Into the Desert

We begin another Lent. Jesus enters the desert to engage in combat with the devil. He shares in and represents our humanity. “He was tempted in every way we are, but did not sin” (Hebrews 4:15). He allows himself to be weak and vulnerable. He abides in his identity as a beloved Son. With humility, trust, and confidence, he conquers. He shows us that genuine human maturity is possible. We get to share more and more in the “glorious freedom of the children of God” (Romans 8:21).

Sometimes I taste that freedom. Other times, I resonate with the words of the apostle Paul: “I do not do the good that I desire, but the evil that I do not desire is what I keep on doing” (Romans 7:15). Even though I have free will, I often fee unfree!

This is where the ancient Christian Tradition of asceticism comes in. Beginning in the 200’s, many Christian men and women flocked to the desert to engage in spiritual combat and claim more fully the peace that only Christ can give.

Many people today haven’t even heard of “asceticism” or “ascesis.” Or if they have, they are likely to misunderstand or distort what it’s really about. People tend to hate it or love it for all the wrong reasons!

The Greek word askesis literally means “exercise” or “training.” Ascetical practices, when healthy and holy, are like the best of athletic training. Healthy training is directed toward a positive goal. It may include a good deal of self-denial, not to mention rigorous practices that are uncomfortable or even painful.

There can be joy, exhilaration, freedom, and peace in discovering that I am capable of so much more – and then actually experiencing it. I think back to my high school years, and the weightlifting and football training. Through intense discipline and consistent practice, often in community with others, celebrating each milestone, I discovered new possibilities that I didn’t know were within me.

I had similar experiences during the last decade, both with exercise and with how I eat. I remember quite vividly two triumphant moments about ten years ago. One was riding my bicycle up a tall and steep hill, staying in the lowest gear and determined to “just keep peddling.” It was so exhilarating when I actually made it to the top and kept going! Likewise, after months of buildup, I finally made it through an entire rigorous exercise video, muscles burning and heart pounding. It felt amazing. Seven years ago, after conversations with my doctor, I discovered new motivation to be healthier around food and alcohol. More importantly, my work in therapy and group therapy was opening my eyes to my emotions and my needs. I noticed how many times a day I felt an urge to eat (without actually being hungry). I became curious about what was really happening. I made phone calls daily to talk about it with friends. The self-denial around food opened up an awareness of how much within me needed care and healing.

I look back and see how Spirit-led all of it was. I received an abundance of healing; I genuinely matured. I look back, and I also see some pitfalls in the process – my pride and shame. There was a certain impurity in my motives – relishing the positive attention from others, silently making comparisons or judgments, and believing lies that I was somehow more lovable because I weighed less and looked different. More subtly, there was the role (the false identity) that I had adopted in adolescence – that of the golden child, who looks and acts the part and makes the family system look good. I played that role in my family; I played it for my church family; I even played it at times during 4+ years of group therapy. I recall a moment in which the group facilitator made a comment about me being the “poster child” of the group. As has happened so many times in my life, that admiration felt amazing but ultimately left me feeling empty. As I have previously described, admiration is not the same as love; and drivenness is not the same as desire.

Two years ago, I parted ways amicably with that group, as my healing journey went in a new and deeper direction. Those who truly know me and love me describe to me many ways they have seen me continue to grow. I have also “grown” in less desirable ways – externally showing weight gain that belies some of my unhealthy habits that have crept their way back in. And then I battle with the old accusing voice of shame, calling me a hypocrite – here I am, invited in my current ministry to lead other priests into healthier living, and I find myself not living in a healthy way. But that shame is telling me lies. Now I get to seek asceticism out of desire rather than fear or shame. Moreover, I now see more clearly the toxicity that is so often present in the fitness culture, the shame and contempt towards certain bodies, and the idolatry of thinness. Being healthy and holy is not about the shape of your or my body or the number that shows up on the scale. It’s certainly not about gaining the adulation of others. There is a multi-billion dollar industry that is more interested in selling their products and services than in real human flourishing. The messages are often manipulative and shaming. As it turns out, both fitness culture and asceticism have much to offer, and both are full of pitfalls.

The desert is a dangerous place. There are fell creatures there. The devil doesn’t sleep. The combat is not easy. The victory is not a one-and-done, but an ongoing and very non-linear process. When you withdraw from the world and engage in healthy self-denial, it is then that the real combat begins. Sometimes you get your lunch handed to you. Much like the cave in The Empire Strikes Back or the woods of Lothlorien in Lord of the Rings, entering the desert uncovers what already lies within your heart – and then the real combat begins.

The lives of the saints are so often sanitized or glamorized – as though they easily and quickly achieved holiness and purity. Their lived reality was so different! As Bishop Erik Varden describes in his new book on chastity, the virtue of purity is actually exceedingly rare, because it takes many years of patient and diligent effort to mature into it. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church describes (nn. 2337-2445), this process of maturing into purity is a long and exacting labor that must be renewed in every stage of life. It requires lifelong apprenticeship. It is mainly about healthy relationships, emotional maturity, and our capacity to receive and give love.

Let’s not forgot how Jesus begins his combat in the desert. He is not led there out of fear or shame, nor to improve his public image, nor because he is hoping he can change and become lovable. No, he is led there at his Father’s invitation, by the Holy Spirit, immediately following his baptism. He has already been claimed as the Father’s beloved, in whom the Father delights. He is anointed by the Holy Spirit for the battle. It can be the same for us.

Secure relationship comes first. We first are loved and delighted in and belong. We first receive strength from on high. If you are like me, much of the battle will be with the multi-layered lies of shame that keep trying to tell me I can only be lovable if

Shame gets healed in communion – communion with God and healthy community with each other.

This Lent, I feel the Lord inviting me to reclaim healthy discipline, to engage in exercise (ascesis) in both bodily and spiritual ways. I am resolved to do so out of a desire to abide in love, to grow and mature, and to bear fruit. I may once again discover mixed motives; it’s still worth it. Layer by layer, the Lord will keep patiently and gently uncovering my heart. Such was the prophecy of Simeon to Jesus’ mother Mary. As her Son dies on the Cross, he gives her to me as a mother who always delights in me, shelters me, and guides me. I am already loved. I can now grow and keep growing.

Jesus conquers the devil by standing firm in his identity. I pray that you and I may remember who we are as we pray and live into the Collect prayer of Ash Wednesday:

Grant, O Lord, that we may begin with holy fasting this campaign of Christian service, so that as we take up battle against spiritual evils, we may be armed with weapons of self-restraint.

As we enter the desert with Jesus, may we come to share more fully in his Paschal victory, and claim that joy and peace that no one can steal away.

Triggers and True Kindness

These days, merely uttering the word “triggered” is likely to trigger someone.

There are many who mock today’s tendency to give a “trigger alert.” I notice intense reactions of contempt among some of my fellow Christians. I have a hard time imagining Jesus showing the same scorn. He compassionately sought out those who were weak or wounded. He met them with tender love. He did not expect them to pull themselves together before he would allow them to belong or to follow him.

At the same time, Jesus did not preface his teachings with a “trigger alert.” In his parables and conversations, you can see him intentionally eliciting a reaction from his listeners. He skillfully provokes in order to uncover what needs healing, to awaken desire, to proclaim Good News, and to invite them into a covenantal relationship in which they can grow and bear fruit.

To be triggered is to experience a bigger reaction to a situation than one might normally expect. Amidst a sudden influx of images or bodily sensations, a trigger might elicit a flash of anger, a surge of sexual arousal, a pang of dread, a paralyzing anxiety, or a dissociative numbness.

And it happens so very quickly. Hence the term “trigger.” Much like a speeding bullet, our nervous system and limbic brain have the capacity to be launched into a life-or-death response.

The reaction happens first. Rational thinking may or may not follow, depending on the intensity of the reaction. The activation or the shutdown of our body begins in a fraction of a second. We are already mobilizing, fleeing, freezing, or going numb by the time our rational brain gets the memo a few seconds later – that is, if the memo even arrives. Survival is the priority when it comes to our body’s trauma responses.

Eight centuries ago, Thomas Aquinas noticed and reflected on these reactions that are common to all mammals. Deer who have memory of being hunted experience a swift reaction in the presence of humans. Our bodies and brains have a capacity to remember, to form associations, and to expect what will happen next. Without having access to the findings of neuroscience, Thomas was already observing the principle that “neurons that fire together wire together.”

In situations of threat, getting triggered is a marvelous asset. The speed and intensity of our reaction are the very thing that helps us get back to safety. In day-to-day relationships, triggers can be frustrating, as we go on hurting ourselves and the ones we love by any number of reactive behaviors: raising our voice, interrupting, berating, glaring, getting small, fawning, avoiding, withdrawing, isolating, going numb, turning to an addiction, etc.

Most of us wish we didn’t have these reactions. We wish they would just go away. Or we feel resentful at those who so insensitively trigger us. Yet every trigger is an opportunity to experience authentic connection, healing, and repair.

I began exploring my own triggers seven years ago, in my early months of healing and recovery. I remember that summer well, slowly reading Seven Desires by Mark and Debbie Laaser. They gave names to my behaviors and experiences. I didn’t always like it. It was painful to see how often I had been putting expectations on others and on myself, rather than acknowledging and feeling my deep and unmet needs. It was also liberating to tell the fuller truth. It opened up more and more curiosity.

Mark described triggers as an opportunity to be curious about my unmet needs, to become responsible for them, and to communicate about them – rather than expecting or demanding or resenting. Daily curiosity allowed me to notice and share with friends my various overreactions. Little by little, I grew in an awareness of what I was really feeling and needing. I noticed how present-day reactions were connected to my story.

Debbie described her preference to imagine triggers as “anointings” – meaning that we can welcome the anointing balm of the Holy Spirit any and every time we feel a strong reaction. That was such a lovely invitation, and one that I also started practicing.

There began in me a “thawing out” process. After decades of minimizing my feelings and needs, I began paying attention, allowing time and space and care. There’s a real challenge there – thawing out hurts!! Over time, I discovered new layers in my story – long years of loneliness and heartache that I had never fully felt. With the strong and tender presence of the Virgin Mary, my daily prayer became a time in which I could bring my daily triggers, allow myself to feel more of them, and welcome the anointing of the Holy Spirit. It was so painful and so consoling.

These experiences unfolded over months and eventually years. Scriptures began coming to life for me. My body is a temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19). That means I can allow myself to feel intense sensations in my gut, chest, or throat. I can welcome the Holy Spirit there. He can anoint me there. The very name “Christian” implies being a “christ” – being anointed as Jesus was anointed. Jesus promised that very anointing in the Beatitudes when he said “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be paracleted.” (Matthew 5:4). I use the word “paracleted” in order to highlight the anointing of the Paraclete that soothes and encourages us whenever we are willing to experience our intense heartache and receive needed care.

Case in point: Just minutes ago, I received an unexpected and totally unwelcome interruption. It abruptly brought up all kinds of intense memories for me. So what did I do? I felt resentment and anger at the text message. I devoured an unhealthy snack, feeling shame as I ate it, along with the predictable and not-nearly-enough soothing sensation. Then I noticed myself just wanting to push through and move on. Then I felt the invitation to practice what I am preaching here. I took 5 minutes to lie down, allowing myself to feel more of it. I wept and shook and gasped for air. I realized how young I was feeling (like a 1-year old?). I realized how powerless and unprotected I had been feeling, and how familiar that was to my nervous system. I allowed time to receive comfort. I feel much more peace now.

Part of me feels frustrated at this “fragility” or that I still need so much. But if I tell the truth, what today required a 5-minute break would have set me in a rut for days or weeks in the past – and without me even being aware that I was triggered. The healing steps that I have already taken now give me a window of opportunity (usually) to notice and be aware, and to decide how to respond to the trigger. It’s a slow process that requires the faith of a child.

In healthy human development, as infants or toddlers or children, we have thousands and thousands of moments like the one I just had. Initially, that care comes from others; over time, we grow in our own capacity to notice what’s happening, to be resilient and resourceful, and to respond with good care and reasonable behavior.

As I get to know thousands of people’s stories, I am discovering an unpleasant reality. Most Americans I know did not experience myriads of moments of that kind of care as a child. We were more likely to be ignored, dismissed, judged, threatened, humiliated, attacked, or used. Many of us learned at a very young age either to keep our needs and feelings to ourselves, or that we will only get care if we perform or achieve, if we are dramatic or manipulative, or if we are giving something in exchange for it. We can expect as adults that it will take many thousands of moments of getting triggered, noticing our reaction with kindness, taking time to receive, and reconnecting. The alternative is to continue through life with unhealed wounds and unmet needs – which ultimately means remaining wounded people who wound people.

What about other people’s triggers? If we look at Jesus, we see grace and truth. Kindness seeks to heal ruptures, restore communion, and grow together in love. That requires a skillful combination of empathy and truth-telling. Jesus shows a marvelous awareness of what each person needs at a given moment. He neither backs away nor barges in. He loves them first, and then playfully engages their defenses, inviting them into more love and more truth.

To be oblivious or uncaring about what is obviously triggering to someone else is unkind or even cruel. But to expect others to tiptoe around my own triggers is egoistic and even abusive. I should know! I spent much of my life tiptoeing around others’ triggers. I’m learning that I don’t have to keep doing that. It helps neither me nor them. Their triggers and their needs are their responsibility, even if I genuinely care about them.

We all need people who care about what we need and feel, and who help us make sense out of life. Jesus needed that – and he experienced that! Not from most people, but from some.

Will we become again like little children? Will we admit and acknowledge the depths of our need, and be aware that those around us have their own stories and their own needs? Will we be responsible for our own needs and not expect others to do acrobatics around our tripwires?

May the true kindness of Jesus be an open invitation to each of us, in our own human growth, and in our relationships with one another.

Welcoming Emmanuel

God is with us. God is greater.

With these two simple statements, I invite each of us to be open and receptive to the good news of salvation that Jesus brings, and will keep bringing in ever greater measure. It’s a simple invitation, yet not an easy one!

That is because there is tension in those statements – a tension familiar to Joseph and Mary, and to true believers in every age. God was with them. He showed up in their lives, multiple times – usually in unexpected ways, even though they were looking for him. To announce the coming of Emmanuel, God sends his angel. Each of them welcomes the good news with trust and joyful obedience. But God leaves far more questions unanswered! Mary ponders all these things in her heart. She seeks to understand, without (like Zechariah) insisting on grasping it all. Joseph promptly obeys the message of each dream. He believes God is with him, and recognizes that God is infinitely greater. He obeys with trust, not having any sense of the how or the when of the fulfillment of those good promises. God was with them. God was greater. They allowed that tension to linger and play itself out. They received and kept receiving, in a way that kept expanding with each new unveiling of the mystery.

God has shown up many times in my own life – often in surprising and unexpected ways. Again and again, he reminds me that he is truly with me. When I welcome his presence, I am aware – sometimes painfully – that he is so much greater. I am consumed with a longing that is both joyful and sad – joyful because I am truly drinking in his comforting presence, sad because I sense his grandeur and my own limited capacity to receive. The gap feels insurmountable, even when he reassures me of his goodness.


I can see, over the years, how much he has stretched me, increasing my desire and so increasing my capacity to receive and give. Sometimes I joyfully cooperate and welcome the expansion and growth.  Other times, I resist.

I notice two frequent temptations. One is to “arrive” – to have it all together and all figured out. In response to this temptation, there is the cliché telling us that it’s more about the journey than the destination. That’s not entirely true. The destination matters. It’s just that the journey is so darn long – and has to be – because God is infinitely greater! In his longing to share his fullness with each and all of us, he will offer every opportunity to stretch our hearts and increase our capacity for union with him. My ache to arrive is not bad in and of itself. The Magi felt it in their search for Emmanuel. Joseph and Mary felt it in their search for shelter.

There are moments that indeed feel like “arrival” – Emmanuel moments in which God definitively shows up with a further unveiling. These moments bring immense and intense joy – as we see in the story of the Magi and the renewed movement of the star (Matthew 2:10).  Many of us are then tempted, like Peter, to build our tents and stay there at the moment, as though we’ve now arrived. If we are wise like the Magi or Joseph or Mary, we will humbly recognize that there is still far more to be unveiled, all in due time.

My second temptation is to sabotage the expansive growth God is offering. I sometimes (even often) prefer to stay small and return to my familiar little cell – even when I see signs that those surroundings are increasingly rotting and toxic. Jesus has broken open the bars of that cell and shattered my chains. I am free to step out into expansive Hope. Yet, like so many survivors of a prison camp, the bigness and freedom now available feels unfamiliar and scary. Following the star to an unknown destination includes leaving familiar contexts behind – and I resist. In those moments, I am not so much avoiding pain as avoiding the immensity of the desire and of the increasing goodness that I am entering.

Thanks be to God, my fumbling and stumbling has not for a moment stopped Jesus from remaining Emmanuel – fully present and active. He keeps surprising me and keeps alluring me to grow into the fullness of his Kingdom.

There is a third way, one that invites a holy remembrance of past blessings and an eager anticipation of unknown blessings yet to come. This is the way exemplified by Mary and Joseph. It is the way ultimately embraced every true mystic or saint. It is also what we enter into communally in liturgical seasons and observances, indeed in every Mass. We connect with each other and with God. We confess our unfaithfulness and seek reconciliation. We remember the ways God has been with us. We profess our Hope and pray eagerly for his coming. Healed and nourished, we are sent out eagerly on mission into the world with renewed Faith, Hope, and Love.

I have also learned the importance of having my own personal ways of remembering and anticipating. In my meeting spaces, my workplaces, or my places of prayer, I allow myself to have outward reminders of the ways God has truly showed up on my journey. My friends at the John Paul II Healing Center would call these the “Emmanuel Moments” in my life. My friends at the Allender Center would call my outward reminders “Ebenezers.” Emmanuel is Hebrew for “God is with us.” Ebenezer is Hebrew for “a stone of help” – as in the memorial stones sometimes erected in Old Testament stories to remind people of the ways God has showed up. I can return to these moments – not to cling to them or to stay there, but to be reminded of the twofold truth: God is with us, and God is greater.

Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556) led thousands of believers through his Spiritual Exercises – indeed, many millions if you count five centuries of retreatants. One of his greatest points of emphasis is “repetition” – returning to experiences of divine consolation in order to soak in more of the blessing and grow into fruitfulness. Here we see a strong conviction in the truth of both statements: God is with us; God is always greater.

“Consolation” is ultimately from the Greek New Testament word that means “paracleting” – that is to say, the undeniable presence and activity of the Holy Spirit. When we know that the Spirit of God has shown up and begun working in us, there is an invitation to keep returning, keep discerning, and keep receiving. In times of desolation, remembering God’s goodness offers us endurance and Hope – resisting the temptation to become discouraged and get small. In times of consolation, returning to those moments allows us to receive even more, resisting the temptation to settle or “arrive” without further growth.

These days, this invitation is especially crucial. So many are feeling afraid or discouraged by the seeming strength of evil. And the toxic currents of our smart phone / social media culture are tirelessly stealing away our rest and sweeping us along, enticing us to keep moving and keep distracting ourselves. Now, more than ever, there is the invitation to allow God to be with us. We can remember the ways he has already shown up, be open to the surprising ways that he is showing up even now, and expect him to increase and expand his blessings upon us in the days ahead. May we all be open to the good news and the salvation that Jesus brings, and will keep bringing, until he becomes all in all.

Watching for Dawn

[Revised and re-posted from Advent 2020]

We begin another Advent. We open our minds and hearts to the coming of Christ.

Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) speaks of three comings of Christ: (1) his first coming, in the manger at Bethlehem; (2) his coming again in glory to judge the living and the dead; and (3) the invisible way in which he comes to all true believers who desire him.  In the words of Jesus, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him” (John 14:23). Jesus desires to be present to those who desire his presence.

Advent is a season of presence. “Advent” comes from the Latin adventus (“arrival” or “coming”). But adventus is a translation of the Greek word parousia – often used to describe Jesus’ coming again in glory, but literally meaning “presence.”  It is easy for some Christians to slip into gloom and doom fantasies about a future apocalypse (or an apocalypse that is allegedly happening right now). It is challenging to abide in the present moment, to watch and wait with sober Hope.

That is the invitation of Jesus: “What I say to you, I say to all: ‘Watch!’” (Mark 13:37). In Greek, this command to “watch” is gregoreĩte. The Christian name Gregory is derived from this invitation to sober watchfulness, so frequent in the admonitions of Jesus as well as in other New Testament writings (e.g., 1 Peter 5:8).

Gregory the Great (ca. 540-604) is one of my favorite popes and saints. He was born into a prominent Roman family – during a time in which the already faded glory of Rome was quickly passing away. Much that was good and beautiful had collapsed or was about to, and Gregory had no illusions that the clock could be turned back to “the good old days.” He answered God’s call to become a Benedictine monk, and his heart desired the peaceful prayer of the monastery. However, God and others kept tapping his talents for administration during a time of great crisis. He humbly describes his struggles to remain a man of prayer amidst the administration of stressful crises that were impossible to ignore. I can relate!

Gregory was profoundly aware that his name meant “Watchman” and that the words of Isaiah applied to him: Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel. A watchman is called to stand upon the heights, to keep his mind and heart in a place of calm, peace, loving awareness, discernment, wisdom, and creativity – so as to be a blessing to others. Such was Gregory’s deep desire, even though he felt and expressed his struggles: “Who am I to be a watchman, for I do not stand on the mountain of action but lie down in the valley of weakness?”

Whatever his particular pain and struggles may have been, Gregory’s holy desire to be a watchman prevailed. Constantly renewed and enlightened by Jesus, Gregory’s foresight led to the establishment of hundreds of monasteries, which preserved so much of the beauty, goodness, and truth of Athens and Rome, and which became vibrant hubs of evangelization in the centuries ahead. Gregory’s sober watchfulness allowed him to continue doing works of mercy in the present moment, but without being consumed in a false fantasy to prop up structures whose time had passed. His sober watchfulness was both deeply pessimistic and optimistic at the same time – accepting the grief of definitive loss and change, while simultaneously seeing with optimistic Faith new rays of hopeful light where other more frantic people were blinded by their busyness, fear, or denial. Survival mode does not tend to bring the best out of human beings. Our field of vision narrows (both literally and figuratively), and we tend to keep going back to repetitive and predictable “solutions” – as though doing it for the forty-second time will somehow yield different results. True to his name, Gregory knew how to keep getting back into his watchtower.

When reflecting on the great mystery that is the Church, Gregory offers one of the most profound descriptions I ever came across during my doctoral research. He compares the Church to the dawn:

The holy Church, seeking the rewards of heavenly life, is called the dawn, for as she leaves behind the darkness of sin, she shines forth with the light of righteousness. But while we live, it is dawn, not perfect Day … For dawn or daybreak indeed announces that the night has passed, but does not manifest the full splendor of the Day. Rather, as it dispels the night and takes on the Day, the dawn holds a light that is mixed with darkness.

The Church, on her present sojourn through history, is indeed a mixture of weeds and wheat, darkness and light, sinners and saints. The same is true of our own hearts.  Gregory proceeds:

As long as the law of the flesh clashes with the law of the spirit, and the law of the spirit with the law of the flesh, light and darkness will blend together. Thus, when Paul says, “The night is far gone” (Romans 13:12), he does not add, “the Day has arrived,” but rather, “the Day is near” … The Day shall arrive when no darkness of sin triumphs. Then the Church of the elect will be fully day, when no shadow of sin is mixed with her.

What wise and Hope-filled words! He can look truthfully at his own heart and at the Church and see truthfully both darkness and light. But there is Hope. The thing about dawn is that it does NOT turn back into night. So also with the Church. The gates of hell will not prevail against her. He will be with her always. No matter how deep the darkness may seem at certain moments, we can look for the streaks of light and be assured that the dawn will break into full Day.

Our present age is eerily parallel to that of Gregory. So much that we once took for granted in church life or society has collapsed, and there is no turning back the clock. As with ancient Rome, some of what collapsed was beautiful, and some of it was already evil – using piety or patriotism to cover over greed, exploitation, or abuse. I may return to this discussion of nostalgia for the “good old days” another day. For today, the main point is that when you are standing amidst the wreckage, the only way forward is the way through, and we can easily get discouraged or cling to fantasies about how fighting “those people” will fix everything.

This Advent, we can join Gregory, not to mention the original twelve Apostles who first heard Jesus’ admonition to “watch.” Heeding the invitation of the Beatitudes, we can embrace our poverty and grieve our losses – getting past our denial and blame. We can abide in the present moment, even when it feels disorienting and scary. We can stay sober and vigilant. Jesus will open the eyes of our heart, and help us to see the new light that he always brings. As promised, his Spirit is always at work, shining in unexpected places.

Being watchful disciples means attuning to those first streaks of dawn, and allowing them to surprise us with joy. We tend to have tunnel vision about how Jesus is going to answer our prayers. Jesus frequently surprises his disciples with joy in ways they least expect. If we are sober and watchful in the present moment, our vision can be broadened again and again. Noticing with true vision the streaks of dawn, we can become eager heralds of the full light of Day that is breaking into this world.

Co-Authoring with God

We all find ourselves in the middle of a story. We have known sweet moments of delight, dark moments of betrayal, intense longing, bitter disappointment, and perhaps long seasons of feeling stuck or lost.

That is how most great tales begin – in the middle of the story in which the featured character faces a seemingly insurmountable dilemma. As we discover the character’s backstory, we gain a better sense of why the dilemma is so hard. It is only when she faces her past that she can move forward in freedom and hope.

As a follower of Jesus, I can ask an interesting question – who is the author of the story I find myself in? Is it God? Is it me? And what roles do other characters play?

Catholic teaching is quite clear about the authorship – it’s both. God is truly the author, and I am truly the author. God is sovereign and all-powerful, but he always respects and honors our freedom and never saves us apart from our wanting it and freely cooperating with it. We get to grow (or wither) in love over the course of our life.

Such are the stories of Sacred Scripture. Throughout the Old and New Testaments, we hear tale after tale of human beings gifted by God, called by God, aided by God, corrected by God, rescued by God, and aided anew – but always in a way that allows the stumbling human characters to be free, to desire, to choose, and to grow (or to harden their hearts and to harm self and others). God never makes anyone do anything, yet somehow remains in charge.

The books of the Bible themselves are co-authored by God and human beings, as the Second Vatican Council taught in 1965. Dei Verbum (“The Word of God”) is the Council document about Jesus as the eternal Word of God. The Word of God is primarily a person, not a book. The Word (Jesus) is truly human and truly divine. Both his humanity and his divinity are profoundly united in the one eternal person of the Son; but neither is dissolved or diminished as a result of that union. In Jesus, all of humanity is invited into a one-flesh union with God that will be celebrated eternally.

This story of Jesus and the Church is then passed on both orally (in the proclamation of the Gospel and in Tradition) and in writing (in the God-breathed books of Scripture). Dei Verbum n. 11 clarifies that God is the true author of each book of Scripture and of the whole of Scripture. But the same paragraph teaches that various human beings are also true authors whom God chose and inspired – fully respecting their freedom, their capacities, and their abilities. God did not dictate Scripture word for word, in a way that would treat the human beings as robots or inanimate pens. Rather, he allowed his story to be told within particular human contexts. At no point did he coerce or pressure of manipulate the capacities or the freedom of the human beings he had chosen. He allowed his inspiration to adapt to the limits of a fully human context, while authentically communicating divine truth.

Fundamentalists (both in the Evangelical word and the Catholic world) tend to be afraid of human reason and academic learning. They want to put all the authorship and authority on the side of God, which lends the illusion of clarity and control. That feel safe! Never mind that God is always radically beyond our “clear” notions of him. Never mind that our feeling in control is an illusion. Fundamentalists resist facing the heartache in their own story and fantasize about getting back to the good old days when all was well (conveniently forgetting the darker deeds of those nostalgic times). They don’t tend trust that the Holy Spirit will keep showing up, and that holy human beings (or even less-than-holy human beings) in every age will answer the summons and cooperate with God’s saving action. God will never tire of saving us, but he also shows a remarkable preference to do so through feeble instruments, respecting the “yes” or “no” of those instruments.

On the flipside of fundamentalism is secular humanism. There are plenty of secular atheists, agnostics, or even practicing Christians who don’t believe that God really shows up or really authors. They see Scripture as a collection of merely human stories. They see religion as merely a human projection of needs, with the doctrines and practices as merely human efforts to make meaning in life.

Both fundamentalists and humanists are well-meaning. Both are partially correct. Both are gravely mistaken.

In the person of Jesus, God has truly shown up in human history; truly lived, truly died, and truly rose. God has really revealed himself; genuinely reconciled us to himself (in a way we could never have done ourselves). He now invites us in full freedom to be in a real relationship with him through his Son, and to follow where his Son has gone. Jesus is the great protagonist of THE human story, into which we are all invited. But he only and ever saves us by inviting us to become co-authors in our own story.

Co-authorship is hard. We will resist it and try to find another way. When we find ourselves in the middle of our story, when the plot becomes particularly intense, we tend to feel stuck. We want a solution that doesn’t involve so much vulnerability or risk. We then enter fantasy thinking – the realm of “if only…”

If only I had what that person has… If only God would send the right partner… If only I had a different job… If only I wasn’t so sensitive… If only I wouldn’t make mistakes… If only God would take this temptation from me… If only that political party got in charge… If only this person would finally pay for what he did… If only…

When we feel particularly overwhelmed in our story, may find ourselves in the broken record of an addiction cycle – which also always begins with the “if only…” of fantasy thinking. Fantasizing about a predictable pleasure may help the present moment feel less unbearable. It brings a certain soothing. But it will ultimately bring us to a familiar place of disappointment and shame. It slowly but surely ruins us.

Like the apostle Paul (2 Corinthians 12), we are likely to beg God to take our trials and temptations away, to rescue us by removing us from the hard spot in the story. Sometimes God does that – but ultimately, he desires us to become heroes who share in the glory of his Son. That will only happen if we follow Jesus closely in his suffering, death, and resurrection. If we do not face the full heartache of where we have come from and where we are going, we will miss out on becoming the full gift that we were meant to be. When we come to accept more fully the story that we find ourselves in, we can proceed in fuller freedom as co-authors of a future full of hope.

The Middle of the Story

It’s difficult being in the middle of a great story. It’s challenging enough to be an empathetic reader, feeling the tension in our body as we witness the drama resolving. But we as readers typically know more than the characters in the story, and are free to set the story aside. By contrast, to be the one in the midst of the tale, totally unsure of what will happen next, can be overwhelming, disorienting, or discouraging.

I recently re-read Lord of the Rings – probably my favorite story. This time around, I was captivated by the conversation between Frodo and Sam on the stairs of Cirith Ungol. They have come far in their journey, which seems more and more to be a fools’ errand. Failure feels inevitable.

Then they have a moment’s realization that they are in the middle of a great story. Not only that, they are characters entering and leaving the stage amidst an even grander story, interconnected with all the heroes and villains. Sam cheers Frodo up by imagining their tale told to children by the fireside. “Frodo was very brave, wasn’t he, dad?” “Yes, my boy, the famousest of the hobbits, and that’s saying a lot.”

Frodo laughs in a dark place that hadn’t heard laughter since Sauron came to Middle Earth. He adds to Sam’s musings: “But you’ve left out one of the chief characters: Samwise the stouthearted. ‘I want to hear more about Sam, dad. Why didn’t they put in more of his talk, dad? That’s what I like, it makes me laugh. And Frodo wouldn’t have got far without Sam, would he, dad?”

Then Frodo names well why things are so hard for them: “You and I, Sam, are still stuck in the worst places of the story, and it is all too likely that some will say at this point: ‘Shut the book now, dad; we don’t want to read any more.’”

I have felt more than once in life what it is like to be at the worst places of the story. We can have long moments of felt powerlessness in which we do not see a path forward, and do not feel like we can trust anyone. Sometimes those are distorted perceptions, but not always. In the case of Frodo and Sam, the devious Gollum was their only guide, and they had no obvious options. All they could think to do was keep showing up and see what would happen next. And they did just that.

On the Day of Judgment, Jesus will assemble the entire human race, and have them hear your story and mine – which of course will interwoven with the entire human story. Others will hear all about the heroes and villains and supporting characters in our story. Our full truth will be unveiled.

Jesus, of course, is the ultimate hero of the grand human story. His dying and rising bring meaning and hope. But Jesus very much desires that we participate in his Passover (cf. Luke 22:15). He wants his story to become one with ours, and for you and me to grow as heroes in our own right. It is often in the moments of failure or adversity that we learn the most and become who we are. The apostle Paul teaches that God works all things for the good for those who love him (Romans 8:28). Augustine of Hippo adds the words – even our sins.

Like the hobbits, we are apt to have more moments of foolish blundering than moments of astonishing courage or faithfulness. All the moments matter, and in his covenantal love Jesus turns every one of them into the beginning of a new and better chapter. It’s not a matter of getting it all right or figuring it all out, but of allowing the story to unfold.

We tend to imagine that the glamorous moments of our story will be those in which we fell a giant spider or troll. But when our full story is told, perhaps the listeners will perceive that our greatest moments were those in which we ourselves fell – again and again – and kept getting up and kept showing up. They will gain a glimpse into the moments when we had no idea how we could carry on, what would come next, or who would help us get there – and we chose to show up anyway.

Yes, it’s hard to be in the middle of a story – especially at the worst moments, the moments in which we feel stuck. It helps very much to allow true friends to be near us, to share bread together and sing together, even in the dark moments and places of our lives.

In every case, there is an invitation to Eucharistic renewal. Jesus assembles us, Sunday after Sunday, and we listen attentively the THE story that breathes meaning and hope into our own. We place all the broken pieces of ourselves and our lives on the altar, giving it all over to the one who offers it all to the Father. We receive the flesh and blood of Jesus – our waybread for the journey that lies ahead – even when we do not know the way, and do not know how all can possibly be well. We resist the temptation to go it alone – even when that feels easier. We definitely need community and true companions on the journey. Like Frodo, we may find the most unusual allies in the most unexpected places.

The virgin Mary models for us, again and again, what it is like to be in the middle of an unfolding story and not have all the answers. She never backs away or isolates, nor does she force a solution. She abides. She watches and waits, and when the Lord reveals next steps, she follows with trust. She is willing to abide in the middle of the worst moments. She stands with Jesus in the worst moments of his. Jesus gives us to her (“Behold your mother”) so that she can stand with us in our own worst moments. May we welcome her mothering and learn from her example as we continue into the next chapter of our story.

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