Ash Wednesday and Parish Faith Formation

Colleen Reiss Vermeulen

M.Div Class of 2013

University of Notre Dame

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Designing parish opportunities for lifelong faith formation can be one of the most perplexing ministerial tasks. Choosing the ideal theme and format, and of course, the space on the parish calendar, often leaves us wondering, what exactly is it that our parish needs?

To all you faith formation planners out there, how does this event sound? Weekday formation opportunity. Held once a year, on a variable date. Thematic focus on sin.

Ash Wednesday.

Attendance at Masses and services on Ash Wednesday in the United States is nothing short of exceptional. Churches are full, often standing room only, and this for a weekday occasion that does not—like Christmas and Easter—correspond with any workplace holiday or popular family gatherings. And isn’t sin out of style with our culture? And religious ritual all the more?

So why this phenomenon? I think our cultural enthusiasm for self-improvement has something to do with it. As Americans, nothing excites our passions (or opens our wallets) like the drive for improvement. Home improvement, fitness classes, New Year’s resolutions, upgraded technology, diets, music lessons, wellness classes, and more. And this sense of never being complete may be what brings so many back to Ash Wednesday services, year after year.

Yet if this desire for self-improvement, our recognition of our incompleteness, is what draws us, God turns our self-reliant way of thinking on its head. As we show up thinking, “I am here to change,” we hear in the Scriptures that God is here, and here to change us. It is the Lord’s holy compassion that wipes out our offenses, washes us from guilt, and cleanses us from sin, as we hear in Psalm 51 in the Ash Wednesday liturgy. And the psalmist has confidence that forgiveness is not the end of the story, but only the beginning, as he asks the Lord to renew a steadfast spirit within him and truly change him, opening the psalmist’s lips so that he might proclaim God’s praise. We may come with an inherent sense of seeking self-improvement, but are transformed; leaving with the humility that it is our openness to God working in us that makes all the difference.

And this, is the essence of on-going, lifelong faith formation. Not searching for the information to improve ourselves, but desiring the transformation worked by the Holy Spirit. We often forget that liturgy is one of the five main approaches to faith formation presented by the USCCB in Our Hearts Were Burning Within Us: A Pastoral Plan for Adult Faith Formation in the United States. Reflecting on Ash Wednesday as one of the most well-attended weekday adult faith formation opportunities a typical parish offers reminds us that as we scribble on parish whiteboards to develop ideas for small groups or retreats, our vision must remain rooted in finding ways to tap into what people experience. And then from this, create the conditions for an encounter with Christ that has the power to transform our expectations and our future.

Considering all of the reasons people flock to Ash Wednesday (and there are certainly many), my sense is that few people come to a parish on Ash Wednesday for information. Most are not seeking information, but transformation, an encounter with the Divine—and our other, complementary approaches to adult faith formation should be no different.


Fasting from Suspicion, Ideology, and Demonization

Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Editor, Oblation:  Liturgy and Evangelization

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In recent weeks, my Facebook newsfeed has functioned as an icon of the state of American political discourse.  The Department of Health and Human Services decision regarding a conscience clause, the reaction of the bishops, and the subsequent change in policy from HSS (still being examined) has exposed a deep divide among my  friends.  I’ve read posts that critique the American Catholic bishops for maintaining the Church’s teaching on contraception because of the sexual abuse scandal (as best as I can tell, the paradigm of an ad hominem attack).  On the other hand, I’ve also encountered images and posts by friends, presenting a triumphalist vision of the Church.  One in which the presumption is, the Catholic Church will prevail over her enemies (joyfully at that), including the political powers that have hindered her religious freedom.

For the most part, I’ve read these posts in a state somewhere between bemused and horrified.  Bemused because the two sides post articles on Facebook, which receive universal acclaim by only those who already agree with the position they have posted.  In this way, it becomes an online self-affirmation session.  An episode of Oprah, without the free gift or the book of the month club.  Horrified, because each side in the debate seems to delight in the defeat of the other.  Not simply in the enactment of political truth–which should be the goal of the process–but of heaping burning coals upon our enemies.  The schadenfreude has been vicious on both sides.

So what to do?  Initially, I thought I have to get off “the Facebook”.  It seems to bring out the worst in other human beings, who have no problem posting the most vicious attacks, without thought of who may be reading on the other end.

On the other hand, my job as director of the Center for Liturgy at Notre Dame makes that a virtual impossibility.  There are articles that I must post for our readers, things I must read in order to remain informed about the state of Catholic religious life in the United States.

Happily, Lent might function as a balm for my present predicament.  For the remainder of Lent, I am going to fast from suspicion, ideology, and demonization–with hopes that my fast might spread to others.

What does it mean to fast from suspicion?  In my doctoral work, there were always students whose whole lives were shaped by suspicion.  Every text was read analyzing the subtle “sub-text” underlying it:  power, sexual coercion, mystification, etc.  Further, every action of the Church was analyzed as a power grab by bishops or priests, who wanted nothing more than to control the lives of laity.  No one could have a pure motive.  Everything was an issue of power, sexism, racism, clericalism, etc.  Of course, if one continues interpreting the world through the lens of suspicion, eventually, the whole world begins to look darker, every action more suspicious.  Every human being on this earth becomes a potential opponent, who is operating according to a hidden discourse meant to subject you to his or her rule.

To fast from suspicion is to cease presuming the worst regarding others.  To cease analyzing the world according to the structures of power and control alone, and to assume the best on the part of each “text” you read, each “person” you encounter.  I stand with the bishops on the recent HSS decision, both theologically and politically.  But, I put the state of my soul in jeopardy by looking at those who disagree with me as political ideologues and pagans.  I shape a world so dark, so infected by sinfulness, that I become unable to perceive the possibility of grace breaking in even here.  Thus, to fast from suspicion is to take up a lens of love, even for one’s political enemy.

This brings me to the second point:  ideology.  After a number of recent encounters with more progressive Catholics, who treated me as an unsophisticated troglodyte, my first reaction was “I must become a conservative, perhaps I’ll even register with the Republican party.”  The danger of the contemporary political scene is precisely this move, the move toward an ideology.  But, the problem with ideology is that is warps religious tradition itself.  Catholic teaching, for example, is radically un-Republican and un-Democratic.  It does not despise every action of big government, nor for that matter does it presume that government always acts out of a sense of the common good.  Ideology disables the religious person from living out of the full depths of his or her religious tradition.

Of course, ideology can also function internally within a religious tradition itself.  As a Catholic who strives to reside in the precarious “middle”, I’ve met “progressive” Catholics who are incapable of perceiving the fallacies of their positions, precisely because they have adopted a series of universal, progressive principals for interacting with the world.  Likewise, I’ve encountered “traditional” Catholics, who are so dismissive of anyone from the generation(s) of the 60s-80s, that they actually fall out of the practice of love into hatred.

To fast from ideology then is to return to the depths of the particularities of the religious tradition.  In my case, it will include ceasing to use such terms as “conservative” and “liberal” at all relative to Catholics (after the previous paragraph).  These terms have been adopted from a political discourse that is ultimately antithetical to Catholicism itself.  Catholics aren’t liberal, they aren’t conservative–but they should be holy.  They should be saints.  This is a very different logic than political theory.

Lastly, this Ash Wednesday, I seek to fast from demonization.  As a theologian in the Church, there are theological positions that I simply disagree with.  As someone involved in liturgy, there are music/liturgical practices/approaches to inculturation that I view as detrimental to the Church.  And, fasting from suspicion and ideology does not mean that I must become a pragmatic, presuming that all truth is the result of democratic practices of conversation.  I believe there are truths to be discovered, and I’m willing to argue about them (I’ve always been a poor postmodern).

Simultaneously, as a Catholic who enters into a theological or liturgical argument, I cannot demonize the one I argue with.  I cannot hate this person, perceive them as nothing but an obstacle to the truth that I seek to proclaim.  To do so is injure the bounds of unity, to operate according to a logic of violence and not love.

It seems here is where we as a society sin most today.  In the act of arguing, of disagreement, we harm the dignity of the person we speak to.  We vilify them, join in smaller, ideological groups, to tear the opposing person or party apart.  Bishop “so-and-so” is attempting to destroy the effects of the Council.  Commonweal Catholics are out of touch.  We do not seek to understand why “they” think the way that they do.

I imagine if Paul were to write a letter to Christian communities today, this might be what would anger him the most.  If the Christians of Corinth ate and drank unto their condemnation because of their treatment of the poor, do we not do likewise when we allow such hatred to reign in our hearts?  When we approach the Body and Blood of Christ, the sacrament of unity, in a spirit of total and absolute disunity.  When our celebration of the Eucharist itself is no longer about our union with the Triune God but a political action in which we manifest that we are not them.

So, beginning this Ash Wednesday, join me from fasting from suspicion, ideology, and demonization.  Perhaps, this too is apart of the Church’s new evangelization, seeking to cultivate genuine love, self-gift, even in the midst of real and substantial disagreement.  How much more attractive such a Church would be!  How fruitful the Eucharist might become for the life of the Church, if we truly loved one another.

Remember Man That You Are Dust, and Unto Dust You Will Return

Fr. Bernard Ukwuegbu 

Diocese of Orlu in Nigeria,

Associate Editor of the Nigerian Journal of Theology (NJT)

“Remember man that you are dust, and unto dust you will return.”

With Ash Wednesday the Church begins the 40 days trip towards Easter; a Feast that celebrates the triumph of life over death, the victory of righteousness over sin and failure. It is good that we bear this in mind in our penance and penitence all through the next forty days. Lent is not a time of austerity for austerity sake. No! Lent is a build-up to a celebration of our faith-conviction that death and sin have not the final say over us and over lives. As Christians, we are an Easter People and an Easter Community. And our lives ought to be reflect this in all of its various facets and dimension.

Today, more important than the readings – important though these are – is the symbolism of the Ash that is spread over our foreheads. And it is on this symbolism that this short reflection is based.

The distribution of ashes comes from a ceremony of ages past. Christians who had committed grave faults performed public penance. On Ash Wednesday, the Bishop blessed the hair shirts which they were to wear during the forty days of penance, and sprinkled over them ashes made from the palms from the previous year. Then, while the faithful recited the Seven Penitential Psalms, the penitents were turned out of the church because of their sins — just as Adam, the first man, was turned out of Paradise because of his disobedience. The penitents did not enter the church again until Maundy Thursday after having won reconciliation by the toil of forty days’ penance and sacramental absolution. With time, all Christians received ashes as a sign of devotion; and the distribution of ashes was followed by a penitential procession.

“Remember man that you are dust, and unto dust you will return.” These or similar words are usually the words spoken over us as we come forward to receive the ash on our foreheads. But how should we understand these words and the accompanying action? The theologian von Balthasar once remarked that all reality could be interpreted from a double perspective: from a factual perspective and from the perspective of mystery; and this also applies to the symbolism of ash that gives today its name.

Seen from the factual perspective, ash symbolises the mortal dimension of our human existence. It is intended to remind us of the transient and transitory nature of all earthly reality, our own very selves not excluded. We are from dust and must return to dust. As a new Pope processes to St. Peter’s Basilica to offer his first Mass as Pope, a common tradition is to have the procession stop three times, and at each stop, a piece of flax mounted on a reed is burned. As the flames die, the Pope hears the words, “Pater sancte, sic transit gloria mundi” (“Holy Father, thus passes the glory of the world”). This is usually done with the intention of reminding the new pope not only that he is a mere man, but that as a mere mortal his end will also be like the end of all others of his breed. The things of this world are transient, and as Christians we must always keep one eye on the world to come. Recalling this Truth is one of the principles behind the use of ashes on the forehead today: to remind us that we are mortal, subject to the rot and decay our modern culture now desperately tries to euphemize away.

Do we really need to be reminded of this? Have we not in our own life-time had experiences that reveals to us the futility of all human achievements, experiences where we wake up in a day to discover that all that we have labored for years and days past have come to nothing thanks to human wickedness or even wicked natural forces? One recalls here the 11th of September 2001 – strange to know that a decade has already gone – or such natural catastrophe like Katharina or the Tsunami that ravaged and reduced to nothing entire landscapes, and with them all the works of human hands? Confronted with the stark reality of such natural and human made evils, we instantaneously begin to ponder on, and readily admit the nothingness of all earthly glories. But it is our common human folly that such moment of deep reflection is always and immediately followed by a period of mental Artzeima. While they force us to readily admit that we are dust, it does not take time before such momentary grasping of the futility of all our endeavours are forgotten and we gradually return to the normal routines of our daily lives, with its many scheming and struggling for influence and affluence, with its occasional competitions to rise and shine at the expense of others, competitions that sometimes involve conscious attempts to destroy our rivals, to deny our brothers and sisters and even to betray our friends.

So at least from that point of view it makes sense that the Church should ritualise our nothingness in the Ash Wednesday liturgy, less it be forgotten. In the midst of all the hypocrisy and masquerading that we see day in day out around us; in the midst of all the hypocrisy and masquerading that we ourselves champion and promote, Ash Wednesday reminds us that no matter how we strive to make things appear: nothing is perfect, all has their faults: not even ourselves and our systems, not even our own pattern of life or principles, our so-called priorities, our possessions, positions and relationships; and this irrespective of how we attempt to conceal their defective sides from coming into the open. Ash Wednesday also reminds us that nothing in this world has an enduring value; nothing lasts forever; all will eventually fade away. The ashes are sort of a yearly contemplation of this inscription found in an anonymous tombstone:

Remember friends as you pass by,

As you are now so once was I.

As I am now so you must be.

Prepare for death and follow me.

But reminding us of the scary and scaring reality of the futility and nothingness of the works of human hands is not the only reason for today and for the symbolism of the Ash. Seen from the perspective of mystery, from the perspective of God, the ash is the mud, the material from which God fashioned humanity in his own image and likeness; and out of which he re-created humanity anew in the image and likeness of His Son from death to new life. Seen from the perspective of God therefore, the ash is the material for that which God intends to fashion us into, if only we should allow him to do with us what he wills. In this sense, Ash Wednesday offers us a basic reassurance: whoever is ready and willing to receive the ash on his forehead, he or she will be empowered to surrender his/her life with all its imperfections, failures and mistakes unto the direction of God the Father, the Son and the Spirit. He or she receives from the Triune God the assurance that s/he is accepted and welcomed, even with all his/her limitations and all his/her fragility. The ash on our forehead encourages us to drop all the daily masks that we carry about; and to come to God just as we are. The ash that we receive on our foreheads today says to us: “No matter how your own masks and external disguises look, do not take appearances (your own as well as those of others) as very important: after all, all of you are but dusts, mortal, fragile and transient; and without God you are nothing and cannot do anything. More important than the look of your mask and disguise is the realisation of the fact that God loves you, that he is willing to give you Life, and life in its fullness.”

While the ashes symbolize penance and contrition, they are also a reminder that God is gracious and merciful to those who call on Him with repentant hearts. Ash Wednesday, therefore, offers us a new chance and a new opportunity to strive to claim this life that God is and freely gives. With the sign of the ash on our foreheads we profess our readiness to confront our past failures and mistakes; as well as our readiness to dare a new beginning.

Today’s Gospel points to three directions in which we can do this: alms-giving, prayer and fasting; the traditional acts identified with the Lenten Season. Notice however the spin that Jesus gives to these practices. If we should embark upon them still in the mentality of masquerading and hypocrisy; if we should embark upon them just with the intention of letting others know that we are better than them or even with the intention of making others look dustier than ourselves; then it makes no sense to do them at all: for even with them we all are still dust and will return to dust. But should we embark upon them with the intention of seeing in them ways and means through which God will continue working something out of the material dust and ash that we are, then we would be surprised what Good He is able to wrought with us and through us this Lent; we would be surprised to see how he will transform us from the death of sin, hypocrisy and pretence to the life of Easter Resurrection. God’s mercy is of utmost importance during the season of Lent, and the Church calls on us to seek that mercy during the entire season with prayer, penance and almsgiving. And it is in this sense that I wish all of us a grace-filled Season of Lent.

Hope for the Un-Read Vision: Re-Reading Jane Austen, Re-Reading the Liturgical Movement

Katharine E. Harmon, Ph.D.

Instructor, Catholic University of America and Loyola University, Baltimore

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Emma is a novel which must be read backwards.  That is to say, one can only understand the now of any given episode in Jane Austen’s early 19th-century novel after one has read its entirety.  Not until the end of the book can we correctly interpret its beginning or its middle.

I came to this conclusion because, at long last, I understood the utterly perplexing passage in Volume III of this book, where heroine Emma Woodhouse, incorrigible Frank Churchill, and mysterious Jane Fairfax play at a “game of alphabets.”  The game involves one character arranging letters so that another may puzzle out a meaning, putting the mixed-up letters to right order.  Frank’s first and curious choice word, which Jane must arrange, spells “blunder.”  While Frank and Jane seem to understand precisely what greater reality is pointed to by this word, the rest of the characters, Emma Woodhouse, and ourselves, the readers, are left in the dark.  For the first, why should two seemingly un-intimate parties, Jane and Frank, understand each other?  For the second, and more puzzling, why the choice word, “blunder,” as the object of the game?

Such is the genius of Austen.  It takes the reader much reflection and, in the case of this reader, three readings! to adequately comprehend the extent of the exchange and understanding which Frank and Jane share.  We need more information before we can understand why Frank should communicate that he has committed a “blunder.”  Only after we know the outcome of the whole novel can we possibly interpret this particular scene.  In short, the reader does not and, indeed, cannot know what the story means until the story has ended.  Or, at least, until the story is quite far along advanced.

As one may suspect, the parallels to liturgical process are ready.  One simply cannot understand where we are now, in the present, until we have the sublime ability of recollecting and reconsidering, in short, applying the gift of retrospect upon the past.  The curious mixing of letters, which English-speaking Roman Catholics experience today in our revised translation of the Roman Missal, might appear baffling.  For the first, why should the exchange of one set of letters for another have been made?  Was there some special understanding between some of the faithful, or some of our holy leaders, and God, to which not all of the faithful (or not all of our holy leaders) were privy?  For the second, why should the exchange of letters be such that it is?  “Chalice” for “cup” and “the many” for “all”?  Like Ms. Woodhouse, some of us novice faithful are left in confusion, or, perhaps, assume that there may be some special understanding into which we were not all invited.

The hope of this comparison is to say that the exchange of letters which we experience in the 3rd edition of the Roman Missal will become more clear as to its purpose, intent, and, fundamentally, its conveyance of the story of the Church, that is, the story of salvation, at some point in the not so distant future.  Surely, the pattern of identifying the meaning of the present in the denouement of the past is simply a part of how humans understand the historical process.  For example, in more recent history of the Roman Catholic Church, the advocates and devotees of the liturgy in mid-century America, during the many-faceted “liturgical movement,” had little expectation that the various moves for “active participation,” “education,” and “social regeneration” via the celebration of the liturgy would be capstoned by the meeting of the Second Vatican Council.  Yet, liturgical historians today would agree that the liturgical movement is the essential context—or mixed bag of letters—out of which the liturgical reforms of the Council arose.

Yet, trying to puzzle out the many facets of renewal espoused by the liturgical movement, including better education, renewed architecture, music, and arts, embracing liturgical praying and, of course, social justice, does not always spell out exactly what Sacrasanctum concilium’s reforms eventually yielded.  As liturgical movement advocate, Therese Mueller, recalled:

And then came the Second Vatican Council—the Council, which fulfilled hopes beyond our wildest dreams, but which also brought changes that made many people uneasy and even perturbed (Therese Mueller, “To Dance with God, Review,” Therese Mueller Papers 1/1, Saint Catherine University Library, St. Paul, MN 55105).

Certainly, the Church saw increased singing, increased communal response in prayer, reformed catechetical programs—particularly that of the RCIA—liturgical commissions, and at least some interest in encouraging faithful Catholics to form a “social justice” committee at the local parish.  Yet, for many Roman Catholics, the greatest, singular difference came in the language of the liturgy.  It seemed that liturgical reform came to rest in reformed structure, words, and style of the central celebration of the Mass.  And, though this new reality afforded great benefits, it was also met with consternation amongst members of the faithful, and bewilderment by anthropologists such as Victor Turner and Mary Douglas, who felt that such an “inorganic” change to liturgy completely undermined the significance of ritual experience and meaning.

So, a short forty years later, these letters of the liturgical movement, which were arranged into the documents and practices following the Second Vatican Council, have been re-arranged again.  Were they re-arranged incorrectly the first time?  Did we mis-read them?  Was it wrong to re-arrange them so quickly?  Will not this simply create another severe and inorganic rupture to the faithful’s ritual experience?

This is a crucial moment in our Church for not getting trapped in the language of the liturgy on such a micro-level.  Perhaps this re-arrangement of the letters of our liturgy will cause us to reconsider the liturgy in a way in which we have grown lax and comfortable in our post-Second Vatican Council status quo.  Perhaps it may be time to re-read, with freshened retrospect, the scope and vision of liturgical renewal of our past century, to afford bright prospects for the future.

In a word, the present and pressing questions of the liturgical now will prompt us to re-read and re-interpret our liturgical past.  The present translation we experience brings many questions; it seems that there was a desire for reform of the liturgy.  Yet why does reform always focus on the language we speak; does the liturgy end in language or does it end in life, in charity and service to the world?  Was not this the “blunder” of the post-Conciliar period and the lost vision of the liturgical movement?

Perhaps the present will offer more joy and hope for the future.  Perhaps this re-focusing on our liturgy might afford unimagined and joyful opportunities:  an invitation to revisit that—as of yet—unread vision of the liturgical movement (Keith Pecklers aptly describes the American liturgical movement, c. 1926-1959, as the “unread vision” in his book, The Unread Vision:  The Liturgical Movement in the United States of America: 1926-1959 (Collegeville:  The Liturgical Press, 1998).  And, with hope, our current mixing of letters will not end, as Jane Austen did, simply spelling “blunder.”

Priestly Celibacy and Marriage: Two Eschatological Postures

Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Editor, Oblation:  Liturgy and Evangelization

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This week, the Institute for Church Life hosted a conference on The Charism of Priestly Celibacy.  The sessions that I was able to attend were a perfect example of  spiritual theology, combining intellectual rigor and spiritual insight (the papers will appear in a book by December 2012 published by Ave Maria Press).

One particular distinction drawn during the conference itself was the eschatological nature of virginity vis-a-vis marriage.  Eschatology, for Christians, is the study not simply of the last things (heaven, hell, and purgatory) but the very destiny of who we are to become in Christ. And within the history of the Church, virginity in particular is understood as the proper posture for the one who seeks God alone, the eschatological posture par excellence.  Devoting oneself entirely to God, moving apart from worldly things, the monk becomes celibate for the kingdom. In Hymn 24 on Virginity, Ephrem the Syrian writes:

Blessed are you, O bride, espoused to the Living One,

You do not long for a mortal man.

Foolish is the bride who is proud

of the ephemeral crown that will be gone tomorrow.

Blessed is your heart, captivated by the love

of a beauty portrayed in your mind.

You have exchanged the transitory bridal couch for the bridal couch

whose blessings are unceasing.

In our own age (one in which brides shop on television for increasingly expensive dresses; in which receptions become inordinately extravagant; in which the couple focuses upon the perfect wedding), the eschatological nature of celibacy is a necessary medicine for the human condition.  The ultimate meaning of human life isn’t the acquisition of material goods, nor can perfect happiness be found in human relationship alone.  Only in an existence entirely devoted to Jesus Christ may we come to true joy.  And thus, to be oriented toward the kingdom through celibacy, is to manifest a nuptial reality that all the world may come to desire.  For indeed, a human person is made ultimately for a relationship with the Bridegroom.  The celibate is a visible sign of our destiny.

Simultaneously, as the Church comes to appreciate more deeply a theology of marriage itself, there is a kind of eschatological posture to marriage as well (though one not yet fully articulated).  As Joseph Cardinal Ratinzger writes in his Introduction to Christianity:

Faith sees in Jesus the man in whom–on the biological plane–the next evolutionary leap, as it were, has been accomplished; the man in whom the breakthrough out of the limited scope of humanity, out of its monadic enclosure, has occurred; the man in whom personalization and socialization no longer exclude each other but support each other; the man in whom perfect unity–“The body of Christ”, says St. Paul, and even more pointedly “You are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28)–and perfect individuality are one; the man in whom humanity comes into contact with its future, because through him it makes contact with God himself, shares in him, and thus realizes its most intrinsic potential.  From here onward faith in Christ will see the beginning of a movement in which dismembered humanity is gathered together more and more into the being of one single Adam, one single “body”–the man to come.  It will see in him the movement to that future of man in which he is completely “socialized”, incorporated in one single being, but in such a way that the individual is not extinguished but brought completely to himself (239).

The Church as the body of Christ is the gathering up of all humankind into a single body, one in which individuality is not erased but elevated (hence, the particularity of sainthood). And because marriage is used as an image of the relationship between Christ and the Church in 1 Corinthians, marriage itself becomes an icon of the renewal of humanity.  The husband and wife become increasingly one, as they learn to dwell with each other in perfect love.  But such love (something monastic writers can forget about when speaking about the eschatological nature of celibacy vis-a-vis marriage) is never simply for each other.  Rather, married love teaches us the depths of what constitutes love of each and every human being.  Marriage, a way of life that reaches far beyond sexual union alone, forms the individual in true self-giving love.

And thus through the vocation of marriage, there is an eschatological foretaste of heavenly love.  The husband, who has truly learned to love his wife, comes to love anew all humanity; the wife, who has learned to love her husband, can share facets of this love with all persons.  In this way, we have an image of our heavenly destiny.  Our love of the Bridegroom, Jesus Christ, only increases our capacity to love one another.  Heaven is the feast of love in which God’s total self-gift becomes the very law of the heavenly city.

It strikes me then that celibacy and marriage are two eschatological postures. Celibacy reveals to the world the total devotion of self to the only Bridegroom, Jesus Christ; marriage reveals how our love of the Bridegroom necessarily bears fruit in renewed acts of love.

Of course, celibacy and marriage are eschatological in another way as well.  Simply, the celibate and married couple are constantly being perfected in their ways of loving.  The celibate and the husband and wife are still on pilgrimage.  The total perfection of their love may be found in the beatific vision alone.  For the celibate, the eschatological orientation of this love teaches him or her that in our present age our total devotion to God may flag; we may forget; we may fail in our acts of self-gift.  This throws the celibate back upon the realization that because celibacy is a “gift”, it can only be received in a posture of total openness before God–a posture that takes some practice.  Likewise, the married couple’s failure to love is an opportunity to return to the foundation of the relationship–that marriage is a gift received from God, gradually conforming each individual to the perfection of divine love.

Thus, perhaps it would be best if the Church taught that celibacy and marriage are two eschatological postures in need of one another to properly reflect the mystery that is heaven itself.  In this way, Christian vocation will become not simply “things people do with their lives” but icons of God’s very destiny for the human person.



Happy, Happy Friday: First We Are His

Laura McCarty

Notre Dame Alumna, Class of 2011

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PRELUDIO: People, behold: the string quartet (sort of) of the gods:

If the first song doesn’t strike your fancy, just skip ahead to the second song. Even Chuck Norris playing a sad song on the world’s smallest violin couldn’t make this any cooler. As if Yo-Yo Ma and Chris Thile from Nickel Creek weren’t enough, they also recruited a guy who switches from violin to banjo at one point in the video (and plays them both flawlessly)…and a guy who plays the double bass, which would deserve applause even if he didn’t play it but just carried it down the street (because it’s bigger than he is). Anyhoo, HAPPY FRIDAY, PEOPLE!!!


So there’s not much to discuss this week, except that I saw an ad on TV for cereal that’s filled with chocolate on the inside. Dude: some things are too precious to mix in such a careless fashion (like mixing chocolate with anything healthy, except for strawberries). I don’t want my cereal to erode my teeth to the point where I can whistle “Yankee Doodle” through the holes that sugar drilled in my front teeth. But then on the other end of the spectrum there’s the cereal that’s 95% fiber and could probably be chewable if it were

soaked for ten minutes (like mash for horses. Horse people, feel free to let me know what ‘mash’ actually is, because it’s in books a lot and none of the authors make their characters say something like, “Hey Frodo, did you know that mash for horses is actually made by___? I know that was a completely unnecessary sentence for the plot, but at least the readers at home aren’t tortured by their lack of knowledge.” It’s like books that take place on ships and the author throws tons of ship-savvy words at you like, “Captain Scurvy bellowed, “Haul the lines to starboard side and batten down the mortar-hatches on the port bow and keep an eye on the mainsail from the broadmast!!”” What the heck!? Can’t we sparknote his quote to, “Get ready to go out to sea!!” Okay!! Got it!!). But back to cereal: if it’s somewhere in between cookie dough cereal and pine-nuts-and-sea-salt-esque cereal, then we’re fine and dandy. Just don’t sully the glory of chocolate by masquerading it as healthy food, even though I eat chocolate granola and that statement makes me a filthy hypocrite. Please forgive me, people. And now we can keep moving along.


Youtube clip of the week:

There’s a passage in C.S. Lewis’ “The Great Divorce” where a Bright Spirit (those people who have already gone to Heaven) is talking to a Ghost who was his sister in their life on earth. He is trying to convince his sister (Pam) to travel deeper into Heaven and seek God,

but Pam is only interested in finding her son Michael and wants to use God only as a means to seek her son. Here’s one part of their conversation:

Bright Spirit: “But, Pam, do think! Don’t you see you are not beginning at all as long as you are in that state of mind? You’re treating God only as a means to Michael. But the whole…treatment consists in learning to want God for His own sake.”

Ghost (Pam): “You wouldn’t talk like that if you were a mother.”

Bright Spirit: “You mean, if I were only a mother. But there is no such thing as being only a mother. You exist as Michael’s mother only because you first exist as God’s creature. That relation is older and closer. No, listen, Pam! He also loves. He also has suffered. He also has waited a long time.”

We often feel like we’re pulled in so many different directions: we are all sons or daughters, and many of us are also friends, parents, coworkers, confidantes, teammates, boyfriends, girlfriends, and/or spouses. But these ties to others have been added on since our birth, even since the first moment we existed. After all, God said that before He placed each of us in the womb, He knew us. And when the hour of our death arrives, even if our relations to others have changed over the decades of our life, we will still be as much His creatures as ever. Even our deepest human bonds are add-ons to the heart of who we are, and above all other relationships we are called to treasure our relationship with God. It is the only relationship that beautifies and purifies all of the subordinate relationships in our life: only when it reigns as lord over our hearts can the kingdom’s lesser subjects fall into their proper places.

But it’s one thing to say that and another thing to see it acted out in daily life. When we’re little kids we’re taught moral reasoning in terms of good and bad (don’t steal, don’t tell lies, respect others’ possessions and tell the truth). The moral scenarios in church workbooks are pretty straightforward…and then we grow up and slowly realize that when we can’t be easily tempted by undisguised evil, we can still be swayed by lesser goods. We are caught up in our loyalties to others, our duties and obligations to the people who trust us, and our desire to answer the needs of the world around us. These things often act to make us more unselfish, courageous, and charitable than we were before, but their ability to foster holiness also depends on their context. There is one relationship, one obligation, one love before which they all must bow: it is the bond that enables our existence and carries a promise that even if we should be forsaken by the whole world, we will not be alone.

The determination to cling to God is where we draw the lines in our lives that we will not cross. When our entire self was made for the single purpose of loving God better, should that not be the heartbeat of our daily life? This isn’t to say that we forsake all of our other obligations to people, but simply that we recognize that none of these obligations are at the center of our existence. Even at their best they are not kings over us, but servants to God: in our highest duties and loyalties and loves to others, we do not find the end-all of our being, but rather only part of our road Home. We were made for one purpose: to love God. He is the litmus test that determines what really matters, and the beautiful thing is that it really is that simple.

As Dorothy Sayers said, “I love you. I am at rest with you. I have come home.”

Dear friends, I hope this Friday is a grand experience J and I send along, as ever, my




Happy, Happy Friday: What It Means to Give Ourselves Up

Laura McCarty

Notre Dame Alumna, Class of 2011

Contact Author


PRELUDIO: OK, people: get ready to be like…WHOOAHH!! (and much thanks to the friend who sent along this gem):

Does it make anyone else feel really geeky at around the 1:40 point in this video when the guy switches into playing the ‘underground’ theme (and you know what that actually means, and you shudder inwardly because everyone hated those levels)? Anyone lost in golden memories of jumping over koopas, jumping right on top of piranha plants, and wondering why everything in the entire world wants to kill you? And what higher power bothered to set all this up (the coins, the mushrooms, the enemies) and why does a koopa run into Mario and then Mario immediately dies? Why doesn’t he just do his levels in a haz-mat suit? Anyhoo, HAPPY HAPPY FRIDAY, FOLKS!!!


So it’s funny when you stop to think about it how for the most part, we all did the whole ‘childhood thing’ in the same way on the deepest levels (going to school, hating fractions, loving in-class movies, chilling with friends, telling your younger siblings things that freaked them out (like saying that Jell-O is made from horse hooves…right?), making art projects mostly out of glue and glitter, and being forced at gunpoint to sing a song about the water cycle with all of your other classmates in front of the entire school…maybe that’s just East Tennessee, actually). But then there’s the outdoor kids and the indoor kids:

OUTDOORS: You’ve climbed (and fallen out of) trees, played more versions of Tag then there are people in Monaco, picked up ticks and splinters and mosquito bites (in order of how miserable these things actually were: ticks, God? WHY?), gotten really creative tan lines in the summer, tracked mud all over the house, and figured out  (and guarded jealously) where the best hiding place is in your yard, your friend’s yard, and the yard you’re not technically supposed to be in that belongs to your neighbors on vacation.

INDOORS: You’ve played Barbies (and found out that their heads, once your sibling pulls them off, do NOT EVER go back on), made crafts that got glitter everywhere (including inside your ears), played video games, read books (and put them strategically all over the house), beaten computer games that helped you read and spell more easily (thinking back, why’d we ever fall for this when we already went to school 35 hours a week?), crawled into the nooks and crannies of your house (and you still haven’t found Narnia), and played board games that are totally based on luck but you took them extremely seriously (like Candyland and Chutes and Ladders).

Chances are most of yall were a mix of both of these, but it’s fun to think back on it, especially now that you have to take care of your own splinters and you only get an Oreo afterward if you buy them at the store yourself. But since that’s a way better reason to go to the store than to buy antifreeze, go for it 😉 Anyhoo, now we can keep moving along 😉

THE HEART OF THE EMAIL: Or, What It Means to Give Ourselves Up

Youtube clip of the week (thanks to the friend who introduced me to the coolness that is Jon Foreman):

When people think of the path to sainthood, they reason (to an extent, rightly) that to become a saint means to bring one’s natural self ‘to heel’: the self that demands comfort, luxury, applause, and ease. But that is only part of the larger goal: we are not striving ultimately for the time when we can deny ourselves everything, but rather for the time when we can deny God nothing. Sainthood isn’t about taking things away from ourselves, but about replacing the bad with the good and holy: after all, if we stop sinning and settle for doing nothing instead, we’re leaving a vacuum within ourselves that needs a rightful ruler. It would be like conquering a tyrant and letting the nation fall into anarchy: how will it grow good unless it welcomes its true king? We make sacrifices of love for God not so that we fight against the weeds within ourselves, but so that we can allow God to replace them with a garden (and He does most of the actual weeding, as long as we get out of the way).

All of those small sacrifices for God’s sake (biting back retorts and complaints, going out of our way to be kind when no one is around to notice, and owning up to our mistakes when it would be easier to save face) are like practices for the big game: they are moments where God can chip away at our desire to put ourselves first and prepare us for the
moment where (as we imagine it) we can finally give away ourselves to Him. We view it now as a person at the bottom of a mountain views the faraway peak, and we imagine a grand moment of triumph at the top…when in reality, we will arrive there and be surprised at the ease of giving ourselves away. It is then that we will understand that in having made those ‘small’ sacrifices for the love of God that we have been giving ourselves away all along. There may be a crescendo of glory in that moment, but there may not: there may be a jeering crowd as we give ourselves over entirely (as for Saint Peter and Joan of Arc) or we may be alone. The circumstances surrounding us then are not nearly as important as the miracle of grace that we allow to be performed within us: we are only strong enough for the greatest sacrifice because we have been training and practicing for that moment all along, often without realizing it.

We cannot underestimate the value of small daily sacrifices for God’s love. We will find that those people and causes to which we give the most, also end up having a great deal of our love. The actions of graciousness and generosity are done so that the heart may follow. If we look into our hearts and find that we lack feelings of love for God but still possess a desire to do what He wants, then it will be enough. God allows feelings to come and go, but it is our will where He really gets to work, creating the strength that will inspire us to cry out to Him when everything else seems lost. As Screwtape (the devil speaking in “The Screwtape Letters”) says to one of his junior tempter-devils:

“(God) wants them to learn to walk and must therefore take away His Hand; and if only the will to walk is really there He is pleased even with their stumbles. Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.”

When this moment comes, may God work through the strength He created in our small moments of faithfulness, and may we give of ourselves each day in preparation for the day when at last we will give over the last remnants of selfishness within us. May no part of our still-broken selves, in the end, outlast His everlasting love.

My friends…have the most beautiful day you’ve ever had (or at least the best day this week) and I send along, as ever, my



Called to Grace: Nothing Ordinary About Ordinary Time

Michele Chronister

Graduate of Echo 6

Catechist and writer

Contact Author

I have to admit that there’s always a part of me that drags my spiritual feet a bit at the thought of starting Ordinary Time again. Advent? I love the preparation and anticipation. Christmas? I find great joy in celebrating that unfathomable Love that became incarnate as a baby. Then, as the feast of the Epiphany followed by the Baptism of the Lord pass, I can’t help but feel somewhat let down. What is there to anticipate about Ordinary Time?

In the Children of St. Angela Merici program, we would always talk about how Ordinary Time is a time for growing closer to God (Catechesis of the Good Shepherd aficionados are probably familiar with the  song lyric, “Green is our growing time…”). I also know that the word “Ordinary” doesn’t refer to “mundane” but rather to “ordinal,” i.e. the counting of the numbered Sundays of the year. Yet, there still is a part of me that goes into Ordinary Time expecting it to be mundane.

I am writing this reflection in the midst of the second week of Ordinary Time, and already I am beginning to see the wisdom and richness found in this beautiful season of growing. First, there is the beauty of the Scriptural readings found in this season, and secondly, there are the many feast days of saints celebrated. Both of these provide a wealth of inspiration for those who work with individuals with special needs.

To begin with, consider the readings found in the Lectionary cycle in Ordinary Time. In particular, I have been struck by the daily readings this year. (Santa Claus brought me a lovely Missal and as a mother of a baby who therefore can’t always make it to daily Mass I’ve been enjoying soaking up the readings each evening!) The Sunday lectionary runs on a three year Cycle – A, B, and C – but the weekday lectionary runs on a two year cycle – I and II.  This year we are in year II, and the readings have been following the story of the book(s) of Samuel. The past few days of this second week of Ordinary Time have focused on the figure of David.

Earlier this week, the readings told the story of the anointing of David.  Samuel goes to Bethlehem, having been told by God that he will find the new king there among Jesse’s sons. The story builds up beautifully – each of Jesse’s sons is presented to Samuel, each described as being strong and mighty looking and Samuel expects any one of them to be the king whom God has chosen. However, God tells Samuel that none of these strong men are called to be king. God calls none other than the youngest son, David, to be the new king. Younger and smaller than the rest, he is anointed as king by Samuel.

The next story is the one that most people recall when they think of David. The reading for Wednesday in the Second week of Ordinary Time is the story of David and Goliath. No matter how many times I read this story or hear it, I never tire of it. How powerful a reminder that God can work through even the littlest and weakest of us to do His Will.

Wait. Read that again. God can work through the littlest and weakest of us to do His Will.  You may think that I’m referring to the people with disabilities or special needs that you serve, and this statement can, indeed, be said of them.  It can also be said of you.  One lesson that serving others – whether it is your spouse or children, your co-workers, your roommates, or individuals with disabilities or special needs – teaches you is that you have limitations. It is easy for those of us who do not have visible, physical limitations to forget that. It is easy to get caught up in all that you are capable of accomplishing and forget that it is only by God’s grace that you are able to do what you do. It is easy to forget that we are all, ultimately, Davids in the face of many Goliaths.  

Often, when we hear people talk about this story, the fact that David defeated Goliath is emphasized. However, the main point is not just that David defeated Goliath – but that David defeated Goliath by relying fully on God’s grace.  This is what we are all called to do – to face the Goliaths in our lives not on our own, but by trusting in God’s grace at work in our lives.

Many of those with disabilities/special needs whom I have had the privilege of getting to know are naturals at this – they intuitively know that they cannot do everything themselves and they rely on God and others to help them to do what they must do. Incidentally, children are like this too, and both groups of individuals set a profound example for us. This is what Jesus meant when He said we must become like little children; He meant we must fully rely on God. David, too, knew this and we see this trust exemplified as his story unfolds in the lectionary readings.

The saints, too, were all too familiar with their need for God. When we look at the lives of the saints we see numerous examples of what total trust in God looks like. We celebrate many wonderful feast days during Ordinary Time. Next week, for example, is the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul. Later that week, January 27th, is the feast of another saint dear to my heart – the feast of St. Angela Merici, considered by many to be a patron saint of those with disabilities. She is also the patron saint of the program that I was blessed to work with in my previous parish. St. Angela Merici worked to catechize young girls who wouldn’t otherwise have been taught about the faith, and is therefore a real inspiration to the many catechists and parents of those with disabilities who strive to provide those with special needs with the opportunity to learn about the faith. However, we may take our cue for success from her, for like all the saints she was well aware that her success was contingent on grace.

To all those who work with those with special needs, I wish you a happy Feast of St. Angela Merici. I hope that these “Ordinary” days will be ones rich in grace for you!


Approaching the Throne of Grace: Becoming God’s Work of Art

Miriam Marston

Assistant Director of Theology Programs, Theological Institute for the New Evangelization

St. John’s Seminary, Boston, MA

Contact Author

My last post made mention of the story of Jesus and Zacchaeus, which serves as a lovely representation of how Christ desires to dwell within us, but that, to do so perfectly, we must turn from our old ways – just as the diminutive tax collector did.  The ultimate objective of this critical turning is sanctification, or, as Fr. Thomas Dubay phrases it:  becoming “fully God’s works of art.”  (Dubay, Saints: A Closer Look, 111)  Really, it’s not too different from the magazine taglines we see in the checkout line at the store:  Become the best version of yourself today!  Ten ways to find yourself in four short weeks!  In addition to their often energetic enterprise of involving themselves in a wide variety of social movements, young adults are generally serious about trying to become the best version of themselves.  They may not realize it, but they are in good company:  the history of the Church has illustrated how the “saints have no enslaving idols, major or minor….their only god is God, and they are free to grow into being more and more what we are all called to be.” (Dubay, 111)

But from where many young adults are standing, the vantage point offers a grim look into the injustices and broken relationships which are a symptom of the evil abroad in the world.  As a result, many of them intentionally look for places and ways that provide an opportunity to contribute in some meaningful manner.  If they observe destructive inequalities around them, they are normally not content to shrug and chalk it all up to “being only human, after all.” No, they see possibilities and potential everywhere, and believe that authentic humanity is about striving, in solidarity, to reach beyond the current conditions of despair and stagnation. This is a group who, if persuasively and tenderly informed, could understand that sin is not something we do because we are “only human.”  It is quite the opposite: we seek reconciliation with others, with God and with the Church precisely in order to recover our true humanity, and because we can truly live only when those relationships are repaired and when they are strong.  To be human is not equivalent to hovering just above the lowest possible expectations that Christ has for us, just as real Christian living is not simply a matter of following one long series of “thou shalt not’s”.  The “manualist” tradition referred to in an earlier section “made the mistake of imposing the rules of ethics rather than allowing a discovery of the truth.” (Mark Lowery, Living the Good Life, 45).  It might be unconventional to think that Thomas Aquinas was actually on a spectacular adventure when he was writing his Summa, but his work, which carried him high into the “upper reaches” (Lowery, 205) of the moral life, is anything but a long list of prohibited behaviors, but rather a story of discovering how our final end (heaven) informs and animates the here and now.

Inseparable from these insights is the fact that holy men and women also have a reputation for routinely participating in exercises of introspection.  My use of the term “participating” is deliberate, because it implies that more than one party is involved.  In this case, it refers to the manner in which saintly men and women frequently come before a minister of the Church (in confession), who facilitates an active conversation with the Word of God.  During the course of this conversation, the penitent speaks the truth about their sins, he or she hears the truth of God’s loving forgiveness, and they are truly set on the road to profound reconciliation and ongoing conversion.  It is not because they are saintly that they enjoy a relationship with Christ; they become saints by first opening themselves up to the possibility that a) they are not the center of the universe and b) they could have a real and thriving relationship with the True Center of the Universe, as long as they relinquish their own claims to the throne.

The growing trend of separating religion and spirituality has found favor with many young adults, who hardly need another reason to express their misgivings regarding the Church.  If the indelible character of the Holy Spirit is imprinted onto the core of the Catholic Church, plenty of people certainly do not find evidence of it.  And if the Church is suspect, her mediation of Christ’s grace in the sacraments is equally suspect.  It is imperative that Church leaders, both lay and ordained, work together to demonstrate how the invitation to the sacraments, especially to the sacrament of confession, is not a forcefully imposed prescription that is hiding something more sinister beneath it.   It is a call to abundant life, which draws its voice from the very heart of the Word of God.  Of course, anyone is free to make the claim that spirituality trumps religion, but that same person should not be surprised if they find themselves attached only marginally to a community of like-minded spiritual seekers.  The fellowship that emerges from the adherence to a central creed can serve as a wonderful remedy to the anemic condition of a fast-paced and individualistic culture, driven by the myth that unlimited choice is the height of human freedom.   In the case of the Catholic creed, the sacraments stand as beacons which remind us precisely what it means when spirituality, which emerges out of the experience of reaching toward the transcendent, is married with the historical reality of the Incarnation.  The sacramental worldview, as it has been revealed throughout the story of the Church, does not preclude the possibility of arriving at deeper understandings of how the human psyche operates, but it does remind us that the human psyche is not God.  God is God.  And the sacrament of confession is particularly well suited to the task of reminding us of that very point.  A diet of pure spirituality, while not a bad departure point, cannot offer the comfort of those simple, yet powerful, words: “Your sins are forgiven.”  It is one thing to speak those words to yourself; it is an altogether different, and wonderful thing, to hear them spoken directly to you, as though the whole of God’s loving attention was shining on, and through, your soul.


Happy, Happy Friday: The Enemy of Faith is Fear

Laura McCarty

Notre Dame Alumna, Class of 2011

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Editor’s note:  This is part of a weekly Friday column by Laura McCarty, a Notre Dame alumna, presently living in Knoxville, TN. Laura sends out this email each Friday to friends–and we wanted to share it with readers of Oblation.  Laura invites readers to use parts of her writing for retreats or parish catechesis, but she first asks that you contact her for permission.  


OK people, so we have two gems to start with:

Robin Williams explaining ‘conflict’ on Sesame Street (with a way more serious facial expression than I could ever maintain while talking to a poofy purple monster):

And secondly, even though his live rendition of this song at Rothbury (also on youtube) is awe-inspiring to behold, this one’s a bit more meditative (and still beautiful). Presenting “Ocean” by John Butler Trio:



Don’t you wish all of the words you had to learn for the SAT in high school had celebrities teaming up with Sesame Street characters to explain them? (Good luck with ‘plaintiff’, ‘enfranchise’, or ‘lachrymose’. Sad but true). It’s like how in school, we learned songs to remember the 50 states and the quadratic formula: why couldn’t we have songs about words like ‘obfuscate’? Complete with hand motions?

But in all seriousness (sort of), a lot of the words on the SAT are kind of like red-and-white checkered shoes: you can only pull them out for a really specific need, and even then you’ll still get looks (for wearing shoes that look like a picnic blanket and using the word ‘phantasmagoria’). I guess it’ll enhance your mystique, like wearing a cactus-shaped backpack or dancing like Elaine on ‘Seinfeld’ or driving a Flintstone-esque car where you pedal a stone car along by the sheer might of your FEET (how is this even possible? Fred Flintstone probably had calf muscles to beat the band).

(But really, how was that possible? Did Fred’s feet get pretty beat up since there was no asphalt (at least there were also no potholes, really short interstate merging lanes, GPS systems that sometimes tell you to make U-turns at really busy intersections, just-for-flair traffic roundabouts, or highway construction projects that have been in progress since the Crimean War. Actually, Fred having mauled feet and driving a stone car around isn’t that big of a deal).) (And now we can keep moving along ;)).

THE HEART OF THE EMAIL: Or, The Enemy of Faith is Fear

YouTube clip of the week:

In the words of Saint Paul in Romans 8:

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written:  “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”  No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:35-36).

Christ can do so much to sweep away the obstacles that keep us from Him. In Him our death becomes the way Home, no distance is beyond His reach, and no power on Earth or in Hell can pull us away from Him unless we allow it. Psalm 139 beautifully reminds us that our darkness is broken by His day and that the edges of the dawn are not too far away for Him to find us. So why do we still feel far away?

We are the only obstacle that Christ will not sweep aside: to do so would be to compromise our freedom. And perhaps the biggest obstacle to our drawing close to God is not our despair, our hatred, or our sins. God calls out to us in these wide stripes of brokenness within our hearts, and once He sheds light for us to face their terrible reality then He can get to work with the process of healing them.

So what is the true enemy for many of us? A reflection in “Living With Christ” said that the enemy of faith is fear, the enemy whose livelihood depends on being undiscovered and unchallenged. Sometimes fear shouts, and often in these instances its suggestions can save us (ie, get out of the road, run away from that person, etc.). But in faith it can take God’s voice and bury it deep, numbing it with our desire to be safe and comfortable. Fear of others’ expectations, fear of failure, and fear of looking foolish all combine to keep us in our zone of safety that tunes out God as soon as He asks us to risk anything for His sake.

God is not content to chip away at our lives, gradually carving away pieces of us while still leaving enough for us to retire contentedly at the end of our period of service to Him. Make no mistake: if you intend to follow God, He will not leave you with anything of the self within you that longs to be praised, preserved from sorrow, and painless. As the saying goes, God’s path is occasionally comforting but it is not comfortable. It is always pushing us even as it draws us into greater love. Our fear destabilizes our trust in Him and wants Him to stop asking things of us. Fear wants to find a comfortable place and stay there, fulfilling others’ expectations, doing things that win praise, and saying things that are safe.

In this lifetime, fear looms large but that is only because we have not yet allowed it to be swallowed by truth. In “The Phantom Tollbooth”, the three main characters are trapped at the bottom of a deep hole, and somewhere above them a monster is describing how fearsome and terrible he is. But Milo (the hero of the story) has a telescope that enables him to see the reality of things, and when he focuses it on the “monster” he finds a small, weak, and thoroughly un-scary creature.

Fear operates in a similar way. It convinces us that the risk of climbing out of our hole is too great and that our trust in Truth will not save us in the end. But once we see our fears through God’s eyes, we see that they are small, weak things in comparison to the God who is holding us up. Has our fear bled into the heart of our faith and made us afraid of what God’s voice could ask of us if we finally listen for it? But God waits for us. Even now He waits for the day, and prepares us for the day, when we can finally say without reserve, “Speak, Lord: your servant is listening.” He waits to lead us beyond our fear.

And in a final turn of events, there’s one more song for this colum:

Peace be with you, my friends: “perfect love casts out fear”. Let’s pray for one another.

And I send along, as ever,