My Needy Microwave

In my last post, I described my oversensitive smoke alarm. It is not the only kitchen appliance that gives me grief. There is also my needy microwave. It emits three loud beeps when the timer elapses. If I don’t promptly get up and open the door, it beeps three times again. Another thirty seconds, and it will beep again. And again. And again. It doesn’t give up! It will literally keep on beeping every thirty seconds, per omnia saecula saeculorum, unless and until you give it the attention it so desperately craves.

Part of me has a vivid and rather morbid imagination. Maybe I read too much Dean Koontz. I visualize myself having an untimely accident. Perhaps the smoke alarm startles me and I stumble into the refrigerator. It falls upon me, and there I lie, my pelvis crushed, pinned to the floor for hours or days – alone, that is, except for my microwave beeping at me every 30 seconds! Hey, stranger things have happened…

Thumbing through the owner’s manual left me in a state of stunned disbelief. There is no way of reprogramming the beeping on this particular model. Seriously, what was that programmer thinking? Was he a misogynist secretly hoping to exact revenge on housewives everywhere? Who in his right mind wants a microwave that never stops beeping?

Well, you know what they say about owners and their appliances: they become more and more like each other over time. I got to thinking that, just as my brain has an overactive smoke detector, it also engages in a regular and relentless beeping, much like my microwave. This crying for attention is not a programming glitch or oversight. It is there by God’s design.

Having needs is a human reality. On a spiritual level, we depend upon God through regular prayer, and depend on others for guidance and faith formation. Physically, there are obvious needs like food, water, shelter, and sleep. We can add to those the less obvious yet quite important physical needs like meaningful touch, regular bodily exertion, and regular relaxation. There are also emotional needs like feeling safe and secure, belonging to a larger tribe, feeling wanted, feeling cared for, feeling calmed and soothed, feeling understood, feeling encouraged, and more. If we are running on empty in some of these basic human needs, our brain will start beeping at us.

Most of us don’t like to think of ourselves as having so many needs. We fear becoming a nuisance like my microwave – constantly bothering others until they pay attention to us. These fears run more deeply for those of us raised in homes that discouraged us from having or expressing needs. Speaking for myself, I definitely came into agreement with the idea that I should put my emotional life on the shelf and learn to be “independent.” Eventually, I came to believe the lie that I don’t have that many needs. I went through decades of my life convinced that I wasn’t a very emotional person and that it was much better not to depend on others.

We can take that approach to life, but not without consequences. God gave us free will –including even the shocking possibility of living against the truth of our human nature. Eventually it catches up with us.

The full truth of our humanity involves being needful and interdependent. God alone can fill us, but we depend upon others in the process. This past Christmas, I found myself often pondering the example of Christ, who shows us what it means to be human. Even though he was exalted and perfect and divine, he humbled himself to become one of us (Philippians 2:6-8). He became profoundly needful, depending totally upon Mary and Joseph as well as upon his heavenly Father. Indeed, he spent most of his earthly life growing and maturing, in dependence upon others (Luke 2:52). He spent only a proportionately small part of his life giving and serving and sacrificing. It was precisely because his human needs had been regularly met that he was able to lay his life down so freely, surrendering to the shame and abandonment and rejection of the Cross. He had no doubt of being God’s beloved Son, chosen and blessed and called. Did everyone love or understand or accept him? By no means. But he did receive all of those things with some regularity from those who mattered the most. As a human being, he needed to receive those things, and did not take any short cuts.

We live in an age of short cuts and quick fixes. Modernity seduces us with the lie that we can reshape our human nature to be whatever we want it to be. Perhaps we ignore our physical needs, eating only what we feel like and living a sedentary lifestyle. In so doing, we ignore the truth that our bodies need nourishment and are made for physical exertion. The end result is an unhealthy body, not to mention emotional and spiritual misery. Or perhaps we ignore our emotional needs –to belong, to be understood or soothed or encouraged or accepted. We impetuously insist that only weak people need to worry about those things. But all the while our internal microwave keeps beeping and beeping. If we repeatedly ignore those needs, then our brains will start beeping in other ways: enticing us to fantasy thinking, unhealthy lifestyle choices, or addictive behaviors.

There are consequences if we ignore what it means to be human. St. Thomas Aquinas defines man as a rational animal. We are “rational” insofar as we are set apart from the rest of the animals, “very good” in God’s own image and likeness. Yet we remain bodily creatures, together with the animals – and are invited to respect the goodness and authentic physical and emotional needs that God has given us.

In so many aspects of life, our bodies and brains work like those of our fellow mammals. Our lower brains have a limbic system that helps us to belong, survive, and thrive as a meaningful part of our social group. Those parts of our brain (including the “smoke alarm,” or amygdala) give us a sense of pleasure or fear or anger. They give us a desire for union with others and for fruitfulness.

When authentic needs are repeatedly ignored, we become especially susceptible to the wiles of the evil one. Our genuine needs morph and twist into insatiable urges for things that won’t actually help us. For example, if we totally ignore our need for safety and security, we may find ourselves constantly craving “comfort food” and having little freedom to resist those urges. If we totally ignore our needs for belonging or acceptance or affection, we may find ourselves having unwelcome fantasies – perhaps in the form of envy or jealousy or rivalry, perhaps in the form of lust or flirtation or pornography.

When these things happen, our impulse as devout Christians is to shame ourselves. Certainly, it is wise to avoid the near occasion of sin. But instead of self-shaming, a more helpful approach is to take some deep breaths, step into our “watchtower,” and calmly notice what is going on, with a childlike wonder and curiosity: “Huh, there goes that alarm bell again. I wonder why it’s ringing this time?” On the surface, it seems like it’s a matter of jealousy or lust or gluttony or greed. Those are the urges we feel. But so often, if we really tune in, we will notice that we’re not actually hungry, that we don’t “need” to make that purchase, that we don’t “need” sexual gratification, etc. Our limbic brain doesn’t know the difference! It’s just programmed to go off when our emotions need attention. It needs to be led and guided from there. In fact, it’s made to be led and guided – not just by our higher brain function, but by healthy relationships with God and others. It is often only when we begin sharing our deepest struggles and deepest yearnings with others that we begin to make more sense out of them. We become more aware of our deepest spiritual and emotional needs, and they begin to be met as we learn to receive from God what has always been there. We gain greater freedom to embrace the full and rich truth of our humanity. We begin to abide in love and truth.

Fish with Fins

In my last post, I described a rather unique homily of Pope Gregory the Great, in which he compares the virtue of compunction to a smelly bucket of dung that we can use to fertilize a robust spiritual growth. By humbly and truthfully acknowledging our sins and through eager repentance, we can receive God’s grace and bear fruit in good works.

Gregory proceeds to consider the woman who has an evil spirit that causes her to be stooped over for eighteen years. As with the fruitless fig tree, he suggests that she is an image for fallen human nature.

He contrasts homo incurvatus with homo erectus. God made us in his own image and likeness: upright, erect, and good. We are destined for heavenly glory, and have those eternal desires in our heart. But earthly desires have bent us over: wealth, honor, power, and fleshly delights. We have stooped low in our sins, and can no longer stand erect. Like the woman, we must cry out to Jesus, so that he can cast his light on our sins and help us to stand once again.

Luke describes the woman as beyond crippled, as “having a spirit of infirmity.” Even in Jesus’ time, not all cripples were seen as oppressed or possessed. Some ailments are explained by natural causes; others suggest a superadded torment inflicted by demons.

This distinction does not escape Gregory’s notice. He describes all sin as hunching us over, causing us to be “stooped and deeply bowed” (Psalm 38:7). But then there evil spirits who prowl like lions looking for the opportunity to torment us. They are enemies of our human nature and envious of our true human destiny to become like God. So Gregory calls to mind the words of the prophet Isaiah, who describes the plight of God’s people in their sins: I will put it into the hands of your tormentors, those who said to you, “Bow down, that we may walk over you.” So you offered your back like the ground, like the street for them to walk on (Isaiah 51:23).

Who on earth would willingly bow down and give their backs to evil spirits to walk on? Well, many of us. Fewer more truthful words can be found than those of Paul: “I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate” (Romans 7:15).

Many of us Catholics find ourselves confessing the same sins over and over again –even sins that we hate intensely. Often it is the lies of fear and shame that oppress us, binding us up. In our false belief that we are not really lovable, we can become mired in habitual sin, face down in the muck. In our darkest moments we think, “Why bother? What does it matter? I’m already ___(fill in the blank)___.”

Deceived by those diabolical lies, it can definitely happen that we bow down and give our backs to evil spirits, allowing them to trample on us. When that happens we find ourselves, like the stooped woman, unable to stand erect even when we really want to. Thankfully Jesus is our Lord and Savior who can bind up the evil one and reclaim our freedom and dignity (cf. Mark 3:27).

Gregory specifically mentions desire for “illicit pleasure” (voluptas illicita) as bowing us over in a crippling way and becoming an entry point for diabolical activity. I think any number of the addictions that are on the rise today (pornography, sexual deviancies, drugs, alcohol, gambling, etc.) can be entry points. Don’t we often talk about “battling our demons”? As Paul tells us, our battle is not just against flesh and blood, but against powerful spiritual beings (Ephesians 6:12).

Jesus is the one who can deliver us from oppression at enemy hands. He is the one who can help us stand erect. He is the one who inflames our hearts with a holy desire for heaven.

To illustrate this point, Gregory turns to the image of fish. The law of Leviticus forbade the Jews from eating fish without fins or scales. Fish with fins are able to leap from the waters, striving heavenward. Fish without scales and fins (in Gregory’s understanding of biology) were bottom feeders, even detritivores, engaging in coprophagia. But for the grace of God, so go all of us. Once the diabolical lies of shame get a grip on us, we can habitually do the things we hate, like the dog that returns to its own vomit (Proverbs 26:11; 2 Peter 2:22).

That is where holy desires come in. Gregory preaches so beautifully about them, here and elsewhere. Holy desires are like the fins on the fish. They propel us to soar heavenward. True, until this fleshly existence is fully transformed, we will always come back earthward, like the fish re-entering the water.

But, returning to the fig tree, holy desires are meant to grow and bear fruit. The greater our desire, the greater our capacity to receive. So often people pray for many years to overcome a certain sin in their life. They imagine it is just a matter of willing the sin away. But God wants to go down to the roots of the tree, to see the whole truth (sometimes painfully), to heal and deliver us. The combination of compunction and heavenly desire will ultimately set us free – thought not always in the way we imagined. Delivered and restored, we can learn to look upward habitually, and so receive ongoing healing and peace.

A Most Memorable Homily

**DISCLAIMER – If you do not enjoy a little earthy humor, then this post may not be for you**

Pope Gregory the Great was a legendary preacher. But he gave at least one crappy homily. That is to say, he gave a homily in which dung was a featured metaphor.

How, you might ask, did I stumble upon this homily? Mainly because of my stepdad’s propensity for poop jokes. They weren’t necessarily his favorite form of humor, but they were a solid number two. He certainly struggled with his woundedness, but no one ever denied his sense of humor. Like many dads, he was an old pro at the “pull my finger” bit. But he also had more elaborate jokes. If we had friends over, when they asked to use our bathroom, he would normally encourage them to write their weight on the wall. When they looked at him in confusion and bewilderment, he would explain, “That way if you fall in, we know how much to scoop out.” My sisters didn’t exactly appreciate him saying that to their boyfriends, but I think all of us far preferred his lighthearted and mischievous moods to his angry ones.

When you do doctoral research in theology, you never know what you might find. There I was back in 2010, sifting through various texts of the early Church Fathers, when I noticed Gregory repeatedly using the Latin word stercus (“dung”). Given my crappy upbringing, I definitely did a double take. I couldn’t resist reading the entire homily. It ended up being one of the most remarkable bits of writing that I’ve ever read, beginning with the earthiness of manure and culminating with an intense heavenly yearning (both in Gregory’s preaching and in my own heart).

The homily ponders two images from Luke 13:6-17: the parable of the fruitless fig tree and the healing of the stooped woman. For three years the fig tree has born no fruit, and the master is ready to remove it. The steward begs the master for one more chance. He will dig around the tree. He will take a bucket of dung and fertilize the tree at its roots. Then, if it still bears no fruit, the master can cut it down.

Gregory compares the fruitless fig tree to our fallen human nature. The works of the flesh leave us fruitless. We are in need of conversion and repentance. We need to become detached and free from our sins – not merely in the moment of acting out, but going down to the roots of our pride.

How does the dung come in? As Gregory explains, “What is the bucket of dung but the mindfulness of our sins?” Remembering the stench of our sins while simultaneously stretching out in works of charity, we grow and bear fruit.

Gregory describes this mindfulness of our sins as “compunction” – a virtue rarely talked about in these decades of promoting positive self-esteem. While I fully acknowledge the damage done by low self-esteem, self-loathing, or shame, I am also convinced of the wisdom of Gregory on this point. Compunction is a humble awareness of our sinfulness and our total dependence on God.  We will never bear fruit without Him.

There is definitely a difference between compunction and shame.

Compunction involves true humility, leading us to rise above our sins and failures and reach out to heavenly truth. Shame, by contrast, is a sort of upside-down version of pride. We prefer denial or minimizing because, deep down, we know that some of our behaviors really stink. We are afraid that other people, if allowed too close to the stench, will stop loving us.

Compunction leads us to have deep compassion towards others, overcoming any anger or judgment we initially feel towards them. If we ourselves stand in so much need of mercy, how can we be hard on others? Shame, meanwhile, can lead to a festering fear, anger, and self-protection. In my stepfather’s case, I am convinced that much of his anger was the only way he knew to protect himself from the painful shame that he felt. He was terrified that none of us would love him if we knew the real him. So when he felt his shame most deeply, he raged the most violently. There are others who see their anger and rage as unacceptable emotions. So they turn instead to self-righteousness, judgment, or passive aggression. Both kinds of anger (active and passive) can cover over our fear and shame, rather than facing them truthfully. Both can become toxic and destructive in their own way.

Compunction is truth-telling about ourselves, whereas shame is laden with lies. Compunction refuses to deny or rationalize or minimize the ugliness of our sins. We have sinned; we have harmed relationships with God and others and self; and we “take full responsibility” – not by saying those words as a cliché but by actually confessing our sins, asking for help from God and others, and sincerely surrendering ourselves to radical change.

Literally, “compunction” denotes poking with a stick. In this case, a stinky stick. Any time we find ourselves puffing up with a false inflation of our ego, we have the memory of our sins to burst our bubble and keep us grounded in true humility. But this only works if it goes hand-in-hand with an unshakable confidence in God’s Fatherhood. We can we become “firmly rooted in love” (Ephesians 3:17), fertilized and nourished by an authentic compunction and humility. It is then that the real growth in Christ begins.

How on earth does this relate to the story of the stooped woman? I’ll finish that thought next time.

NOTE: This remarkable homily of Gregory the Great was given on June 10, 591. If you are a Patristic nerd, you can find the original Latin text in SC 522: 252-266 or PL 76, 1227-1232. If you don’t read Latin, there is an English translation in this book.

Learning to Sit with Sadness

The apostle Paul exhorts us, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15). Doing so enriches the human experience and makes the love of Christ visibly present.

Unfortunately, heeding Paul’s advice is not so simple as it sounds. Rather than rejoicing, we are sometimes saddened at the successes of others. Rather than weeping, we sometimes avoid accompanying others in their misery. Sure, we’ll send them a sympathy card or drop off some food. We’ll say some pleasant-sounding words like “Everything happens for a reason” or “He’s in a better place.” But one or two or twelve month later, when the anguish is even worse, they find few friends still willing to be with them in their grief.

Sitting with others in their sadness can be one of the most unsettling things to do – especially when we are powerless to do anything about it. It is so much easier to throw a cliché at the unpleasant emotions, as though uttering an incantation that will magically make us all live happily ever after. The truth is that we are unsettled and are trying to protect ourselves from the mess of the other person’s experience.

I have written before on the importance of healthy grieving, and our human tendency to avoid it. Whatever our pain or loss may be, our human misery will be too much to bear if we try to do it alone. God made us for communion with himself and with each other. It is within healthy community that healing happens.

Unfortunately, healthy community can be hard to find. All too often, when it comes to grieving well, we encounter dysfunction in our families and even in our Christian churches. The more challenging emotions like anger or guilt or grief are unwelcome and avoided. They are seen as an evil to be eliminated, rather than a healthy part of the human experience. This extermination of unwelcome emotions can be done in a more abusive way (“Stop crying, or I’ll give you a reason to cry!”) or a more subtle way (“There are other people have it much worse…”). The unspoken message is “you shouldn’t feel that way.” But sometimes we do. It’s just a fact.

If we want to understand what it truly means to be human, we look to Jesus (the New Adam) and to Mary (the New Eve). They model so many virtues for us, including a refusal to shortcut the hardest human experiences like sadness.

“Jesus wept” (John 11:33). It’s the shortest verse of the Bible, and one of the most meaningful: Even though he is the resurrection and the life, even though he knew that he was about to raise Lazarus from the dead after four days in the tomb, Jesus wept. He wept over his dead friend. He wept with those who were weeping. He didn’t avoid or minimize the healthy human experience of grieving.

In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus became “sorrowful even to death” (Matthew 26:38). This was not a dismay at his own immanent death. Rather, he was freely taking upon himself the full depths of human suffering and misery – drinking it to the dregs. He felt in his heart every agony, every sorrow, every wound, every tragedy – the greatest of which is sin. He entered into our sadness and freely offered our human condition to his Father, crying out from the Cross the plea of every agonizing human heart: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”

In the Letter to the Hebrews, we learn that Jesus’ empathy with human sorrow led him to the point of loud sobs and tears (Hebrews 5:7). Is that not what is popularly described today as an “ugly cry”? You know, the kind of uncontrollable sobbing that we suppress or avoid or feel deeply embarrassed about? Apparently, Jesus wasn’t worried about sobbing uncontrollably or oozing a little snot. Most of us are much more cautious and self-protective. As the poet T.S. Eliot used to say, “Human kind cannot bear very much reality.”

The problem with painful emotions is that, well, they’re painful. We’d rather avoid the experience of powerlessness in the face of others’ suffering. It’s easier to flee or to fix. We “flee” by avoiding those around us who are suffering in an unbearable way, like the priest and Levite in the Good Samaritan story. Our withdrawing causes their experience of abandonment and isolation to become like that of the suffering servant foretold by the prophet Isaiah: “He was spurned and avoided by men, a man of suffering, knowing pain, like one from whom people turn their face…” (Isaiah 53:3).

“Fixing” is no better than fleeing. Many Christian families and faith communities, in their avoidance of “ugly” emotions, try to make it all better with a pious saying or an invitation into busyness and distraction. Fixing is not grieving, and it doesn’t actually comfort anyone. When Job was in agony, he didn’t need fixing; he needed someone to sit on the dung pile and be sad with him.

On Good Friday, Jesus drank the chalice of human suffering to the full. He refused to numb his pain with the gall offered him. Likewise, his mother Mary stood at the foot of the Cross (John 19:25). She suffered together with him, refusing to avoid or escape.

On Holy Saturday, Jesus descended into hell, and Mary continued watching and waiting in sorrowful hope. Perhaps she had some inkling of the resurrection to come – but surely not of when or how. Hope is hard. We know that God is faithful, but during the darkest moments we have no idea how long the suffering will last, or how our prayers will be answered. We are tempted to take a shortcut and avoid the full experience of Good Friday and Holy Saturday.

The joy of Easter Sunday indeed comes as promised – but often in ways that catch us by surprise. Intense sorrow is no obstacle to intense joy – quite the opposite. It is only when we learn to stop hardening our hearts and protecting ourselves that we become capable, not only of embracing the “ugly” human experiences that we’d rather avoid, but also of experiencing the boundless joy of the resurrection. May Jesus open our hearts and help us to empathize with each other as we watch and wait in hope.

Mary’s Receptivity

Today we celebrate the Annunciation. God sends the archangel Gabriel to announce our salvation to the Virgin Mary. God promises to send us a savior, a mighty king, the Messiah, his own beloved Son. Mary gives her free and wholehearted “yes!” to God’s message. The Word becomes flesh and dwells in our midst, beginning by abiding in the womb of the Virgin Mary for nine months.

Mary models for us what it means to receive. She is an empty vessel who eagerly accepts all that God gives – without adding or subtracting or altering. Yet, far from a passive bystander, she actively engages the entire process from beginning to end. Moreover, she shares the experience in communion with many others. The joy of the gift she is receiving leaps like flames of fire into the hearts of John the Baptist and Elizabeth, the shepherds, the angels, the Magi, Simeon, and Anna.

Receiving love should be the easiest thing in the world to do. Is it not a deep desire of our human heart? Yet somehow, receiving love proves exceedingly difficult! Speaking for myself, I daily notice layers of self-protection and resistance to the free and wholehearted receptivity that Mary so joyfully exhibits. My fear and my pride repeatedly get in the way. Even when I do begin to receive, it is not usually a steady abiding. It proceeds in fits and starts, two steps forward and one step back.

Receptivity is a theme quite dear to me – one that I ponder often. In a more academic fashion, I delved deeply into this topic as I researched and wrote my doctoral thesis. If you are ever needing a sleep aid, you may find it a great help! Truly it has the worst title ever: The Ecclesiological Reality of Reception Considered as a Solution to the Debate over the Ontological Priority of the Universal Church. In fact, I had to add another hundred pages just to ensure that the title would fit on the spine of the book. Well okay, maybe not – but it’s still a terrible title, and not a book most people would enjoy reading.

Nevertheless, the core insight I received in writing the thesis was a simple and spiritual one: Receptivity is at the core of our identity in Christ. The Church is a community of reception by her very nature. To be a Christian means being received and receiving. First and foremost, that means being taken up into the one Body of Christ – a reality that always looms over us and calls us into deeper conversion. Ephesians describes God’s eternal plan of drawing all things into one in Christ. Little by little, this Body of Christ grows to full stature. One day, he will become all in all. The life of heaven will be the life of the one Body of Christ.

Our encounter with this living and breathing Body of Christ changes everything. Think of Saul on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-19). Jesus did not say “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting my followers?” He said, “Why are you persecuting me?” To be a disciple of Jesus is to be received into his very flesh.

However, being a Christian also means actively and freely cooperating, eagerly desiring to grow and to receive more and more of the fullness of Christ, to become who we are. Our faith in Jesus becomes active in good works, as we grow and bear fruit, building up the body in love.

Finally, to be a Christian means to be receptive of each other, just as Christ has received us (Romans 15:7). That visible communion among believers is the good fruit that emerges. Love of neighbor is a wonderful litmus test of our love of God. As the apostle John reminds us, if we do not love our fellow Christians, whom we see, we cannot claim to love the God we do not see (1 John 4:20). Saint Augustine comments on our need to love our enemies and to love the poor in our midst. If we say we love Jesus, but do not love these little ones, we are effectively giving Jesus the embrace of peace while stomping on his feet with spiked boots. Ouch.

That brings us back to the Virgin Mary, and her holy example of receptivity. She models all these virtues of reception. First and foremost, she is passive. There was no question of being “creative” in the moment of the Annunciation. The initiative was entirely on God’s side, and her deepest desire was to receive. True receptivity is perfectly passive before the divine mystery. In humility and silence and peace, we become like a mirror that reflects God’s glory.

Yet her passivity, her radical receptivity, did not mean any shutting down of her God-given faculties. She loved him with all her heart and mind and soul and strength. And so she asks the angel, “How can this be?” Actually, the Greek literally says, “How is this?” Unlike Zechariah, Mary does not doubt God’s promise. She believes that what is spoken will be fulfilled (Luke 1:45). But true faith desires understanding. True faith desires a free and active cooperation, matching God’s initiative step for step with a  free and wholehearted response, a total “yes!” – as though she were a partner in a divine dance with the Lord. She is always attuned to God’s initiative and responding to it. Luke tells us twice that Mary ponders God’s mysteries in her heart (Luke 2:19, 51). Recognizing that the mystery is ever greater than she is, she keeps actively cooperating while passively surrendering.

Finally, Mary’s heart is wide open to communion with others – receiving and being received by the many members of the Body of Christ. She sets out in haste to visit Elizabeth and share what she has received. The scene of the Visitation is one of joyful recognition of the mighty deeds of the Lord. The infant John recognizes the infant Jesus, and dances for joy. Elizabeth praises the mighty things God is doing in and through Mary – a truth which Mary affirms and celebrates. Far from false humility, she sings God’s praises, and even prophesies that all generations will call her blessed. However, all praise goes to God her savior. She is merely the empty and receptive vessel who has received God’s Word and freely cooperated.

The love of Jesus truly sets us free. He is our savior. That love flows in and out of us in the person of the Holy Spirit, who is the soul, the lifeblood of this Body of Christ, whose members we are. We drink deeply of this Spirit, and share the same Spirit as we give our love to others. The gift is meant to be received and given, to flow in and out as the Heart of Jesus sustains us all in unity and peace. On this, Mary’s feast day, may she help unclog our hearts so that we may be truly receptive and abide in the love of Christ.

The Conversion of St. Monica

Monica is an immensely popular saint, particularly among those who fret about the sins and sufferings of their adult children.  Many a mother has fantasized, “If only I could be like Monica…If only I could pray hard enough and shed enough tears to convert my children as she converted Augustine…” In our age of addictions, no wonder she is so popular!

But perhaps she is popular for the wrong reasons. I am convinced that, if we knew her whole story, we would discover a major conversion of her own. Her son Augustine wrote his Confessions, in which he tells one of the most stunning conversion stories of all time. He periodically alludes to his childhood and his parents. Knowing what we know today about sexual addiction and addictions in general, it’s not hard to start connecting the dots. I think Monica’s greatest victory was not the deathbed conversion of her pagan husband Patricius, nor even the tear-filled conversion of her son Augustine. No, her greatest victory was her own recovery from codependency.

Consider the legendary words of the bishop St. Ambrose, when she entreated him with tears about the sins of her son Augustine: “Speak less to Augustine about God and more to God about Augustine.” Wow. I can relate. It is not uncommon for a priest to hear something like this: “Father, you need to help me to fix my children!” Well okay, they don’t usually put it that bluntly. But many mothers and fathers feel like their personal self-worth is on the line. If their children sin or fail, they themselves are failures. That’s a lie.

It is one thing to grieve over the sins of our loved ones. Destructive behaviors are sad indeed. It is another thing to feel personally responsible. The apostle Paul reminds us that each disciple must carry his own load (Galatians 6:5). We cannot fix other people’s problems or manage their lives.

Trying to do so leads to an array of unhealthy and destructive behaviors: perfectionism, judgmental or self-righteous attitudes, bitterness, resentment, depression, hopelessness, avoidance of conflict, self-loathing, self-punishment, manipulative comments, shaming or blaming postures, trying to “fix” others, unsolicited advice, and the like. All the while one ignores the pain and grief of one’s own heart.

These “codependent” attitudes easily thrive in homes where addictions dominate. Monica was married to an addicted husband and reared an addicted son. It is not a stretch to imagine her battling with codependency on her path to sainthood.

In our pornographic culture, I have had conversations now with hundreds of men who have a wound of sexual addiction, whose behaviors are very much like those of Augustine and his father Patricius. Some of those men, like Augustine, have found liberation and peace as they walk the path of recovery. As they heal, they get in touch with their father wounds. Often, their fathers were like Patricius – unfaithful to their mothers, verbally or physically abusive, alcoholic, absent, etc. Recovering addicts begin to realize that their unwanted behaviors are not the real problem; they are only the tip of the iceberg. Lurking beneath are old and unhealed wounds. As prevalent as father wounds are, I am finding it a nearly universal truth that where there is a sexual addiction, there is an unhealed mother wound. I definitely see mother wounds in Augustine’s story.

Let’s tread carefully here. Acknowledging these wounds is not about casting blame on father or mother for the sins of their children. No one gets into an addiction without himself choosing or agreeing at some point along the way. The great Jimmy Buffet teaches us that we are ultimately responsible for our own sins. Additionally, sometimes children are blocked from receiving what they really need for reasons that are not the fault of the parents.

In Monica’s case, it’s not hard to imagine her playing the victim card, casting herself as a silent (or not-so-silent) martyr, subtly manipulating or shaming as she tries to guilt her husband and her son into doing the right thing. As I hear of the deathbed conversion of Patricius, I wonder just how much joy and liberation he felt in his baptism, versus a reluctant agreement mainly to appease Monica. God knows the truth.

Filling in the blanks, I think Monica’s conversion story goes something like this:

Monica is mired in misery, abused and betrayed by her husband and repeatedly wounded by the wanderings of her son. Probably the abuse and mistreatment began with her own father, and she learned how to cope from her own codependent mother. Like so many in her shoes, she fantasizes about how blessed her life would be if only her husband or her son would change. She is hyper-aware of their behaviors and constantly tries to manage the damage. Eventually, she learns to stop lecturing or shaming or manipulating. She heeds the godly advice of Ambrose and talks more to God about Augustine. She talks to God more and more often. Augustine doesn’t seem to change. She harbors a good deal of bitterness against the men in her life, yes, even against God. She won’t admit that, because good Christian women don’t get angry, certainly not at God! Still, she meditates often on the sufferings of Christ and of his mother Mary. She is often moved to tears – sometimes without knowing why. Finally, like the weeping women of Jerusalem, she learns that Jesus wants her to weep for herself (Luke 23:28). She realizes that, when Jesus weeps over the destruction of Jerusalem, he is weeping also for the ruins of Monica’s heart, so often trampled down by others, so often neglected and ignored by herself. She starts learning that God is big enough to handle Augustine’s problems – far better than she can. She learns to surrender and to live in the present moment. Little by little, her heart, numb for decades, begins to thaw. She trembles and gasps and sobs as she feels God attuning her to the swirling anger and torrential sadness of her own heart. But she finally believes that her heart matters and that those who mourn are truly blessed. She lets it happen. Like King David in the Psalms, she pours out her heart to God – all of it. She surrenders all in faith. She begins discovering an unfettered joy and peace, even as she sheds more tears than ever. She is finally free.

It could have happened that way. God knows the truth.