Each year on the feast of the Holy Family, I wonder about Joseph, Mary, and Jesus. I wonder about how we as a Church think about the Holy Family. I wonder how to make sense of their family in light of my own family, or in light of the other families whom I know and love. A traditional (very well-intentioned) bent of homilies on this day sometimes takes the following approach:
“Mary was the perfect mother. Moms, be Mary. Joseph was the perfect example of a father. Dads, be Joseph. And kids, young Jesus didn’t disobey Mary and Joseph. Be Jesus.”
Hearing this sort of approach, my slight cynicism makes me think:
“Yeah, no kidding… TWO of the three members of the Holy Family were literally sinless and the THIRD one lived with TWO sinless people. How does that even begin to compare?”
The “follow their example” approach to the feast makes sense, at least partially. The Holy Family was obviously a model for our own families, but a perspective that leaves the Holy Family as only a perfect model can seem saccharine and disconnected from reality. None of us come from sinless families. Some of us come from families aching from recent hardship or loss; all come from families with a variety of dysfunctions; some of us come from families whose stories are too difficult and complex to describe in short detail.
This year, my contemplation of the feast of the Holy Family has been shaped by my first five months in parish ministry. As I thought about this feast for the purposes of teaching catechetically about the family and about the Holy Family, I began to explore different angles. I have noticed an ache for community in my own parish, among young adults, among older people missing their children and grandchildren, with young moms and dads— and this is not merely a reality in my parish alone.
I came across some articles this year that made me realize the loneliness that people carry and all the different ways in which many of us try to fill that loneliness. This article speaks about millennials choosing to live in shared housing with other married couples; another article discusses how parishes can reach out to support young mothers and young families who may be far from their families of origin. These articles, other sources, and conversations all feed into one reality that is a reality in all places and for all families: the longing, desire and human need for community. This need is all the more acute in a world of families who live far from one another or for those whose family does not seem to even compare with the Holy Family.
Dorothy Day famously said, “We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love, and that love comes with community.”
On this year’s feast of the Holy Family, for the sake of our own families and the sake of our own Church, what if we looked at the Holy Family not as a moralistic tale of a perfect family, but rather as a model of community? Mary and Joseph lived through an unplanned pregnancy and fleeing hardship together. They lost Jesus in Jerusalem and searched for Him together. “And Jesus advanced in wisdom and age and favor before God and man,” living in community with Mary and Joseph (Luke 2:52).
Seeing the Holy Family as a model of community and bearing with one another through loneliness, hardship– or in good times for that matter– does not mean our families are sinless. This does not mean our families are without illnesses. Nor does this mean we can label families who may be hurt and broken as failures. What it does mean is this: when we call the Holy Family a model for our own families, we must have a more nuanced idea of what we mean by the family as “holy.” That idea would do well both to bring in a sense of community and to develop what we mean when we refer to any family (including the Holy Family) as “holy.”
For this, since we often refer to the family as the “domestic Church,” I find this insight from Ratzinger’s “Introduction to Christianity” particularly compelling.
“The Church is not called “holy” in the Creed because her members, collectively and individually, are holy, sinless men— this dream, which appears afresh in every century, has no place… however movingly it may express a human longing….
The holiness of the Church consists in that power of sanctification which God exerts in her in spite of human sinfulness. We come up here against the real mark of the “New Covenant”: in Christ, God has bound himself to men, has let himself be bound by them.
The New Covenant no longer rests on the reciprocal keeping of the agreement; it is granted by God as grace that abides even in the face of man’s faithlessness. It is the expression of God’s love, which will not let itself be defeated by man’s incapacity but always remains well disposed toward him, welcomes him again and again precisely because he is sinful, turns to him, sanctifies him, and loves him (Ratzinger 341).
These words also apply to our imperfect families and, by extension, our imperfect parish families. Or in the words of Pope Francis:
“So great was His love, that He began to walk with humanity, with His people, until the right moment came, and He made the highest expression of love – His own Son. And where did He send his son – to a palace? To a city? No. He sent him to a family. God sent him amid a family. And He could do this, because it was a family that had a truly open heart. The doors of their heart opened.”
The holiness and dignity of the family, like the holiness of the Church, does not stand merely on the behavior of individuals. The holiness of family, and the holiness of striving to be a holy family, stands upon the fact that by choosing to enter into a family, Christ has forever sanctified all families. Seeing Francis’ and Ratzinger’s perspective on the family and on the Church may help us to see the Holy Family not merely as a model of moral perfection, but rather as a model of holy community that knows how to “love one another with mutual affection, anticipate one another in showing honor” (Romans 12:10).
It is an odd fact about my life: I love small things. Small babies, small children, small dogs, tiny cabins, cozy rooms. And since my generation lives in a world driven by images, some better than others, (via Snapchat, Instagram, Tinder, etc) in times when I fall into the stereotype of that image-driven generation, I have spent more time than I care to admit sitting around with girlfriends looking at pictures, or Buzzfeed posts, or YouTube videos, or stories. (Usually, they’re titled something along the lines of, “BABIES TRY LEMONS FOR THE FIRST TIME! THIS IS A HILARIOUS MUST-WATCH.”)
My own affinity for the small, my genuine and deep-seeded love of children, and my desire to protect the innocent is probably rooted in my own psyche and my own life story—but the affinity also stems from an amazement at the reality of the Incarnation. I never cease to marvel at the fact that the Savior of our world came to the world as a tiny, vulnerable, crying, needy infant. The Word who always was allowed Himself to be nurtured and loved into maturity. (That could be another piece, another day.)
And so all of that being said, The Lord of the Rings has always been a place where loves of different sorts collided for me. I find Tolkien’s writing beautifully crafted, his imagination fantastic, and his ability to reflect on deep truths in the lens of myth-making and story-telling absolutely brilliant. I also find hobbits entirely lovable. In fact, for a long time, I loved hobbits simply because of their smallness.
When it came time to write a senior thesis, I eventually settled on writing it about the way the chief four hobbits Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin grow in virtue throughout The Lord of the Rings. My chief encourager in this line of thinking stemmed from a place where JRR Tolkien commented that, “…the structure of The Lord of the Rings was, “planned to be ‘hobbito-centric,’ that is, primarily a study of the ennoblement (or sanctification) of the humble” (Letters 237). As I thought to myself about writing, the process went something like this:
A kind of spirituality of smallness, a’la Therese of Lisieux, check.
Lord of the Rings (a somewhat pathological obsession, my friends will testify), check.
Tolkien’s brilliance from his letters and interviews, check.
And I even managed to throw in something on patristic theories of the atonement. Relationship to historical Christianity, check.
Thoughts about vocation and call (one of my other obsessions)- check.
(An insight to me internally at this point: ALL OF THE THINGS I NERD OUT ABOUT WERE ABOUT TO BE IN ONE PLACE.)
“THIS IS SO GREAT!” I thought. “I’ll write all about hobbits, and why we love them, and why it’s beautiful that they’re small, and how important their smallness is to who they are, and yadda-yadda-yadda- yadda” (I can rant to myself for quite a long while). But sometimes, something happens when you write. Sometimes, you find that you were quite wrong in your instincts. Delving into a topic means that you have to permit your long-held ideas and conceptions to grow and mature. And at times, to be crushed. (Gulp.)
It turned out that my own instincts about the place of humility, smallness, and the little in Tolkien’s fictional world were (quite simply) wrong. Not all wrong, but mostly wrong. I had an idealistic and romantic vision in my head of Tolkien’s hobbits as a preferred race, a race we ought to love and value for nothing more than their small, quiet ways of life and their quaint customs. The work I did delving into Tolkien’s own thoughts quickly and totally crushed that tendency towards over-romanticization of the small and childlike in Middle Earth out of me. The Ring cycle is still definitely about the ennoblement (or sanctification) of the humble. BUT, I came to find, this means we ought to appreciate the hobbits who willingly and freely undergo the process of what it takes to be sanctified and ennobled; we should not overtly romanticize the entire race.
Even though the trilogy thematically focuses on the “sanctification of the humble,” the situation is not so simple as loving hobbits because they are small, comical, innocent people who enjoy gardening and over-eating and time with family. Tolkien’s hobbits are often endearing and comic characters, to be sure, but it is not endearing-ness alone that makes one a saint, or Tolkien’s fictional equivalent of one. Simply put, the hobbits of Middle Earth who become heroes are revered because they demonstrate the Church’s definition of sanctity; they exhibit levels of heroic virtue.
The Catechism, in a compilation of the Tradition, says that:
A virtue is an habitual and firm disposition to do the good. It allows the person not only to perform good acts, but to give the best of himself. The virtuous person tends toward the good with all his sensory and spiritual powers; he pursues the good and chooses it in concrete actions (CCC 1803).
So the fictional saint-making in the context of The Lord of the Rings stems from how our hero hobbits reacted to adversity and what exactly they did with the roads set before them– not from an innate sanctification via innocence and ignorance. On those paths, the hobbits themselves were “enlarged” and “sanctified” for the sake of all of Middle Earth, because they continually tended toward and chose the good. (Though not always; saints in our real histories aren’t perfect either, but we can’t treat that here).
The hobbits Sam, Merry, and Pippin demonstrate a heroic faithfulness for the sake of friendship, coupled with a steadfast courage that persons of their size and background should never have had. Frodo demonstrates a willingness to die for the sake of the entirety of the people of Middle Earth. Effectively, they all are given grace (by an unnamed providence, in this fictional context) in order to continue persevering in the realities presented to them. Take, for example, the hobbit Sam’s reflection on heroes that he shares with Frodo:
“…We shouldn’t be here at all, if we’d known more about it before we started. But I suppose it’s often that way. The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of sport, as you might say. But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to just have been just landed in them, usually—their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t. And if they had, we shouldn’t know, because they’d have been forgotten….” (Tolkien 711).
It is true, unfortunately, that a post of this nature can’t possibly capture the entirety of the thesis– nor treat all of the nuances involved fairly. But suffice to say, the more I studied and expanded my understanding, the more I came to love Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin. I saw just how much they all grew in courage, how much they sacrificed their own wants, totally abandoned any understanding of personal safety for the sake of friendship, loyalty, duty, or even a more complex understanding about the good of all. By the end of things, Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin all actually had been “enlarged, or sanctified,” as Tolkien had desired to show, because they had acquired and continually acted with levels of courage, fortitude, and loyalty that absolutely none of the “Big People” ever expected hobbits to exemplify.
Although (alas) hobbits are fictional, many of us- myself very much included- feel ourselves to be hobbit-like in the scheme of the wider world. We feel small, or sometimes insignificant, or at the least unprepared for the path that has been set before our feet— for the illness of a family member, for the loss of a job, for loneliness in our own path, for difficulties with children, for the impossibility of a class load, for difficulty with responsibilities that “by rights” as Sam would say, we shouldn’t have. But understanding Tolkien’s thought means that if we understand ourselves as a “hobbit in faith,” we do not have the ability to flee to our respective Shires. We cannot content ourselves with pipe-smoking, gardening, entertaining family, and the like. There’s a huge key here to understanding vocation: understanding how we are called to respond to God and the realities of our lives does not mean constantly longing for peace and quiet and a return to (or discovery of) a place of safety.
For evil to be defeated in this world, we have to cooperate with the hand of Providence, even when that means the Way before us is frighteningly unknown or dangerous or not what we expected. To be a hobbit in faith means that we courageously continue, whatever the road before us, knowing that if we keep trying to follow the will of God, good may come of our current Road—even if this means a great deal of suffering and scarring on our part. Sam’s thought on this in the darkest of times communicates this more eloquently:
“There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tower high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach” (Tolkien 922).
Evil, and evil’s affinity for self-deception, will mean that child-like humility and a recognition of one’s smallness may allow for the grace of God to work in ways that will surprise all of us. The Road does not ever quite end, as Tolkien says; “it goes on and on.” It is our part to follow, and to keep following that Road that is at our feet, knowing that Christ is Himself our Road and our Way. We are all homo-viator: man on the journey, pilgrims seeking heaven. Thus, to be a hobbit in faith means to accept the Road that one’s feet have been set on, even if we in no way sought out our particular path, or even if we fear where the Road might be leading in the short term. And so we accept our Road, knowing that Christ our light, Christ our Way, Christ the beautiful, and Christ the victorious seeks us as we continue journeying Home.
This writing finds me in a familiar place, though at a different stage of life. I often come to sit at the feet of the Sacred Heart of Jesus statue on campus. When I came here as an undergraduate, I liked to think about sitting here as an image of Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus—the type of quiet listening, spent sitting at the feet of Jesus, that we think of when we think about Jesus in the house of Martha and Mary.
One day this past spring (maybe because of this writing job, in fact; it has made the wheels of my mind continually turn and try to catch ideas for writing), I realized that my mental picture of sitting at the feet of Jesus and sometimes trying to force the sentiments of peace that Mary might have found was overly idealistic. I hope and pray that there will be many times in my life of sitting at the feet of Jesus, quietly and at peace like Mary. But Mary of Bethany’s time at the feet of Jesus does not image for us the only time spent at the feet of Jesus.
These scenarios also did, and maybe they do so more powerfully.
The woman caught in adultery found herself at the feet of Jesus.
Mary Magdalen, pouring the anointing of oil on Jesus in sorrow for her sin, began by crying at the feet of Jesus and drying those tears with her hair.
And Mary, the mother of Jesus, had to spend hours at her Son’s feet while at the foot of the Cross, experiencing the agony of watching her Son die.
And so at another point, I realized that my thought process of sitting at the feet of the Sacred Heart of Jesus statue here on campus, and finding my way to it no matter what state of mind and heart I found myself, more closely mirrors the way that St. Margaret Mary Alacoque wrote about the scenarios in which we ought to entrust ourselves to the Sacred Heart of Jesus than it did to any time Mary of Bethany spent quietly at the feet of Jesus, as Martha bustled busily around the house.
St. Margaret Mary Alacoque—the saint to whom we believe that Jesus appeared and revealed his Sacred Heart—expresses the reality that our lives belong at the feet of Jesus, or, in keeping with the feast we celebrate today, entrusted to the Sacred Heart of Jesus:
This divine heart is an abyss of all blessings, and into it the poor should submerge all their needs. It is an abyss of joy in which all of us can immerse our sorrows. It is an abyss of lowliness to counteract our foolishness, an abyss of mercy for the wretched, an abyss of love to meet our every need.
Therefore, you must unite yourselves to the heart of our Lord Jesus Christ, both at the beginning of your conversion in order to obtain proper dispositions, and at its end in order to make reparation. Are you making no progress in prayer? Then you need only offer God the prayers which the Savior has poured out for us in the sacrament of the altar. Offer God his fervent love in reparation for your sluggishness. In the course of every activity pray as follows: “My God, I do this or I endure that in the heart of your Son and according to his holy counsels. I offer it to you in reparation for anything blameworthy or imperfect in my actions.”
Continue to do this in every circumstance of life. And every time that some punishment, affliction or injustice comes your way, say to yourself: “Accept this as sent to you by the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ in order to unite yourself to him.”
But above all preserve peace of heart. This is more valuable than any treasure. In order to preserve it there is nothing more useful than renouncing your own will and substituting for it the will of the divine heart. In this way his will can carry out for us whatever contributes to his glory, and we will be happy to be his subjects and to trust entirely in him.
Life belongs at the feet of Jesus, entrusted to his Sacred Heart, in all circumstances. In joy and in peace, yes: but also in sorrow, and especially in contrition for sin.
And what do the feet of Jesus and entrusting ourselves to his Sacred Heart have to do with anything about writing? Oblation editor Tim O’Malley asked Sam Bellafiore and me to write “wrap-up” pieces about what we have learned as undergraduate fellows and where we are headed. As became more and more epidemic as the year went on, I am late in writing (spilling ramen on my laptop and destroying it did not help this process; requiescat en pace, old laptop).
But I am grateful for this last year, in which I have been able to write for this blog as a job (it felt like I was cheating every time I entered hours). I am grateful for what I have learned about writing, about thinking of writing as a kind of ministry, about Tim and Carolyn’s senses of humor and patience (and the abilities Sam and I had in testing that patience). Writing can be a kind of ministry, I suppose. As I prepare to begin master’s level coursework in theology and to serve in parish ministry during the next two years, this writing—and this lesson of entrusting it all back to the heart of Jesus for his glory (and not for mine), will continue to be on my mind. Because, again, as St. Margaret Mary said:
This divine heart is an abyss of all blessings, and into it the poor should submerge all their needs. It is an abyss of joy in which all of us can immerse our sorrows. It is an abyss of lowliness to counteract our foolishness, an abyss of mercy for the wretched, an abyss of love to meet our every need.
May we give ourselves over to that “abyss of love” of the heart of Jesus more and more, entrusting ourselves to his will.
Springtime means a number of things. It means the smell of freshly cut grass, the return of thunderstorms, and the bane of allergies. But this springtime through this reflection brings together two of my favorite things in a new way. It brings together a) baseball and b) a concrete example of a way that theological thought—the way we think about and grow in our faith—truly does impact our daily lives.
The connection here is a little more subtle than a church softball league, so I will explain. In the baseball movie classic Field of Dreams, a down-on-his-luck Iowa farmer begins (without really understanding why) building a baseball diamond in his cornfields. He is prompted to do this by a few rather mystical experiences, including the whispered, repeated phrase, “If you build it, he will come.”
My home diocese, the Diocese of Knoxville in Tennessee, isn’t building a baseball diamond. But she is embarking on a building adventure of her own. This past weekend, members from all corners of the diocese (along with leaders of the wider Church) came together to celebrate the groundbreaking of the building project for a new Cathedral. Originally, when Pope John Paul II created the Diocese of Knoxville in 1988 by splitting it from Nashville, the already existing Sacred Heart Parish was chosen because of its size and central location to serve as the Cathedral parish. But the diocese has grown and changed in the last twenty-five years, and with it, the Cathedral parish demographics have increased and changed dramatically. In deciding to build a Cathedral, Catholics of East Tennessee are coming together to build; we are remembering and honoring the past and (short) history of our diocese and we are getting ready for the future, for a new chapter in which we will stand more on our own feet as a maturing diocese.
Although I was privileged to go home for the weekend and participate in the events associated with the groundbreaking, I have mostly been watching this entire process unfold from afar. My home diocese has been my home in many ways for nearly my whole life. As a daughter of the Diocese who loves her home, while living (in happy exile) away from home and majoring in Theology at Notre Dame, I have been geeking out quite a bit as it all transpires.
I am watching my home Church come together, work together, and learn together about why and how we think about our sacred spaces in the way that we do. I am seeing tutorials on the meaning behind church architecture reach people; I am watching as people transition from hesitancy about the need for a new Cathedral to excitement, pride, and willingness to go the distance and to be a part of this effort. I am seeing a countless number of individuals devote their time, their talents, and their efforts in order to make all of this happen. And most importantly, I am seeing first-hand the way that physically building a new Cathedral church is teaching, forming, and building up the Body of Christ in East Tennessee.
This weekend, I saw hundreds and hundreds of people work together and come together for this moment. (Apparently the final count was 1200 local folks, 12 bishops, 3 cardinals, a governor, and two mayors.) This time in Knoxville diocesan history clearly has become a teaching and formational moment. It has taught and re-taught us about our need to worship God rightly so that we may live rightly, not just as the parish of the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, but as the entire diocese and all of her members. The tagline of the Cathedral campaign itself packs a theological punch about this rightly ordered way of looking at church building: “Home, Where We Worship, Teach, and Serve.”
Thinking about building, thinking about the seasons of life, and deciding to build has helped all of us who call ourselves a part of the diocese of Knoxville to realize that the Mass, the liturgy, and the life of the Church (both local and universal) is not simply about “we the people.” The Church is actually about the Trinity; the Church only exists because the love of the Trinity overflowed and continues to overflow to creation. God’s overflowing, self-giving, and ever-expanding love explains the basic fact of why we are here. But reflecting on God’s love also helps us understand the fitting priority list for our lives and that if we don’t worship rightly we cannot live rightly—and this is why I’m so proud of the “Worship, Teach, Serve” tagline.
Reflecting on worship and on what it means to build a fitting space for the “home base” of the Diocese (the baseball jokes continue) also means something else. It means that we realize our lives of faith mean more than the sense of community or feeling of belonging that we encounter when we gather for the liturgy. In the Mass and in other liturgies, we (the people of God) participate and pray in hope and in confidence of the fulfillment of God’s promises to us.
But we ourselves, though we are the people and the assembly of God, are not actually the main focus of the liturgy. The Mass and the liturgical life of the Church is not meant to inspire and entertain us, so that we come back next time for more. The liturgical life of the Church is meant to take all of us up into the love of the Trinity, so that we glorify our Creator and are strengthened by the sacraments in order that we may then go out and participate in the work of the Trinity. We do this by helping to sanctify the world with Christ’s love and Christ’s beauty. Paraphrasing Mother Teresa, we make something beautiful for God by our lives and our loves.
There’s a pertinent phrase in liturgical theology “lex orandi, lex credendi” that can help us think about this. It means that the law of prayer is the law of belief, or more colloquially, what we say in prayer reflects what we truly believe. Building decisions with churches and with this cathedral extends this “lex orandi, lex credendi” to “lex aedificandi, lex credendi.” Aedificandi means build, and so what we build and the way we build it reflects what we believe, too. In his book Catholic Church Architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy, Denis McNamara says that “architecture is the built form of ideas; church architecture is the built form of theology. As go the ideas, so goes the architecture . . . all architectural decisions are theological decisions.”
Actually, the self-gift (kenosis) of Christ on the Cross forever changed the way that we see our lives and think about beauty. Because Christ’s gift of Himself to the point of death transformed even the worst suffering into the opportunity to give and in that giving to become something beautiful for God, everything in our lives can be transformed by Christ’s work on our behalf. Here and now, in our local churches, we have a chance to give of ourselves, in our daily life. This occurs for Christians all over the world in a significant way through the celebration of the liturgy. By investing prayer, thought, time, energy, and our own personal resources into the building of our local churches (both physically and metaphorically) we also participate in another way in that mystery of self-gift and self-emptying in order to help build the Kingdom of God in new ways.**
In the book Theology in Stone by Richard Kieckhefer, this theological understanding that what we build and the way we build it says something about what we believe is inferred from the title itself. Kieckhefer also makes the comment that
“art in a religious setting can serve as a sacrament of grace, and the capacity to see oneself as worthy of beauty is one dimension of recognizing oneself as by grace made worthy for grace—the sole condition for beginning to receive it” (99).
Our churches should be fitting, beautiful places for God to be housed, where we can enter more deeply into the mysteries of the Faith so that we can recognize that we are called to be where God is—because God is worthy of the beautiful. And since God is the author and source of all beauty, and since our ultimate call is to become more like God, we are worthy to sit and contemplate God’s love and God’s beauty in beautiful places so that in better understanding God’s beauty we can go into the world and share that beauty.
So how is a building project or thinking about building up and supporting a local church practicing Easter?
Many of our first readings in the Lectionary this time of the year are drawn from the Acts of the Apostles, where we hear the stories of the early Church growing and building, coming together to break bread and to hear the Word of God. In East Tennessee, we are building and re-building our growing local church, so that we may have a place to come together as an entire diocese. Like the members of the early Church, we do this so that we may hear the Word of God in the Scriptures and break bread together in the Eucharist. The book of Ecclesiastes helps us think about this in another way highlighting tbe seasonal, liturgical factor of life. There is a season for everything. The season of spring is baseball season, like I mentioned earlier. But in East Tennessee this year, spring is also church-building season. It is a stone-moving season, and a planting season for the seeds of faith.
“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together” (Eccl 3:1–5a)
At the end of his own season of building in Field of Dreams, Ray Kinsella realizes that his baseball diamond building project was not about the baseball players who came, or the field for its own sake. Instead, it was actually about re-building his relationship with his own father, through a simple coming together in playing a game of catch. At the end of Field of Dreams, Ray is asked by his father, “Is this heaven?” Ray responds by stammering out, “…This.. it’s… it’s Iowa…”
In the movie Field of Dreams, because of his building project, Ray experiences the healing and growth of relationships in his life, including his father. The comparison with the Cathedral project in Knoxville wasn’t meant to be trite. Because in the building and completion of a Cathedral for the Church in East Tennessee (or anywhere where the people of God continue to build) we see a closer glimpse into the call of our eternal relationships with our Heavenly Father and with each other. Our Father in Heaven wants much more than the time spent in a game of catch with us; He wants time with us for all of eternity. The glimpses of that heavenly call show us little glances of the beauty of God’s image for the world in His new, restored creation made possible for us by Christ’s defeat of death and promise of eternal life.
East Tennessee isn’t heaven. But I swear, sometimes, it is pretty close. And I do think that the new Cathedral, upon its completion, will be a little bit like a glimpse into heaven.
**We obviously do this too by the way we serve the wider people of God. The website for the campaign, http://www.sacredheartcampaign.org/, puts it this way: “While we aspire to glorify God through our worship, we plan to continue our work to help the poor. The Diocese of Knoxville provides over $6 million in ongoing charitable services to the poor and marginalized every year. Over the next 5 years, we will have spent more on charitable initiatives than we will have spent on the building of the cathedral.”
This past fall, I experienced one of the fearsome nightmares of most college students: my laptop began to die a slow and painful death. When it came to the point of not saving my work, or moving so slowly that I could not do my work, I started panicking. My life as a student and the tangible witness of what I have do learned, and really all that I’ve managed to do in the last few years is all on this machine. I love to write! And so without my computer, I feel like a carpenter without tools, or a surgeon with no hands.
Enter in the engineers. Most of my extended family has an engineering background, and so this means some funny things for family gatherings. We discuss computer chips and 3D printers at Thanksgiving dinner (3D printers made the conversation three years in a row; I kept track).
We take apart old computers and play with circuit boards for fun, and nearly everyone (even those of us who aren’t engineers) generally know what’s going on in the tech world due to the engineers and those who aren’t engineers but still managed to inherit engineering brains. While I’ve long been awed by the things that many of my family members seem to know instinctively, my computer crisis gave me a reason to appreciate their place in the world even more than normal. My laptop was healed, just in time for me to write 50some pages and do all the research I needed to do for finals season.
That was the windup, and here’s the pitch: I will never forget the text my cousin Chris sent in to the family group message, after I sent a celebratory message proclaiming the laptop fully cured.
His quote there had my brain buzzing instantly about the idea of vocations. Chris’ comment- whether he realized it or not- showed an insight that said his role in the world and the gifts that he has- his role of a “fixer,” bound-to-be-a-brilliant-engineer, is somehow intertwined with mine: the cousin who is a student, a writer, and an aspiring catechist.
Now, Chris would not be offended if I said that he was not the most theologically minded high schooler on the planet. Theologian he may not be, but he’s wise about a lot, and his statement made me start thinking about the universal call to holiness, and yet the particularity of the vocations that God gives each one of us. My cousins’ (and dad’s/grandpa’s/uncles’) tech geniuses have helped support my work as a student and writer before; this isn’t an isolated incident. Maybe, in turn, the way that I can support the engineers is to hope that a few of the things I write help the Christophers of the world to understand that this “religion stuff” isn’t just for a class in school or sometimes on a Sunday morning, but rather is about responding to God’s love by the way we live our whole lives. If Chris’ job was to help restore me to my full capacities and functions as a Theology major, maybe part of my work is to help instill in him an understanding of realities and calls outside the tech world and to show that it is just as necessary as the work of the engineers. [Disclaimer: Chris gave me permission to use and twist his words in this piece].
Chris’ statement acknowledged an understanding of the importance of different types of work, but it also made me think about the fact that we have different gifts but the same call and destination ultimately. There has been a lot of discussion about this- what we call the universal call to holiness- especially since Vatican II. By virtue of our Baptism, all Christians are called to respond to the triune God who has out of love created, redeemed, and saved us:
“The classes and duties of life are many, but holiness is one—that sanctity which is cultivated by all who are moved by the Spirit of God, and who obey the voice of the Father and worship God the Father in spirit and in truth. These people follow the poor Christ, the humble and cross-bearing Christ in order to be worthy of being sharers in His glory. Every person must walk unhesitatingly according to his own personal gifts and duties in the path of living faith, which arouses hope and works through charity” (Lumen Gentium, 41).
Maybe my cousins don’t consider helping their technologically deficient cousin a work of charity, but I certainly do, and it is a classic example of a way in which they used the gifts that they have been given and worked to acquire. They use and will continue to use their gifts to do great things. And they can do it and be holy, too. Holiness does not mean boringness. Sometimes we joke at home about the “dark side” being more fun, but what’s more exciting than literally being a part of the side of good to fight and save the whole world? C.S. Lewis once made the comment, “‘How monotonously alike all the great tyrants and conquerors have been: how gloriously different are the saints” (Mere Christianity).
Sometimes, though, there is such a tendency within many of us- myself included- to delegate holiness to the saints of old, to nuns and monks in garb that seems foreign to our own; at best, sometimes we delegate holiness to the “nice, boring guys” historically. And yet among the canonized communion of saints we find carpenters, doctors, writers, artists, teachers, nurses, priests, soldiers… and that’s just the start. The point is that to be a saint does not mean to become boringly identical; it actually means to be sometimes startlingly unique and yet working for the same goal of glorifying God.
This what I mean by the “particularity” of vocation. The God who has created each of us in His image and likeness has always recognized that we are unique individuals. We all are called to the same thing- holiness, and we are all called to same final destination- heaven, but we aren’t all called to make our way there in the exact same way. We have our own personalities, our own families, our own life stories, our own gifts, and our own messiness. The magnificent thing is the fact that our Lord wants all of us, and can use all in our uniqueness of us for His glory.
As Chris recognized (or at least, like I’ve argued that he recognized) our vocations and our gifts are given by God to support one another and yet can all those different gifts be used together to help sanctify the whole world. I’m going to let St. John Paul II’s papal exhortation Christifideles Laici have the last word here on how to think about the particularity of our own vocations. It’s a lesson for the engineers of the world, the writers of the world, and all of us who fall somewhere in between:
“The “world” thus becomes the place and the means for the lay faithful to fulfill their Christian vocation, because the world itself is destined to glorify God the Father in Christ… They [the laity] are not called to abandon the position that they have in the world. Baptism does not take them from the world at all, as the apostle Paul points out: “So, brethren, in whatever state each was called, there let him remain with God” (1Cor 7:24). On the contrary, He entrusts a vocation to them that properly concerns their situation in the world. The lay faithful, in fact, “are called by God so that they, led by the spirit of the Gospel, might contribute to the sanctification of the world, as from within like leaven, by fulfilling their own particular duties. Thus, especially in this way of life, resplendent in faith, hope and charity they manifest Christ to others.”
To live out our call to sanctify this world, the Church militant needs the engineers, the doctors, the writers, the teachers, the artists, the lawyers, and everyone in between. All of our collective work can be sanctified and participate in Christ’s work of leading the world to its proper end: that of heaven, if we all remember the source of our gifts and for whose glory we should offer our lives.
I do not know what it is to be truly, desperately, physically thirsty. I know what it is to feel parched, perhaps– in the way anyone who has ever spent too much time working outside on a hot day does, or those who can recall craving water after working out do. But as everyone who knows me can testify, my water bottle and I are perpetually attached at the hip; I am a spoiled member of a tiny percentage of humanity who has access to clean, safe, refreshing water at every moment, every day. My water bottle is next to my bed while I sleep at night; it is often in my hand during the day; it is on my desk while in class; it is in the cupholder on the dorm treadmill each time I work out. Indeed, it is on the Starbucks table next to me as I write this. I do not know what it means to desperately thirst in the way that Jesus does in this moment of His passion.
We recognize that when Jesus hung from the Cross dying and said, “I thirst,” he was truly physically thirsting in a way that many of us probably have not experienced. Nothing had passed His lips since He drank from the chalice of His last supper the night before, and in the meantime He had suffered through His agony in the garden and all of the horrors leading up to His crucifixion. If we are ever tempted to forget how real Jesus’ humanity is and was, the descriptions of the passion and His acknowledgement, ‘I thirst,’ ought to shake us out of our nonchalance. Jesus hungered; He thirsted; He sweated; He bled; He fell and tripped; He wept.
But the meaning of “I thirst,” while important to help us understand the struggle that Jesus experienced in the fullness of suffering what it means to be a genuine (in all ways but sin) thirsting flesh-and-bone human being, is not the only way to think about this saying of Jesus’. St. Alphonsus Liguori (and a long string of Tradition in the Church) thinks about Jesus’ saying “I thirst” while hanging from the Cross in both a physical and a spiritual sense. He says in his Meditation on the Seven Last Words:
“Severe was this bodily thirst, which Jesus Christ endured on the Cross through His loss of Blood, first in the garden, and afterwards in the hall of judgment, at His scourging and crowning with thorns; and, lastly, upon the Cross, where four streams of blood gushed forth from the Wounds of His pierced hands and feet as from four fountains. But far more terrible was His spiritual thirst, that is, His ardent desire to save all mankind, and to suffer still more for us, as Blosius says, in order to show us His love. On this St. Laurence Justinian writes: “This thirst came from the fount of love.”
St. Alphonsus takes Jesus’ spiritual thirst to mean His desire to save mankind—a kind of thirst for the fulfillment of His mission, rooted in His love for us as He suffered. Knowing Jesus’ zeal for His Father’s will and the fact that He has not turned back is important; it makes sense that up to the last Jesus would have been ‘thirsting’ for His victory over death that would lead us into eternal life. I think there’s another layer to it, though. We sometimes use the term “spiritual dryness” to talk about struggling times in our lives of faith. Or we mention when we feel alone, wandering and unsure where life will lead, that we feel as if we are “in the desert.” In those times we feel as if we are in a lifeless place. There is sand and toil and maybe it looks like there is no end to the present struggle.
That united physical and spiritual understanding of thirst was never more truly realized as it is when Jesus suffered on the Cross and sorrowfully, desperately said, “I thirst.”
Jesus is absolutely longing– spiritually thirsting— for God His Father. He has already demonstrated that He feels abandoned and alone. To say it is poignant or powerful is a gross understatement. He who was to be the water who would make us never thirst again, in the most sorrowful and suffering moments of His passion realizes and lives the words of all those who have suffered horrifically at the hands of the human condition. This Jesus knows what it is to feel utterly alone, thirsting physically but also desperately thirsting for companionship, for hope, for relief, for kindness from somewhere— and we might imagine for an end to the thirst and the pain. How tempting must it have been to at this time to give in to those who mocked and scorned Him, jeering at Him to come down from the Cross and save Himself.
When Jesus says, “I thirst,” the Word who was, who is, and who will always be—the Word who was there at the very creation of water and who Himself is the life giving water of eternal life– is in this moment denied water in every single sense that we ever use it. Water as quenching physical thirst, water as cleansing, water as healing, water as life-giving, water as connected with baptism— in every single sense that we can think of it, Jesus longs for water and for His thirst to be quenched and is abjectly denied it.
There is a lot more we could say or should say. But I think that in Psalm 42, the psalmist expresses it far more eloquently, truthfully, and painfully than I ever could hope to. As we reflect on Jesus’ saying, “I thirst,” may we keep the psalmist’s words in mind, and be reminded that the psalmist who mourns, feeling abandoned, and suffers longingly for God also ends by saying, “Hope in God; I will praise Him still; my savior and my God.”
Like the deer that yearns
for running streams,
so my soul is yearning
for you, my God.
My soul is thirsting for God,
the God of my life;
when can I enter and see
the face of God?
My tears have become my bread,
by night, by day,
as I hear it said all the day long:
“Where is your God?”
These things will I remember
as I pour out my soul:
how I would lead the rejoicing crowd
into the house of God,
amid cries of gladness and thanksgiving,
the throng wild with joy.
Why are you cast down, my soul,
why groan within me?
Hope in God; I will praise him still,
my savior and my God.
My soul is cast down within me
as I think of you,
from the country of Jordan and Mount Hermon,
from the Hill of Mizar.
Deep is calling on deep,
in the roar of the waters;
your torrents and all your waves
swept over me.
By day the Lord will send
his loving kindness;
by night I will sing to him,
praise the God of my life.
I will say to God, my rock:
“Why have your forgotten me?
Why do I go mourning
oppressed by the foe?”
With cries that pierce me to my heart,
my enemies revile me,
saying to me all day long:
“Where is your God?”
Why are you cast down, my soul,
why groan within me?
Hope in God; I will praise him still,
my savior and my God.
A few years ago, while in a class in which we were reading the writings of the Desert Fathers, my class discussed the penitential and devotional practices that the monks of the desert underwent. The Desert Fathers talk about various experiences of denying themselves food, water, sleep, companionship, space, and a host of other needs and luxuries. For a beginner, it was a little shocking to hear some of the practices that the Desert Fathers willingly experienced for the sake of ordering their lives to what truly mattered.
The Desert Fathers were, as the Church calls them, “ascetics.” The word “ascetic” is rooted in the Greek root “askesis,” meaning “to train.” Athletes with whom we are familiar train and practice various sorts of disciplines for the sake of their teams and their tournaments; they exercise and work out in specific ways that will help them in their sports; they eat more healthily and may avoid certain foods or drinks while in season (ps, fellow ND students, have you seen the fresh fruit and vegetables at the athletes’ ‘training table’??) . All of these prescribed practices have the ultimate goal of better preparing athletes so that they perform to the best of their abilities in their games, tournaments, meets, etc. In a very real way, the Desert Fathers saw themselves as athletes and soldiers for Christ, training in habits of virtues and in giving up anything that they felt would lead them away from the ultimate reality of God and desire for unity with God.
I remember reading through Benedicta Ward’s collection of the “The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks” and finding the section on self- control downright odd at first. The Fathers wrote about fasting from food, to remind themselves that only the Bread of Life could truly sustain them; at times they drank less water so that they would feel the discomfort of thirst and be reminded that water from this world cannot quench our deepest thirsts; they smelled dead bodies to remind themselves that death was coming, because they wanted to prepare themselves fully for the day that they met the Lord. I knew about fasting before this class, so I didn’t find that bit so hard to understand. But the smell of death along with this next one (to use very technical language) straight-up weirded me out at first.
“4.2: Daniel said about Arsenius that he used to keep vigil all night. He would stay awake all night, and about dawn when nature seemed to force him to sleep, he would say to sleep, ‘Come, you bad servant,’ and he would snatch a little sleep sitting down, but very soon he would get up again.’
Or this one:
“4.3 Arsenius said, ‘One hour’s sleep is enough for a monk if he is a fighter.”
Sleep is good! Really good! As my anthropology professor said a couple of weeks ago, “To put it simply, without sleep YOU DIE.” So, I want to think about the Desert Fathers and sleep as related to college students—but not in the way you might expect. College students are universally recognized as a sleep-deprived population of people. I remember being presented with a sort of trilemma my freshman year; a bleary-eyed, perpetually exhausted senior in my dorm who was finishing her senior thesis [at 1 am, in the dorm hallway] explained the college triangle of S’s: school, social life, and sleep. You could have two of the three consistently, she maintained, but only two; it was nigh on impossible to balance all three, and the one she willingly gave up was sleep, because YOLO (“you only live once”). Sleep is for the weak, and you can sleep when you’re dead. This was my first brush with the fact that college students generally tend to wear the badge of how little they slept as a badge of honor. As we walk across the quads, it is common to hear something along the lines of: “Man, I had an exam yesterday morning and a paper due last night, so I pulled an all-nighter, took my exam, napped for an hour, and then wrote my paper.” To this sort of feat, folks generally pat each other on the back in solidarity and admiration.
And now we go back to the Desert Fathers. As college students, shouldn’t we just reconcile ourselves to four years of sleep-deprivation? Could we consider it as ascetical companionship with the Desert Fathers? Maybe since Lent this year has coincided with midterms and the busy middle part of the semester, we could consider our mid-semester sleep deprivation solidarity with the Desert Fathers…….?
But my short answer is simply: no. I think we would be doing ourselves and the Desert Fathers a kind of disservice to assume that our sleeplessness is just like theirs. The Desert Fathers had all the opportunity in the world to sleep. To be a bit simplistic about it, the Fathers were mostly alone and in the desert. Seventeen centuries or so ago, there was not a whole lot to do in the desert except pray, study, reflect and sleep. “Fasting” from sleep in a place where there was no sound but the wind whistling through the desert caves, it probably took monumental amounts of discipline to get insufficient amounts of sleep and then offer that discomfort to the God who created sleep and who rested on the seventh day. Rather than uniting the sleeplessness of the Desert Fathers and the general college student population, my professor instead quipped, “If, for the desert monks it was an ascetical practice to avoid sleep, for college students I rather think getting sufficient sleep would be an ascetical practice!”
The point of all askesis (asceticism), including Lenten practices is to better train our hearts, minds, bodies and wills to realize what truly matters and in what ways things in this world might have too much of a hold on us. In Lent and in other spiritual disciplines that are appropriate to our station in life, we more deliberately put these things that we give up or prioritize at the service of the God who created us.
Quality sleep, of course it, is not to become a god of its own; when friends in crisis need us or other situations arise, charity comes first. But on the whole, it is just as difficult- if not more so- for us to admit our limitedness and prioritize sleep as it was for ancient monks in the desert to stay awake when the more obvious option was to go to sleep.
Actually making sleep a priority mean for undergraduates would mean some pretty intense discipline would have to be enacted in our lives. It means we would have to realize that we cannot always do everything. FOMO [fear of missing out] patients, I’m talking to you, here. Taking sleep as an ascetical practice means we would actually discipline ourselves enough to make those hours of sleep an option: we would need to start work well ahead of time, or resign ourselves to the fact that our essays might not be perfect. Maybe this means less procrastinating, Netflix binge-watching, video game playing, Buzzfeed quiz absorbing, or YouTube viewing. Pick your own procrastinating poison.
That just deals with the needless procrastinating, though. Maybe viewing sufficient sleep as a disciplined spiritual practice also means acknowledging that we cannot do everything; maybe it means we recognize that we could take on an extra club or say yes to another responsibility, but we instead say no. Maybe it means we are tempted to “just finish this one last thing” before bed, but instead we get sufficient sleep and decide we won’t hit the snooze button for an hour in the morning. By being well rested, we will certainly be more efficient workers in the morning. And admitting we need sleep may mean we are humbled in realizing that the world will keep on turning even if we are not quite keeping up with the Sullivans and the Rileys (the Notre Dame equivalent of the Joneses). The potential results are obvious. If we are better rested students, we’ll be more productive and we are more likely to live out our vocation as students in a way that we should. It’s a quality over quantity sort of relationship; we will produce much higher quality work, pay more attention to our reading, study more effectively for our exams than we would by trying to do too much or procrastinating too much, all while living in a state of constant sleep-deprivation.
Disordered prioritizing would have to be eliminated on the other end, too, after our work is done. At times I know that (were I perfectly reasonable,) I could go to bed early and sleep a heavenly 7.5 hours. Then through a combination of Facebook and Twitter scrolling, messaging who-knows-who-about-Lord-knows-what, I lose an entire hour. An hour is precious time, friends. That’s six snooze button hits. That’s almost a full Monday-Wednesday class period. That’s three episodes of Parks and Recreation, or definitely a completed reading assignment.
At their heart, all ascetical practices will enable us to better live out our call as Christians and our vocation to holiness. In a paradox that the world often finds confusing, by setting limits on ourselves we will be made more free to do what we are actually called to do and to do it well. In college, an environment where constant sleep deprivation is the norm, prioritizing healthy amounts of sleep should actually be considered a spiritual and physical discipline. It would help us to both prioritize what matters and recognize the limits of our time, strength, and abilities. Then, maybe we would offer what we do have time for as a true offering of our effort to God. Considering sleep as an ascetical practice would mean recognizing in the midst of our resumé, achievement-obsessed world that maybe we cannot do everything, all the time.
” Protect us Lord as we stay awake; watch over us as we sleep, that awake we may keep watch with Christ and asleep, rest in His peace”
“I will lie down in peace and sleep comes at once for you alone, Lord, make me dwell in safety” (Psalm 4).
This post, written by Professor Francesca Murphy of the Theology Department of the University of Notre Dame, was originally published on First Things on March 18, 2011. We re-publish it here as part of our series on Lenten Practices during this season of Lent.
Catholics today are encouraged to give up for Lent “favorite things” that are often less tangible than “whiskers on kittens” and “warm woolen mittens.” But there is something important to be said for the traditional practice of giving up meat. I have been abstaining from meat on Fridays and through Lent for about five years and have discovered that giving up meat makes it easier to give up other things, like web-surfing, TV, or reading newspapers.
Vegetarian and vegan practices are not something new, imported from eastern religions. They have sustained the Church since the first centuries. They belong to us for some of the same reasons they were practised by ancient Pythagoreans and modern Buddhists: natural, human religious wisdom acknowledges that the body must be tamed before the soul.
We split spiritual and carnal abstinence in two, and define abstinence as something that happens in the head not the body. However, Christian spiritual writers depict the ascent to God with the metaphor of a ladder. Experienced spiritual travellers like St. Bonaventure describe the ‘soul’s journey to God’ as ascending through sensible things, taking pleasure in their beauty, while being purged of undue attachment to them, up to the mind, and its graced experience of God, and on up into God himself. They knew all about the effects of giving up meat. Abstaining from the ‘mind’ habits is more lightly achieved by a vegetarian. Giving up favourite things paves the way for giving up favourite ideas .
Here’s the thing: the spiritual writers know that we are carnal creatures, and that we cannot skip that step in the ladder of ascent. When we try that, we’re aiming to leap up a step before we’re ready. We won’t make it. When we can’t make it, we will think of Lent”and possibly other disciplines as well”as a brief but necessarily failed resolution to do something impossible. You might say, rightly, anything is possible with the grace of God . But, why not let the grace of God work with your animal nature? Grace, as St. Thomas Aquinas taught, “does not destroy nature, it perfects it.” God’s grace works against our fallenness. But it does not eliminate our created human nature. It makes our natures whole. As carnal, embodied creatures, our desire to eat meat works in us at a more elemental level than desires for cognitive pleasures. Our carnality is at the rock bottom of what forms us as persons. Our fallenness, it goes all the way down too, so why not let God’s grace rebuild you from the bottom up?
Early in Lent, we hear the Gospel accounts of Jesus fasting for forty days in the wilderness: the Devil’s first temptation to the Incarnate God was to turn rock into bread. He must beat that temptation before he can thrash the temptations to security and power. Fasting and abstinence are not a matter of “what would Jesus do?” It’s a straightforward matter of what Jesus did, the spiritual path he actually took. A child can see that the Bible story tells that Jesus was hungry in the desert. As fully man, Jesus knew that hunger can help us to discipline other, ‘higher’ cognitive desires. The first thing his forty days in the wilderness teach us is that absence of the food we crave can become a place in which the grace of God shapes and forms us.
Lent calls us to a deeper participation in the love of God. God loves you as a carnal, embodied creature. The first part of your nature he would heal is your body and its physical desires. Even this omnipotent Doctor can’t wholly heal our mind and soul until we let him access our bodily desires.
It’s sometimes said that people who worship a crucified God must be anti-body. It’s said that the accent on suffering in Christianity is telling us to despise our bodies. The opposite is true: you never know you are embodied more than when you are suffering, and that includes wanting food you can’t have. Christian fasting and abstinence is not intended to destroy or eliminate the body. It’s not intended to make a negative statement about our embodied condition. It’s intended to cleanse and sanctify that condition. Christians “crucify” their bodies in the hope of rising one day in resurrected bodies, our physicality sanctified by the grace of God.
Christ rose in the body, and his resurrected body was marked by the wounds of the crucifixion. He bears in his resurrected, glorified body all the marks of the victory he had won in the body. He did not win a disembodied victory.
A few practical suggestions. Our Lenten abstention seems to begin on Ash Wednesday and run until Easter morning. Or does it? Canon Law requires us to fast for forty days, as Jesus fasted in the wilderness, yet Lent lasts 46 days. It includes six feast days, and these are the Sundays of Lent. You can eat meat on Sundays in Lent. You don’t have to, but you can.
If you are mocked as a legalist for fasting or for feasting on feast days, remember the Proverb: “A soft answer turneth away wrath” (Proverbs 15.1). When people (usually siblings) scoff at your efforts and say, “That’s nothing,” you should reply, “Yes, it’s really easy.” Explain that practising temporary vegetarianism is no big deal, just the first rung on a ladder whose upper reaches are beyond you.
If you make no song and dance about your fasting, family and friends won’t disrespect your religion on account of it. They may respect it more, though if they do, it’s not you , but the religion your abstention represents they respect.
Dig out a vegetarian cookbook. It’s easier, for the weak-willed, than working through the vegetables in cookbooks for omnivores, because one is not distracted by pictures of roasts and chicken stews. The danger of gourmet vegetarianism is there, but often enough one will eat something less palatable than the plate one’s eyes and stomach demand. Look at Eastern Catholic and Orthodox websites and Greek or Middle Eastern cookbooks for recipes: veganism has flourished in their fasting culture since the first millennium. Lenten fasting Catholics are looking forward to the church “breathing with both lungs,” East and West, in the future.
Some Christians are already year-round vegetarians. My advice to them is to go vegan in Lent and on Fridays. Meat-eaters may find Lenten vegetarianism so spiritually enriching that they take it on to Fridays during the rest of the year (except for Easter and Christmas seasons), and to an Advent Fast, and even adopt the Eastern fasts, like the ‘Dormition Fast’ the fortnight before the Feast of the Assumption, which the East calls the Feast of the Dormition. Catholics can set a day a week aside from taking from the earth, and let it be. For us that day is Friday, the day of the crucifixion.
God is love, and the incarnate God sympathises with our weakness. Not eating meat is about having a heart for yourself, as an embodied creature, and so having a heart for others. “I, if I am lifted up from the earth,” on the Cross, “will draw all to myself” (John 12.32). God wills to draw all humanity into his body. All of nature, his entire creation, vegetable, animal, and human will be made whole in heaven. Our wounds will be glorified, as the means by which God heals the created world. We share the Church’s universal mission by fasting with the poor. This is authentic sentimentality: it is feeling with others, by being genuinely beside them.
On Ash Wednesday, I happened to see this picture posted by the Catholic Radio Channel’s Twitter account:
I enjoy a lot of the programming from the Catholic Channel and have made it through many a commute and car ride listening to its various programs. Thanks to Gus Lloyd’s “Seize the Day” program, I still greet a lot of my friends with “Good morning, child of God!” (and usually do so when it’s too early for anyone to be talking). The graphic design folks who made this edgy-looking graphic with the opening stanza of “Wake Me Up” had a nice thought for the beginning of Lent. The lyrics convey a message that probably resembles the way that many of us pray as Lent begins: “Allrighty, Lord, 40 days, here we go; I have no clue about how this is going to go, but something tells me things ought to be different. I don’t know where it will end, but here I am Lord, and I am trying to start.”
I admire this sentiment, but actually think that the helpfulness of the song “Wake Me Up” as an admirable Lenten posture stops there. Seeing the graphic using the song lyrics in this way on the first day of Lent gave me one more excuse to think about the song as a whole, since I began chewing on the lyrics a few months ago. Only half-jokingly, I had started referring to “Wake Me Up” as a kind of secularized “Amazing Grace” since it mentions “finding myself, when I didn’t even know I was lost!” instead of any recognition of the need to be found or an understanding of the need for grace or outside help. After further reflection, I actually think that not only is “Wake Me Up” a version of a secularized “Amazing Grace” but also that the song’s overall posture is a pretty problematic one. In fact, it demonstrates exactly the opposite of the Christian understanding of conversion and specifically the season of Lent and the practices we undertake in Lent.
Let’s look at the next part of the song:
“They tell me I’m too young to understand
They say I’m caught up in a dream
Well, life will pass me by if I don’t open up my eyes
Well that’s fine by me
So wake me up when it’s all over
When I’m wiser and I’m older
All this time I was finding myself
And I didn’t know I was lost.”
The entire point and posture of the rest of “Wake Me Up,” (contrary to the title) is not actually about waking up or changing at all! Instead, its message encourages sleeping through any kind of growth– or we might add, any kind of grace, repentance, or call to conversion. The subject of “Wake Me Up” is absolutely fine with life passing by as he passively sleeps, and he makes no effort to participate in his growth; he asks only that someone awaken him after everything is “all over” and he is a complete project: “wiser and older.”
The refrain of “Wake Me Up” would at the least undervalue and at the most disdain any Lent-like season in our lives, or the spirit of conversion and repentance for which Lent exists. As a Church, during the season of Lent we deliberately ask God to awaken us to what keeps us from loving Him and His creation in a way that we ought to. With the prophet Hosea, we express our desire to: “Say no more, ‘our god;’ to the work of our hands” but to remember who it is we are called to worship with both our lips and our actions.
Rather than sleeping through another season of our lives, in Lent we ask again and again to be awakened to our sins, to reflect on those sins, and through our commitments to make a physically conscious effort in prayer, fasting, and almsgiving to turn back to God with our whole hearts. In St. Augustine’s “City of God,” he mentions that “A true sacrifice, then, is every work done in order that we may draw near to God in holy fellowship…” (City of God, Book X). The practices of penitence that we take up and the sacrifices we make during the season of Lent help us to both identify with the sacrifice of Christ and to re-awaken our knowledge of the need for conversion. (We might remember here that the word conversion comes from the Greek “metanoia” which means, “to turn.”)
While it is true that at all times in our lives we are supposed to be ready for the coming of Christ, the penitential seasons of Advent and Lent help us to keep this truth in mind and to do so more deliberately; this is helpful, because our liturgical attention spans are often short! Lent call us to action in ways that respond to God’s call to turn away from sin, to keep turning, to keep moving, to keep converting.
Sometimes at the beginning of Lent, I re-read C.S. Lewis’ “Screwtape Letters,” because the process of reading and chewing on the texts ends up working like a book-long examination of conscience. In the “Screwtape Letters,” the demon Screwtape writes to his pupil Wormwood, giving advice on how to lead astray a fellow who keeps seeming like he is edging towards a conversion. Some of his “advice” to Wormwood can help us think about why persevering through our Lenten practices matters for our life-long journeys of conversion as a whole:
“…the great thing is to prevent his doing anything. As long as he does not convert it into action, it does not matter how much he thinks about this new repentance. Let the little brute wallow in it. Let him, if he has any bent that way, write a book about it**; that is often an excellent way of sterilizing the seeds which the Enemy plants in human soul. Let him do anything but act. No amount of piety in his imaginations and affections will harm us if we can keep it out of his will…” (Screwtape Letters 66-67).
The call to repentance in Lent and the physical practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving help us to wake up to those areas of sin in our lives, to realize where we have created idols that have misplaced our Lord. We recognize through these practices that require our physical involvement along with our thoughts and convictions that our bodies and souls are linked, and that while it might be easier to sleep through another liturgical season, the actions we take with our bodies affect the truths that we hold in our souls.
Maybe, if we realize that our own attitude toward Lent in the past has been more like Avicii’s than anything else, this Lent we might make a further commitment to the practices we began last week and as an alternative to “Wake me up when it’s all over” try to pray and sing with the psalmist:
A pure heart create for me, O God,
Put a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence,
Nor deprive me of your holy spirit.
Give me again the joy of your help;
With a spirit of fervor [not sleepiness!] sustain me,
That I may teach transgressors your ways
And sinners may return to you. (Psalm 51)
It is true that as we begin our second week of Lent that we do not know exactly where our own souls will be at the end of this Lent. Nevertheless, this Lent, we do not pray, “Lord, wake me up when it’s all over, at the end of these 40 days, when I’m wiser and I’m older.” We do not ask to mentally “find ourselves” through Lent, as if Lent was just an extension or a do-over of New Years’ self-improvement resolutions. In Lent we ask—and sometimes plead, if we have a difficult time maintaining constancy, for the grace to continue with our Lenten observances, to see where God leads us and to do so actively. Our bodies and souls are united as human beings, and our souls are affected by what we do with our bodies. In her wisdom, the Church recognizes this always, but she especially reminds us of it in Lent in the calls we will continue to hear about prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.
“Awake, my soul… ” (Psalm 57:9)
**(Or a blog post. Guilty as charged, C.S. Lewis. This writer herself is usually horribly bad at persevering in Lent.)
About a week and a half ago, I journeyed to the March for Life in Washington, D.C. with nearly 700 fellow students from the Notre Dame, St. Mary’s, and Holy Cross community. I tried on the way there to write a “Why We March” piece. And then I tried on the way back to turn the bits and pieces of thoughts into a “Why We Marched” reflection. This may come as a shocker, but bumpy, overnight, cross-country bus rides are not the most conducive writing environments.
Bus rides may not be good for writing, but they are good for pondering, and I pondered one thought all along the way. The thought was the quote: “It is good that you exist,” and it tied my whole March for Life 2015 experience together from beginning to end. I remembered reading a line of Pope Benedict XVI’s talking about how it is important for people to know: “It is good that you exist.” (To give fair credit where it’s due, the quote was probably in my mind because of this recent post from Elizabeth Scalia over at the Patheos blog network.) I wondered about using the quote as a sort of posture in which to march and to carry the spirit of the March forward into the rest of the year—expressing that to be pro-life is to say: “It is good that you exist” to all of humanity, from conception to natural death.
This “It is good that you exist” reflection comes from Pope Benedict XVI’s 2011 Christmas address to the Roman Curia. During the address, Pope Benedict reflected on the joy that he had experienced at World Youth Day. The full quote is a gift, and so you’ll find it here:
“Where does it [joy] come from? How is it to be explained? Certainly, there are many factors at work here. But in my view, the crucial one is this certainty, based on faith: I am wanted; I have a task in history; I am accepted, I am loved. Josef Pieper, in his book on love, has shown that man can only accept himself if he is accepted by another. He needs the other’s presence, saying to him, with more than words: it is good that you exist. Only from the You can the I come into itself. Only if it is accepted, can it accept itself. Those who are unloved cannot even love themselves. This sense of being accepted comes in the first instance from other human beings. But all human acceptance is fragile. Ultimately we need a sense of being accepted unconditionally. Only if God accepts me, and I become convinced of this, do I know definitively: it is good that I exist. It is good to be a human being.”
In fact, that idea of peoples’ necessity to know, “It is good that you exist” must have been a theme for Pope Benedict XVI, because years earlier, (as Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger) he had written,
“If an individual is to accept himself, someone must say to him: “It is good that you exist” – must say it, not with words, but with that act of the entire being that we call love” (Principles of Catholic Theology, 74).
The ‘theme’ this year for the March was “Every Life is a Gift.” But I think that we can only say and mean, “Every Life is a Gift” if we affirm to the most vulnerable in our world the goodness of existence.
So to be pro-life in this line of thought means to say, by act, in prayer, by attention, with tenderness, with “the act of the entire being that we call love” the following: It is wonderfully good that you exist, young mothers, isolated and scared of facing the realities of an unintended pregnancy. It is so, so good that you exist, beautiful little ones with Downs Syndrome. It is very good that you exist, men who have no idea how or if you’re going to be a father. We are so grateful that you exist, grandmothers and grandfathers who are tired, and sick, and aren’t sure how much time you have. You are loved for who you are, not what you can do or will do or will never do. You are loved because you exist.*
There are some other beautiful examples of how this kind of love can come about. One of my favorite examples comes from Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead. In it, John Ames writes to his young son, saying: “But it’s your existence I love you for, mainly. Existence seems to me now the most remarkable thing that could ever be imagined.”
That image of John Ames loving his young son simply for his existence in a way that aligns with the thought of Pope Benedict XVI is just about the most pro-life posture I can imagine, if we have the courage to extend it to those we encounter. What if we loved each person in our world in the same way? Each woman, man, and child on this earth—especially those whom, by all appearances, the world is willing to throw away—needs to know they are dearly loved and supported and treasured. They are loved by God and also by us, even if they never felt that or knew that until now. They need to know it with more than just words; they need to know with tangible support and time and love. We need to reach out, to tell them: “It is good that you exist.”
We know that we can only love, as 1 John 4 says, because “[God] first loved us.” In and through the mystery of faith, we are invited to love people with God’s love so that they may know that God loves them. Our human love may only be a shadow and a tiny foretaste of our heavenly Father’s tender love for His children, but we need each other in order to know that it is good that we exist. We need each other, so that ultimately we may all turn together in adoration, with our whole hearts and lives to the ultimate love, who poured Himself out for us on the Cross.
This is why the posture of “It is good that you exist” can help extend the witness of the March. It means taking the experience of the solidarity of the hundreds of thousands of people on the March for Life, joyously shouting the slogans like, “We love babies!” and “Pro-Woman, Pro-Life!” and turning that passion and joy into a tangible part of the daily Christian life. The Notre Dame Right to Life Club already does this in very admirable ways, by supporting the pregnancy resource center near campus, organizing visits to nursing homes and having game nights with the elderly, and working with the Hannah Project, spending time with children and adults with a variety of disabilities. All of these pro-life activities state by their collective actions, by their decisions and their time, and by their attention to the individual that it is good that people exist.
This is idealistic, I know, and one post cannot engage all of the arguments and intricacies surrounding those who have suffered because of abortion or other hurts and sins against human dignity all over the world. But I hope that this post can serve as encouragement, as a suggestion for a way of “moving on” from the March for Life. This way proclaims by word, by deed, by attention to the most vulnerable a very simple message: you are loved for your very existence. That is good that we exist. It is good that you, beloved child of God, exist, and it always will be.
*(We could go on to refer to immigrants and refugees, the homeless, the mentally ill . . . obviously, the pro-life movement doesn’t get the monopoly on calling existence “good”: God beat us all to it in the first days of creation. See Gn 1.)
Notre Dame Center for Liturgy, Institute for Church Life