God and could help her. I was dumbfounded. This conversation actually led to the two of us studying the Bible together for several months and God miraculously resolving many of the problems she originally came to me with before we lost touch a few years later.
In the mean time people I was more deliberately trying to evangelize remained unconverted. It almost seemed like the less effort I put into evangelizing, the more likely it was that my friend would convert. And yet, there were also plenty of people in my life who I never tried to evangelize and as far as I know they never converted to a life of faith. In other words, it seemed like this truly random and uncontrollable thing. Trying too hard was definitely not fruitful. Not trying at all occasionally led to someone’s conversion. The overall results weren’t that great, but I definitely saw a better chance in not trying than in trying. So I more or less developed this philosophy that evangelism was something that was completely out of my control and that I shouldn’t try to do. If someone was drawn to Christ because of me, then that was wonderful. But I had no idea how to go about improving the odds of that happening. And I honestly didn’t know anyone who knew, or at least I didn’t think I did.
I didn’t give evangelism much more thought until a few years ago when the new pastor at my husband’s church started talking about it from the pulpit. Like many evangelical Christians, he believes that souls will by default go to hell unless they come to faith in Christ. From that perspective the world is just teeming with people who are destined to be forever lost unless he (and all Christians) personally set out to reach them. I learned a couple things about myself from listening to such sermons. The first was that guilt was a poor motivator for me. The thought of my loved ones, friends and neighbors going to hell unless I do something doesn’t bother me. I don’t mean that I don’t care about where they go after they die. I just do not find in me any ability to hold myself personally responsible, and even if I could work up some feelings of such responsibility, those feelings do not motivate me to change anything about the way I relate to them. What it really comes down to, is that I cannot be externally motivated into acting in a way that is unnatural to me, and randomly popping a question along the lines of “Do you know where you will go after you die?” is 99 percent of the time going to be very awkward.
The other thing I learned about myself is that I don’t actually believe that people will automatically go to hell unless they in some way I can comprehend place their faith and trust in Jesus. I believe hell is certainly a real possibility, and honestly the risk alone should be good enough reason for Christians to set out to reach them with the Good News of Jesus Christ. But I don’t see it as an automatic thing because I may simply be unaware of the way God has been moving in their lives and in their heart. In other words, it is not my place to say one way or the other. A more accurate way of expressing my view is that I have a really difficult time with the sense of urgency or guilt that often accompanies that view (when people really stop to ponder the implications). Oh my goodness, people are dying every day and they go to hell unless I right now go out and do something! It sounds too much like panic to me. It’s certainly a lot of pressure.
When I read Sacred Scripture I see God doing many things, but He rarely seems to be in a hurry to accomplish anything. He allowed His people to live in slavery for several hundred years. When He rescued them, he then allowed them to wander in the desert for forty years after they had complained one time too many, and made it clear they weren’t ready for the promised land. He put up with years of wicked kings and all kinds of sin, and then allowed His people to be conquered and forced to live in exile for seventy years. God eventually entered creation as Jesus, but only “in the fullness of time.” God is infinitely patient. I don’t see Him in any sort of panic about the many people in this world who are suffering and dying without knowledge of Him, and yet I do not question His love for them. While my own love for them is surely lacking and imperfect, I do not see any reason that anxiety, pressure or panic should necessarily have any part of my love being made complete and perfect. And at this point I tend to associate the anxiety with the “they go to hell by default” view, so I reject the view at the moment.
But none of this is to say that I don’t care about souls who might go to hell or about evangelizing them. This same pastor has rightfully pointed out that many arguments against taking the Great Commission literally are more about making excuses for our own apathy. All of my previous points could very well fall under that category so please don’t take them as anything more than me sharing my story. I’m speaking of my own journey, not trying to convince you I’m right.
In any case, regardless of how I might have rationalized my own ineffectiveness as an evangelist, none of these arguments could withstand something that was starting to grow deep inside me, something that I can only describe as a growing hunger to reach souls, a growing desire to go out and share my faith, unspoken words that were just starting to burn within me, threatening to grow into something I would not be able to keep in or contain.
I was blissfully unaware of these stirrings within me until one fateful day I went to talk to the pastor about something I thought was strictly administrative. I had offered to help out with a particular ministry I was already involved with and he had reservations because he saw the role I was seeking as evangelistic in nature. We had already gone over ways in which as a Catholic I do not resonate with the evangelical Gospel message so he didn’t want to put me in an awkward position.
Without realizing it I had knocked on a door into a world of evangelism, and was told I couldn’t enter. It was actually truly devastating news as in that moment I became aware of this deep desire to evangelize burning inside me like a fire. At that point it could no longer be contained.
It was only a matter of time before I would ask myself the question: “How do Catholics evangelize?” At the time I really didn’t know. Catholics have developed a reputation of not evangelizing, of not even talking about their faith. And the ones who do are rather obnoxious about it–people like Michael Voris and authors of many snarky online sites dedicated to teaching those heathens (and Protestants) a lesson about the True Church. But normal Catholics tend to say their faith is such a personal matter that it’s really not something you can just put out there for anyone to trample on.
This last point I have found is actually very true. My faith is a deeply personal matter. It is the thing about myself I most cherish and treasure. The thought of someone heartlessly cutting it down or trampling all over it makes my heart sick, enough to make me want to keep silent even when I need to speak. I have, however, come to the conclusion that as painful as it is to have one’s faith rejected, that is not a good enough reason to avoid sharing it. Jesus Himself was cruelly rejected and He reached out anyway. So I recognize that anytime I share my faith I’m putting my heart out there and yes it might come back to me in a wounded and bloody mess, but sharing my faith is still worth doing.
I put the question to Google and came up with a few interesting initiatives which were all going on somewhere else. I even contacted the director of one of those initiatives and asked if he offered training for people so others could do what he was doing, and he didn’t have anything like that.
Then the thought came to me: “Surely there is something going on in the Archdiocese of Denver!” So I opened up the website and sure enough I found the office of evangelism and contacted the director inquiring about what kind of evangelism was going on in Denver and Northern Colorado. He put me in touch with Aimee Cooper, who is in the process of developing the Catholic Gospel Project, a work borne out of many hours spent taking the Gospel message in the fullness of the Catholic tradition door to door.
It didn’t happen immediately but Aimee and I eventually connected and I started taking her classes. This coincided perfectly with accepting a position at my own parish where I essentially get paid to evangelize.
I was expecting to learn some specific methods of evangelism, and I did learn a little bit about methods and techniques. But mostly I learned about my own faith, the faith handed down from Jesus and His Apostles and faithfully kept and transmitted through 2,000 years of history so that it could reach me. It’s not that I learned anything new exactly–I’d studied my faith and knew all the components. I’d just never heard it presented in such a beautiful, compelling, and concise manner before. I couldn’t wait to make the message my own and start sharing it with everyone I knew.
But here’s the rub. I also finally understood the reason for my previous largely ineffective efforts at evangelism. The Catholic Gospel Message, like the Catholic faith it summarizes, is attractive and compelling. When I first heard it I found myself pondering it for many days afterwards, something I’d never experienced after hearing the Evangelical Gospel Message. However, although anyone could in theory memorize the words and speak them to someone else, and that someone else could be moved to faith by hearing it, the power of the message appears to be highly dependent on the interior life of the one sharing it.
What is an interior life? It is the inner spiritual life of a person whose life is completely given over to Jesus–the process Jesus takes his or her soul through to get to a point of complete union with God. It is something that those truly serious about their walk with God have. However, it is not mere fervor about the tenets of faith. In the Catholic world there are many people who have deeply studied theology and apologetics, but that doesn’t mean they have a deep interior life. There are others who may engage in prayer-related activities for many hours in a day but it doesn’t necessarily mean they are genuinely connecting with and being transformed by God. I don’t mean to judge anyone, but it is important to note that an interior life isn’t a sure thing just because someone attends church, knows a lot about the faith or even is very fervent about it.
The interior life is that place where one’s soul interacts–really interacts–with Jesus (really, with God, as in each member of the Trinity). It is that point where Jesus comes in and makes real changes in the soul, to where the person is truly transformed following the encounter. It’s not about a person making a mental shift, though that can be part of it. It’s a soul change that is just as real as a physical change, and which will reverberate throughout the person’s life, affecting the way he or she lives and behaves.
The interior life happens through prayer–the type of prayer which goes beyond either reciting memorized prayers or petitioning for one’s needs, but ventures into meditation on God’s word found in Sacred Scripture and contemplation of God Himself. This prayer is anchored in the sacramental life of the Church, as in relies on the sacraments of reconciliation and Eucharist, and it follows a generally predictable series of stages (as observed from hundreds of years of the experiences of the saints who have walked this road) while also being unique to each soul. A true interior life also appears to be anchored in suffering, as God uses the imperfect and often painful circumstances of a soul’s life to refine and shape that soul to His liking. The initial stages for sure involve a lot of suffering from the sheer process of refinement and transformation, as a soul that is broken and wounded by original sin (as well as a history of personal sin) is repaired and remade into the way God planned it to be without the mark of sin.
It was this that was missing from my life for the greater part of my adulthood. It’s not that I didn’t believe in God; it’s not that I didn’t attend church or pray or study Scripture. That’s what’s so tricky about it because you can “do all the right things” but still have your soul ruled more by pride than by God’s love, and still have the door of your soul closed to Him really moving in. This situation doesn’t make you bad or “unsaved.” It may not even be your fault, as in no one ever told you there was more to the Christian life. But it does mean that God has some challenges in truly reaching you, and you are not going to be operating out of His full power, and your work for Him will lack the kind of effectiveness that should be your inheritance as His child.
In my case what it came down to was that my soul largely followed my own leading, rather than God’s. My will was king, rather than God’s will. I would put decisions in my life before Him, even ask Him to reveal His will for me. But it was my will which prevailed. If it happened to agree with God’s will, then that was a bonus. But I didn’t realize how very un-surrendered to God I was.
And there really wasn’t any way I could change that. God Himself had to show me, and He had to do it in a way that did not violate my free will but yet made it clear to me that He wanted me to freely give Him my will and take His instead.
This did not happen all at once but over the past couple years I took the epic step of giving Him my will and surrendering my life and my being to His will. Then I took a couple classes on prayer and suffering which essentially confirmed the process God was already taking me through as well as helped move things along much faster. He started speaking to me through others or directly about how my life wasn’t really my own, He prompted me to a place of making regular use of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and then He helped make me more accepting of the whole idea of suffering (as well as the reality). It’s been a process, and I feel as if it is just beginning, but at least it’s getting off the ground and going somewhere. I am definitely growing.
Interestingly enough, a huge part of what has brought me to the place of deciding that it’s really worth going through the pain of dying to my will in favor of living in God’s will was the realization that doing so would ultimately make me truly effective at evangelizing other souls. Clearly at some point the desire to win souls for Christ became an overriding one.
And it remains an overriding driving force in my life. I think about the people in my life who I do regularly share my faith with–mostly people at my church who actually listen to what I have to say (yes, there are a few). In the past year I’ve shared the Good News of Jesus with people who really didn’t know, I’ve shown people how the Bible is structured and how to read it, I’ve even begun to share more openly about what Jesus is doing within me (mainly because I know He longs to do the same for them). And the entire time I’ve grown in a deep awareness, in a joyful non-pressured sort of way, of how important it is for their sake that Jesus completes what He is doing inside my soul. It’s almost as if they are watching the process or something, and I want them to see a real good example. And I want them to have every reason to follow my lead and entrust their own lives to Jesus.
It’s one of these full circle sort of things. A deep desire to evangelize got awakened within me, and this led me to begin to experience that elusive interior life (it shouldn’t be elusive, but for a lot of modern Catholics it has been, and that’s a whole ‘nother story), which is just barely beginning to bear fruit in the sense that I am now aware of something real and potentially powerful backing up my evangelism efforts. And that fruit is also motivating me to open my heart and soul even more to Jesus doing whatever He wants to do in me (regardless of any pain or discomfort His action within me causes).
The result for now is that for me, evangelism is becoming less of this random unpredictable thing of great unease, and more and more something that I just do, not because I’m saying anything in particular but because I am starting to be aware of Jesus’ life flowing out of me. OK, so right now that flow is a mere trickle, but there is outward movement, and great potential for even more outward movement. Mostly I feel like I am living out the Gospel on the inside and basically beginning to show it to the people in my life, which makes the words I speak make a lot more sense, at least to me, because they are backed up by reality (as opposed to mere theory). This makes me more comfortable saying the words in the first place.
I’ve spent a lot of time and used a lot of words to describe a process inside me that can probably be best summed up by the following principle: it really helps to be actually living out what I am preaching.
My children’s sense of justice is growing rapidly. They are quick to point out when something is not fair. An accumulation of unfair events can push them over the edge.
They long to right the wrongs. As a result I have listened to many heartfelt and tearful statements along the lines of “K had two turns sitting in the front seat and I haven’t gotten a turn,” or “L always gets to play on your tablet first and that’s not fair!” or “I never get to have special time with Dad but E always does.”
I generally try to not be a defensive person, but there is nothing like the direct or implicit accusation of having perverted justice to turn on my big capital D defensive lever to full throttle. Oh that cuts deeply to the heart, that I, their own mother, have engaged in such an epic miscarriage of justice. I usually don’t entertain thoughts along the lines of what a terrible and inadequate mother I am, but the accusation of being unfair can bring to life depressing thoughts I never knew I was harboring. Oh the horrors!
When I was a child the response I most remember hearing from grownups when I brought forth my own complaints about injustice was “Life is not fair.” A group of old friends from my elementary school once got chatting on Facebook about our school days, and a few of them remembered a teacher who very often would say: “Life is not fair. Repeat after me: life is not fair.”
I tried that line with my children once and it fell completely flat. They somehow did not make the magic connection between life being generally unfair and it being OK for their life to be unfair. I needed to find a different approach.
One of the younger children is still learning about the importance of saying please. It’s not just about the magic word, it’s about having a polite tone of voice, making a request rather than a demand. She forgets so her dad and I have taken to reminding her by asking: “Do you have a request?”
Usually that is enough of a reminder for her to rephrase her “you better give this to me, or else!” demand no one wants to meet into a sweet “can I please have this?” request no one can resist. But sometimes she needs us to rephrase it for her so she can repeat it. Sometimes we’ll ask her to repeat it three times for practice.
Like many parents I struggle with the first world problem of children who are picky eaters. My children aren’t extremely choosy, but they do seem to rotate through disliking ordinary foods at an alarming rate. I fix a meal. They tell me they don’t like it. I tell them they have two choices: take it or leave it. They’re not convinced. I lecture them about having a grateful rather than complaining heart.
If they get too much into the complaining part, I retell one of the stories of the Israelites complaining in the desert, playing their part in the most obnoxious whining voice I can muster: “Were there not enough graves in Egypt that you had to bring us out here to die in this desert? If only we could go back to Egypt where we could eat cucumbers and leeks! Here all we get is this manna, and we’re gonna all die of thirst anyway. Why can’t we have meat for a change?” I’m paraphrasing, but that’s the gist of it. Whine, whine, whine. Grumble, grumble, grumble. Complain, complain, complain. Whenever you are reading the stories of the Israelites grumbling in the desert, you have to put on the most whining voice possible–it really makes the story. There’s also this great song by Keith Green that makes fun of the different ways they might have complained.
When I was younger (definitely before I had my own children) I thought God was rather tough on His people just for a little complaining. After all, their needs were real and at times quite desperate. At one point they were completely out of water. Everyone knows you can’t survive long, especially exposed to the elements, without water. What’s wrong with asking God to give you water when you’re thirsty?
The answer is nothing. There’s nothing wrong with asking God for water when you’re thirsty, or your favorite meal on your birthday, or a brand new sports car, or a million dollars. There is nothing wrong with making a polite request to God about anything. If you say please, it’s even better.
God would not have minded if the Israelites had asked Him for food when they were hungry, asked Him for water when they were thirsty, and asked Him for meat when they felt the need for more protein. He clearly wanted to give them all those things as shown by the fact that He did. The part He hated was the way they asked Him. His people were not making requests; they were making demands and accusations. They accused God on more than one occasion of intending to kill them all from the beginning. They demanded He give them what they wanted as if He owed them something.
After fielding similar demands and accusations from my own children (“you just want to make my life miserable!”), I can totally relate to the burning anger. Sometimes everything I most value about my motherhood can be brought into doubt by one particularly rude demand. And I don’t like it one bit. And yes, my anger has burned against them as a result. And I won’t even pretend it was a holy anger either.
One morning a few days ago my seven-year-old came to speak to me. The expression on her face and her stiff posture told me she was geared up for a fight. She started to chronicle all the previous times that her older sister had gotten to sit in the front seat of the van and the many times she had been “forced” to sit in the back. She ended her litany with an emphatic: “And that’s not fair!”
My mind started to run through some defenses and refutations of what my daughter had just said. I certainly felt as if she was holding me personally responsible for all this misery and injustice. I opened my mouth to say something, and what came out was: “Do you have a request?”
She looked at me blankly. I prompted her. “It sounds like you really want to sit in the front seat of the van. Is that what you want?” She nodded. “OK, how about asking me for a turn sitting in the front seat.”
“Mom, can I please sit in the front next time we drive somewhere?”
“You sure can. Just remind me when we’re loading up.”
And that’s when it hit me. My parents and teachers were right when they told me as a child that life was fundamentally unfair. I realize now that what they meant was that a state of unfairness is life’s default option. And it helps to know and understand this. However, we don’t have to accept life’s unfairness all the time. We have a very powerful recourse at our disposal. It’s called the polite request, you know where you ask nicely and say please.
Did a sibling get an extra cookie the last time there was an odd number of cookies to divide up? Would you like the extra cookie next time? Then how about asking for it? Has it been a long time since you had some special one on one time with a parent? Then ask for some special time.
I have found that while my children do occasionally ask for truly impossible things, for the most part their wants and needs are quite reasonable and I’m happy to do what I can to fulfill them. I just find myself getting off track when those wants and needs are presented to me as demands and accompanied with accusations. The demands and accusations feel like an attack and my first priority becomes to ward off the attack, which unfortunately also means warding off the core want or need if I can’t separate the two.
The question “Do you have a request?” is a great way for me to gently put the responsibility of separating the two back onto them, and giving them the opportunity to express their desire in a way that is more likely to get a favorable response, whether they are asking me, a friend, a future adult coworker, or God Himself. If “please” is the magic word, then “Do you have a request?” must be the magic sentence.
If the Israelites had phrased their petitions to God as simple requests, I believe God would not have been so angry with them. In fact, He would have delighted in meeting their needs in amazing and miraculous ways. As it was, He did meet their needs in miraculous and amazing ways, but it clearly wasn’t fun for anyone.
If requests get a much better response (even when the answer is no, at least no one’s anger is being kindled against anyone), then why is it that often my first instinct whether I’m dealing with my children, my husband, or God, is to make a demand, and a loaded one at that?
I think the reason is that it’s actually difficult to make a polite request. It’s not so much saying the words–that’s easy. But there’s a certain attitude that must be in place for the words to seem natural. This attitude includes a releasing of any sense of entitlement that might go along with the request. This comes into play most often when there’s some sort of ongoing conflict. Maybe my husband told me he would do a certain thing for me but he forgot and his forgetting inconvenienced me. Maybe this happens once a week (or translated into my filter, All. The. Time.) The challenge for me lies in the situation where I will once again ask my husband to do this particular thing and refrain from unloading the baggage of all the previous occasions when I make my request. There is a time and a place for dealing with the baggage, but it’s not when I’m making the particular request.
I tell my children that sometimes when they ask me for something like a glass of milk, if there is a lot of chaos or the baby suddenly needs a diaper change, I might completely forget all about their request. I tell them they need to ask me again just as politely as they did the first time. I really don’t want to hear all about how I didn’t get it for them the first time they asked.
When there have been previous requests that went unanswered (for whatever reason), making a polite request again becomes an act of faith and hope, as well as one of forgiveness. It’s also an act of humility. Humility is many things, but one of them is a conscious decision to not insist on one’s legitimate rights. When you make a polite request, you are choosing to let go of whatever may be owed to you (either in your own mind or truly legitimately). You are in a sense laying down your rights. You are giving the person a fresh start because you are not holding a score card in front of them when you simply ask. It is an act of unconditional love.
Those qualities of faith, hope, forgiveness, humility and especially love are not generally default qualities and so must be cultivated and worked on. If we don’t really have those qualities in us, then making a polite request will be more difficult. I think it’s general lack of virtue that makes the act of making a polite request feel awkward and unnatural. But the good news is that making requests is something that can be practiced, and such practice will open up the possibilities of growing in these virtues as well. So if the virtuous life seems out of reach, we can all at least practice making polite requests. And this goes for prayer too.
When I go to pray to God about a particular situation that is upsetting me, sometimes I will find myself beginning to make demands, then justifying them by telling Him all about what He owes me, then accusing Him of something terrible if He won’t give me what I want (after all, it’s the least He can do). Then I can almost hear Him cut through all that grumbling and complaining with one simple question: “Do you have a request?”
Oh. Right. Rewind.
The sacrament of reconciliation is indispensable to me in my quest to grow in holiness–to be made perfect as my heavenly Father is perfect. The Catholic Church considers it to be so important that she requires everyone go to Confession once a year (during Lent) at a minimum, but strongly encourages people to go at least once a month. Practicing Catholics typically make a point to visit the confessional during Advent and Lent, and Catholic parishes make doing so easier during those seasons.
Sacramental confession is also one of the more misunderstood aspects of Catholic belief and practice, so I wanted to share candidly about it not so much to defend it as a sound Biblical practice (many apologists have already done that), but to give some insight into the experience itself. What does the process look like? What does it feel like? What is the actual impact on one’s life?
Sanctification: where our intent meets the road Those of us who are Christians all profess a belief that we come into this world as fallen, broken people carrying inside us sin that truly mars and debilitates us, and even goes so far as to make us abhorrent to God. To make matters worse, we cannot on our own do anything about that sin. The only hope we have lies in the fact that while we still sin, God loves us anyway, and rescues us. He gives us faith which we express by believing in Him, and we also declare our sincere intent to turn away from sin and entrust our lives to Him. This is salvation.
Then our pilgrimage towards heaven really begins. We tend to think of heaven as a really nice place we (who have obtained salvation) get to go to after we die, almost as if it were a geographical location (though inaccessible until death). That view of heaven isn’t necessarily wrong, but I think it is very incomplete. I view heaven more as a term used to describe a spiritual state in which a soul is completely joined to and united with God. When a soul reaches that state, it is “in heaven” regardless of whether the body associated with that soul is alive or dead. The general observation is that most people die with much to be desired in terms of complete union with God, so we tend to conclude that reaching such a state is impossible for those of us still living. But there have been souls who have by God’s grace achieved very near complete union with God while still on earth. The Church canonizes them as Saints and holds them up as examples for the rest of us to emulate.
But they didn’t start off that way. They were born with the same original sin we all inherit, struggled with the same boring old personal sins we face daily, and it took them the greater part of their lives to go from being ruled by sin to being truly purified of sin and instead ruled by and in perfect love with God. In other words, their sincere intent to turn away from sin which they declared at the initial moment of salvation became an actual daily practice of turning away from sin (and then walking far away from it) and directing themselves instead to the ways of God. Their intent to entrust their lives to God also turned into an actual practice of yielding to God’s will on a moment by moment basis in every aspect of their lives. Rather than being their own boss (or at least thinking of it that way), they surrendered that privilege to God. At first it was awkward and difficult and very limited, but as they learned and grew, it became more natural to them and God made good on His claim on their lives at ever deeper interior levels.
We think of this process as sanctification or the road to holiness. It is a very real process, and it produces real transformation. This means the person undergoing this process is being changed from a broken sinner into a truly holy saint in ways that are noticeable. Interior transformation leads to physically observable exterior change in the way the person lives out his life and conducts her affairs. It also means this person is objectively less of a sinner further along in the process than he was at the start.
This is an important point because for many today, faith seems to be primarily an intellectual exercise. We tend to view it as adherence to a particular set of doctrines. For example, in the Protestant world if you believe in predestination, you’re a Calvinist; if you believe in free will you’re Arminian. These differences in perspective tend to be viewed as “nonessentials” in the sense that no one can really know for sure because Sacred Scripture doesn’t spell it out in a way that lends itself to categorization. And so it goes with a number of beliefs about the way sanctification works.
All these beliefs become meaningless in the face of going through an actual process of sanctification. At that point you’re going to believe as true what you are actually experiencing. In other words, it is very likely that endless opinions and arguments about how the process works is a symptom of not actually being involved in such a process, or at the very least, not fully engaged in it. And I believe that stems from a belief that such a process doesn’t actually happen, is not real beyond how our brain wants to define it. My point is that it is a real process. It is a real experience. It does change a soul in real and tangible ways. It is transformative. If you are a Christian and it’s not happening, then you may be missing something, and should take that to prayer.
Now that we have established that sanctification is not a mind game, but a Very Real Process which significantly changes us on the inside with that transformation making a noticeable impact on our external behavior, the question then becomes how does it work?
We Catholics believe that Jesus gives us the grace and the support we need to embark on this interior road to holiness through the Church. The sacrament of reconciliation is one of the helps He gives us, and it works in the context of everything else He offers through His Church.
One priest compared administering the sacrament of reconciliation to taking out the garbage. To explain how this works means to back up and talk about how the process of refinement works.
Refining the gold I regularly prepare stock out of chicken bones for my family. The process is fairly simple. First, all the ingredients (bones, onions, celery, vinegar, salt, water) are added to the stock pot and allowed to sit at room temperature for an hour. Then I turn on the stove and bring the mixture to a boil. In the process of boiling, many impurities come up to the surface and appear as a brownish foamy substance. I take a spoon and skim off this foam. The closer the mixture comes to a full boil, the more foam shows up on the surface, and the more I have to skim it off. Any impurities I do not skim off will just go back into the stock once it reaches a full boil and at that point it will become part of every meal that I make with the stock.
Sacred Scripture compares the soul to gold and the sanctification process to the fire raw gold must pass through in order to be be separated from all the impurities found in the ore.
So combine the gold in a hot furnace analogy with the stock analogy. Imagine molten gold in a giant stock pot with the various things that are not gold (rocks, leaves, sticks, dirt, other metals, whatever else is typically found in gold ore) bubbling up to the surface. Then imagine someone who is impervious to the heat of the fire with a giant broad spoon or ladle skimming off those impurities and getting rid of them. Once those impurities are skimmed off, they are gone from the gold forever. But those impurities which get reabsorbed back into the liquid are still there and will need to come back up to the surface and get skimmed off at a later time. Unlike the stock where the cook can never truly rid it of all impurities, imagine the gold refining going on for as long as it takes until the absolute last impurity has been removed, so that what remains is pure gold. Finally, to make the combined analogy more interesting (as well as accurate) imagine that in some mysterious way, the gold has a say over the skimming process, even gets to decide which impurities on the surface will be skimmed first as well as decide that it would rather hold onto other impurities (in which case they will resurface at another time).
In the above analogy, the gold is the soul in the process of sanctification. The fire represents those things in life which tend to bring sin to the surface–usually some kind of suffering. The impurities are the sins, and until the soul is exposed to the refining fire, those sins are so deeply joined to the soul as to be impossible to separate. The heat (suffering) is very important to the process. The heat separates the sin and draws it to the surface where the soul can see it. Jesus is the man holding the ladle. The sacrament of reconciliation is the ladle itself. Jesus uses the sacrament of reconciliation to skim off the sins which we bring to the confessional. When He removes those sins in that way, they are gone forever and will not trouble the soul again. Verbally confessing specific sins to the priest essentially gives Jesus permission to remove them.
Any kind of discussion about sacramental confession tends to bring up questions and objections from people who do not believe it is necessary for the forgiveness of sin. I want to address some of them here. Again, I am not an apologist or theologian so no one should take my thoughts to be exhaustive of what the Church teaches; however I do believe what I say conforms to what the Church teaches.
Why is confessing to a priest necessary? Doesn’t God forgive my sins the first moment I repent of them? I honestly believe that God has already forgiven all my sins, every last one of them, even before I committed them. When I first discover a sin in my soul, it is no great news to Him. Not only has He known I would commit it from the beginning of time, He has already forgiven it. In a sense, telling me I’m forgiven is a mere formality. So of course I am forgiven from the moment I first express sorrow and an intent to repent of this sin. The sorrow for sin and intent to repent of it is what prompts my visit to the confessional in the first place, and yes by the time I get there, God has already forgiven the sin.
When Jesus was being nailed to the Cross, He asked His Father to forgive all those who were party to His murder “for they know not what they do.” His forgiveness of them was unquestionable and available to every last one of them. However Scripture records very few people who actually received his forgiveness–the thief who stood up for Him and the centurion who pierced His side. Both of them received it through using their words to speak the intent that was on their heart–either asking for it outright (“Remember me when you enter into your kingdom,”) or simply acknowledging the truth of who Jesus is. Words are important. They bring to life the intent of our soul. God Himself used words to create the world, though I’m reasonably certain He also thought about it.
God does honor our intent–the unspoken resolve that lies in our soul. However, He invites us to speak our intent. In the case of sacramental confession, we speak of our resolve to repent of the specific sins on our conscience.
Words are also powerful. People who struggled with fear of a certain worst case scenario (losing a job, having a friend think poorly of them, etc.) have experienced a remarkable deliverance from the fear from the mere act of verbally expressing the fear. I had that experience recently where I was afraid of something and as soon as I verbalized that fear to a friend it sounded absolutely ridiculous to me, even in the middle of expressing it. In a similar way, verbally confessing sin strips it of its power over us. Sin is an agent of darkness and as such prefers the darkness over the light. Naming that sin out loud brings it to the light. Once it is brought into the light, it can be removed. Jesus has already forgiven every sin that we confess; but the process of confessing sin is the way that He removes that sin from us, skims it off the surface of our soul.
Can’t God remove my sin without me going to confession? Sure. He’s God. In the gold refining analogy, God is the one with the ladle removing the impurities. Can’t God remove the impurities with His bare hand? Sure. He’s impervious to the heat. But God invented the ladle and prefers to use it. If He absolutely has to, He may use His bare hand. The Catholic Church refers to the normative way God acts while leaving room for the possibility of God operating outside of the norm. But is it really our place to demand that God go outside of the normative way on our behalf, just because He can? That strikes me as similar to the second temptation satan put to Jesus while He was in the desert, which was to throw himself off a cliff and expect his Father to defy the law of gravity (which He created) to save his life. Yes, God has done that at times, but it’s really something we should leave to His discretion.
So why does God prefer to use the ladle? I’m sure the apologists have many more answers for this one, but here is why sacramental confession has been so effective for me. We believe the very first act of disobedience came out of the sin of pride. God created the angels to serve Him and follow His commands, and one third of them said “I will not.” They clearly thought they could do things better than God. God told Adam and Eve to avoid eating from a certain tree. They succumbed to the temptation to become like God (in their way, not His) by eating the forbidden fruit. Pride is the most deeply rooted and insidious of all sins. It lies at the root of all other sins. Fundamentally, all sin is the result of us in some way refusing to yield to God because we think our way is better than His way. For this reason, purifying us of sin is as much about laying the ax to its root cause as it is about removing the specific sin that gets confessed.
Our pride is like this enormous tough tree root which is deeply embedded inside our soul. It has grown into our soul so much we hardly ever see it and instead consider it part of who we are. There is only one way to get rid of it, and that is to destroy it. But it can’t be destroyed in one fell swoop; it takes many many strikes with the ax to chip away at it. And if the ax takes too much time off from striking, the tree starts to grow back together and then the ax has to start all over.
Much of the sanctification process is about chipping away at that pride. God will use any and every means at his disposal to strike our pride. The most common form of suffering a soul endures is humiliation–that feeling you get in an embarrassing moment. Yes, God allows those embarrassing moments to happen so that He can use the humiliation to take another blow at our pride, and the circumstances of our lives often provide Him with ample opportunity. All we have to do to take full advantage is to yield to Him as the one who wielded the ax in the first place.
But He has also built into his ladle, sacramental confession, the perfect opportunity for us to present our pride to Him for a good blow or two. If yielding to His use of the ax of humiliation on our pride is the best way to work with Him to effectively rid us of it, then what better way to yield to such an ax than to voluntarily present ourselves for its blows? In other words, of our own free will and volition, present ourselves for humiliation. And what better way to do that than to verbally speak of our sins to another real live human being, and then accept God’s absolution through the same real live human being? Trust me, it goes against my deepest sense of pride to verbally confess my sins, to submit myself to sacramental confession. When I go I’m nervous enough that I have to read my sins from a list I’ve created ahead of time, and I forget my Act of Contrition which any other time I can recite from memory. It is very uncomfortable and I really do not enjoy it. But every time I go, whack, whack, whack… my pride takes a few solid hits.
Just to be clear, I will say that the priest who hears my confessions is in no way given license to add to the humiliation of confessing sins. The priest adheres to some pretty strict boundaries and he knows his role is that of transmitting God’s healing and grace to the penitent. Most of the time the priests I have confessed to have been very affirming and encouraging. When I refer to the humiliation inherent in sacramental confession I am referring specifically to that associated with the act of confessing sin itself. The entire experience of going to confession is an upbuilding one, as one would expect when it’s about the complete removal of sins.
Once I have finished going to confession all the sins that I confessed are gone and I am truly free of them. This means that they will not resurface or weigh me down ever again. Sacred Scripture tells us that God removes our sins from us as far as the east is from the west, and that is really true. Once a sin is confessed and absolved, it is gone, over, done with, never to return.
Fixing up the fixer-upper Then what happens? At this point I have to bring in a different analogy–that of a master builder finding the perfect home to live in. But the home has fallen into disrepair and will need much renovation in order for him to fully live in it. He will move into the house upon taking possession of it, but it will be rough–more like camping–at first. However, as he works on fixing it up, it will over time become more and more of a true home for him.
The actual process of remodeling the home, things like retiling floors, replacing drywall, knocking out a wall to build an extension, or cutting out a piece of the wall to add a window, is analogous to the process of spiritual growth, those components of being made holy that aren’t always directly related to the removal of sin, but are more focused on the repair and restoration of the wounds of our soul caused by sin. In other words, the spiritual equivalent of knocking out a part of the wall and installing a window is not the same thing as removing sin, though it often involves removing sin–it’s remaking the structure of the soul itself.
In this case, the sin is like the trash that accumulates when the renovating work is in full swing. It can be former parts of the house that are taken off, or it can be trash brought in from the outside. In any case, over time the trash will accumulate and clutter the place up, and if left too long, will actually interfere with the master builder’s ability to continue with the renovations.
Going to confession is like taking out the trash. The sanctification process shakes loose a lot of the deeply ingrained sin, and though it has gotten shaken loose, it is still inside the soul cluttering up the living space, and interfering with the renovation process. Part of the master builder’s job is to regularly take out the trash. Sacramental confession is the set of tools he uses to take out the trash. Just like with the gold in the previous analogy, in this case, the house gets to decide (under the influence of the master builder but never by force) when it’s time for trash removal.
Like clutter sin bogs down the process of being made holy. Even if we know what it is and we’re truly sorry it’s there, if it’s not removed it’s going to get in the way. Going to confession frequently is like having a basically well ordered home that is often policed for trash and clutter. Going to confession rarely is like having a home where trash removal is this epic and massive task, and where many months might have gone by where further renovations were made impossible by the sheer accumulation of trash. Think of the “Hoarders” reality show.
This brings up an important point which is this: the recognition of sin is not the same thing as the removal of sin. Many Christians will refer to situations where they were convicted about a particular sin by the Holy Spirit. This has often happened to me, and it’s a beautiful and important thing. The logical next step at this point is to take that sin to sacramental confession so that it truly goes away. If you don’t go to confession, you might still make great strides in not succumbing to that sin, so you’ll see some change. However, it’s not totally gone until it’s confessed. You will still be working around it, tripping over it, or it might eventually get reabsorbed into the gold (or home) and then need to be exposed back to the surface in the future. It’s a bit like removing a moldy piece of drywall, then propping it up against a different wall for an indefinite period of time. Yes, it’s wonderful that the moldy drywall no longer makes up part of your home’s actual structure, but it’s still in your home, and it’s likely its mold will continue to contaminate the house, possibly causing the need to replace the brand new drywall much sooner than you’d expect.
I personally am a pragmatist. Once I’ve had a sin exposed, I really don’t want to keep having to deal with it over and over again. I want to get the job done so I can move on to the next stage. I want that particular sin gone because I know it has many more companions lurking behind. In other words, I want to get on with it, especially the parts of the road to holiness that are more interesting and pleasant than garbage removal.
One morning about a week ago I opened up my Bible to the very first part of Isaiah 61. This is the passage that Jesus read in the synagogue as His public ministry was getting underway. He ran into trouble when He declared in all confidence that this passage has been fulfilled in Himself.
The part that really spoke to me was the second part, following the part quoted in the Gospel. The whole passage reads as follows, with the part that spoke to me in bold:
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion–to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, to display his glory. They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.
I know well that God comforts us in our grief. He doesn’t make it go away or give instant answers for why the thing that caused our grief happened. But He does comfort. When someone we know is grieving a great loss, we also want to comfort, and it is a beautiful and God-given desire. When we ourselves are grieving, we too long to experience His comfort through the people in our lives.
But this passage says that comfort is only the beginning. What happens next is truly amazing. There is actually this entire process of transformation and empowerment that is so beautifully outlined in this passage.
A garland instead of ashes, oil of gladness instead of mourning Ashes have long been a sign of mourning. The Bible mentions people covering themselves in ashes when they were grieving, especially when what they were grieving was their sins. In the book of Jonah, the king of Ninevah stepped off his throne and sat in ashes upon hearing the word of God that his city would be destroyed. Every year on the first day of Lent, Catholics and Christians from several mainline Protestant churches receive ashes on their foreheads as a sign of repentance from sin. It is right and fitting to mourn our sins and the damage to our relationship with God and others they have caused. To do so shows a deep longing for holiness–a hunger for righteousness–which God promises in the Beatitudes to satisfy.
But there comes a point where God wants to give us a garland instead of ashes. There comes a point when it’s time to celebrate. And God gives us the garland and the oil of gladness, along with the joy needed to truly engage in celebration. In the case of sin, He forgives and removes our sin from us, cleanses us so thoroughly of it that there remains nothing to grieve. In the case of a loss, as in a death, God gives us a reason to celebrate anyway.
A mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit Worship is a form of celebration. In fact, it’s the kind of celebration for which we were created. Everything in us is oriented to worship God. When for whatever reason we find ourselves unable to worship Him, we are in an unsustainable situation as our worship of God is necessary for our well being. Would the inability to worship God result in a faint spirit? Or is the faint spirit the reason for that inability?
Either way, God promises to give us a mantle of praise–the ability to worship Him. Sometimes people who are grieving find it difficult to eat. In a similar way, people who are grieving may find it difficult to worship God. And yet we know that both eating and worshiping God are vital to our health. God promises to provide that mantle of praise so that we can worship Him no matter what suffering we are enduring. In this way, our grief does not have to lead to us having a faint spirit.
Oaks of righteousness This is where it starts to get really good. We’ve been comforted; we’ve been given joy and the means to celebrate, we’ve been given the ability to worship. Next we get to be called Oaks of righteousness. There is something about this process that makes us genuinely holy. There is something in the comfort, the garland, the oil of gladness and the mantle of praise that we receive which also fills us with God’s own righteousness, to the point where we ourselves become righteous–a veritable tree coursing with righteousness. What an incredible promise to those in mourning of what we have to look forward to.
Displaying His glory It turns out righteousness is only the beginning. We also get to display God’s glory, which has to mean we ourselves get to be glorious. God is indescribable beauty, glory, power, awesomeness, grandeur and many other superlatively wonderful qualities, and our destiny is to display them.
St. Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians is overflowing with expressions of his great love for this particular group of people. He writes of a deep longing to see them, of not being able to bear a long time with no news of them (so he sent Timothy to visit them and bring him news), and how as much as wanting to share the Good News of Jesus with them, he wants to share his very self with them. Anyway, St. Paul’s love for the Thessalonians runs deep. He closes Chapter Two with these words: “For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? Yes, you are our glory and joy!”
I believe that as God is at work in me, he feels the same way towards me that St. Paul expressed towards the Thessalonians, only His love goes much deeper and is much stronger. He looks my way, beaming, and says: “Yes, you are my glory and joy!” I say this in the present in this outside of time sense. When all is fulfilled, this is how it is. In this temporal moment, it’s a work in progress which God sees, as well as its fulfillment which is in the temporal future. But to God it’s all NOW, and so I can confidently say I am His glory and joy. I think that is what being the planting of the Lord to display His glory means.
On a practical level it means that God is orchestrating this wonderful interior process inside me which transforms me from one who displays brokenness (my inheritance from the first sin), to one who displays His glory. The part I never really connected with before is how mourning is an integral part of this process–in this passage, it’s presented as the starting point.
Rebuilding the ancient ruins It gets even better. Once we are comforted in our grief, provided with a means to celebrate, given joy and the ability to praise, and made oaks of righteousness able to display God’s glory, then we go to work. And what is that work? Our work is to build up the ancient ruins, raise up the former devastations (which go back many generations), and repair the ruined cities.
What exactly are the ancient ruins? What do the former devastations look like? Where are the ruined cities? I believe this is a broad, broad area, and that the answers look different to each one of us. I have my own ideas of what these things are, the specific ancient ruins I’m supposed to build up, the specific former devastations I’m called to raise up, and the particular ruined cities I’m called to repair.
We live in a fallen, broken world. Years and years of rebellion against God have taken their toll. You don’t have to go far or look very long to find brokenness, ruin and devastation. It’s all around us. It’s touched our lives. It’s likely the reason we are grieving in the first place.
For the most part, the causative event of our grief, a profound loss, lies beyond our control. If it’s the death of a loved one, we don’t expect to be able to bring the loved one back to physical life. Part of processing our grief is coming to terms with the new normal in our life following the devastating event.
But God has far more in mind. He promises not only to repair and restore devastation, but He promises us that we will be the ones doing the repairing and restoration as we yield to His work in our lives. That is a profound and empowering promise–an incredible honor to be given. I am truly excited to experience how that will play out in my own life, and what it will be like to restore the devastations He has called me to restore.
And to think it all starts with grieving. Those who are now grieving have a lot to look forward to.
Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted.