Not-So-Great Expectations (Part 2 of 2)

In my last post, I described our human tendency to impose silent expectations on others, rather than asking for what we desire or need. That behavior works well enough for everyday interactions. It becomes irrational or foolish when we are expecting others to make our pain go away or to fulfill the deepest yearnings of our heart.

I mentioned the book Seven Desires by Mark and Debbie Laaser. They identify seven universal human longings: to be heard and understood, to be affirmed, to be blessed, to be safe, to be touched in a meaningful way, to be chosen, and to be included. They also offer the image of an iceberg. What we think of as “the problem” is often just the tip of the iceberg. Beneath the surface, silent and massive, lurks a strong force in motion that warrants much greater attention. If ignored long enough, it will advance with unstoppable momentum.

As I read their book, I felt the scales falling from my eyes. I now recognize that I was sometimes unwittingly placing expectations on others and that I was letting others place them on me. I realized that I often felt anxious or unsafe, rejected or shameful, alone or misunderstood. It was not other people’s fault that I felt those things. It was okay that I felt those things. I was not trapped. I was not doomed to feel those things forever. I could do something about it. My heavenly Father, my Blessed Mother Mary, and my true friends were there, if only I would ask for help. Not everyone can help me all the time.

In fact, it is much more appropriate that they do not. It is so important for us ordained ministers to have a strong support network outside of the communities we serve. That allows us the freedom of heart to love and serve the people in front of us.

After years of downplaying my emotional and spiritual pain, I began seeking and receiving additional support in facing my wounds of fear, shame, rejection, and abandonment. One of my friends and I have been on a similar journey, and regularly encourage each other to stay on the path of healing. It’s tempting to turn aside! He and I like to quip, “The problem with facing painful emotions is that they’re painful.” It is no surprise that many of us prefer to avoid them.

I totally relate to the analogy offered by Sister Miriam Heidland in her book Loved as I Am. She describes the numbness we feel in winter if we come indoors with frostbite. Following the numbness comes an excruciating pain – which is a step in the right direction – and finally the recovery of normal sensation in our appendages. Like little children, we often need to be encouraged that coming in from the cold is good for us, and that the unbearable pain is only temporary.

Jesus modeled for us a willingness to depend upon others, to ask for and receive what he needed. The Gospels describe how frequently he withdrew to abide with his Father, and how he radically depended upon his Father. In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus humbly asked his friends to spend an hour with him in prayer – perhaps knowing that they might not give him what he asked for. Imitating his Father, he respected their freedom. He was secure in his identity as God’s beloved Son and had full confidence that his real needs would still be provided for.

Above all else, Jesus modeled true freedom for us. I yearn to imitate that freedom: “No one takes my life from me; I lay it down freely” (John 10:18). He offered himself freely as the spotless Lamb of God, but he never played the victim card.

I must admit that I still find it challenging to let my “yes” mean “yes” and my “no” mean “no” (cf. Matthew 5:37). I sometimes find myself saying “yes” grudgingly, and then needing to battle through resentment or self-pity. I sometimes experience irrational guilt or shame when I say “no” – even when my “no” is for very good reasons. Instead of a simple “yes” or “no” I often feel the need to justify myself.  My heart is a work in progress.

In my lack of full freedom, I can see that I am still struggling with unreasonable expectations – sometimes with those that others try to impose on me, but especially with the unreasonable expectations that I place on myself.

I’ve learned to listen attentively to my heart and lips, guarding against those words, “I have to…” In truth, I never “have to” do anything. No one takes my life from me; I lay it down freely. There is always a choice. God always respects our freedom. Look at Adam and Eve. Look at the prodigal son. The Father allowed them to go their way. He allowed them to learn from the consequences of their choices. He never “makes” us do anything. We are always free.

I have to” is a lie. Often we believe it because we are avoiding a conflict or running from a challenging situation. Other times we tell ourselves “I have to” because we somehow believe that our self-worth will be diminished if we don’t fulfill this expectation of the other person. That’s a lie. We remain God’s sons and daughters; his Fatherly love never changes. When we can believe the full truth about who we are as God’s beloved children, then we can break free from the prison of fear. We can shake off the shackles of unreasonable expectations and begin freely giving and freely receiving, abiding in authentic human love.

Penance, Healing, & Renewal

Today the Catholic bishops of the United States begin seven days of intensified prayer and fasting. As they prepare for next week’s meetings, they have much to pray about. Healing and renewal will never happen without serious penance and dying to self. Only when our old ways die can we experience the newness of Christ.

Do penance. Engage in acts of self-denial as an outward sign and instrument of inner renewal. This was the message of John the Baptist (Matthew 3:8). It was the first message of Jesus in his preaching of the Kingdom (Mark 1:15). It was the message of Paul when he urged us to crucify the desires of our flesh (Galatians 5:24). For centuries, Christians embraced serious acts of penance as a normal part of discipleship: all-night prayer vigils, periods of fasting, pilgrimages to holy sites, and so forth.

During the last five decades, penance has virtually vanished from Christian life. A little in Lent and that’s it. My smart phone proves the point. I tried using voice-to-text to speak the word “penance,” and it simply would not cooperate: Pennants. Pendants. Pendulum. Penmanship. Seriously, “penmanship?” Apparently even the lost art of handwriting is more common in our digital age than self-denial.

Our culture has been one of regular self-gratification. The result has been the steady corrosion of healthy relationships, not to mention serious scandals. Priests and bishops are called to even more self-denial than others. We are supposed to be signs to the world that the Kingdom of God is so much more real than these passing pleasures. We have let people down. Trust has been damaged, and needs to be restored.

Restoring trust includes “talking about the tough stuff.” That is something healthy families do. It has not always happened in Catholic institutions. Our people have every right to hear our bishops and Pope Francis talk openly about these problems.

But talk alone will not suffice. To quote the wisdom of Stephen Covey: “You can’t talk your way out of a problem that you behaved yourself into.” Thankfully, we can add the insight of his son: you can behave your way out of the problem you behaved yourself into. Trust can be restored by consistent behavior.

Part of “behaving” may include more resignations or removals of bishops from office. But there is no “one and done” solution here, no utopian structure that will magically make human sinfulness go away. To be fully human means being fully free. The choice to be healthy and holy must be renewed each day.

The real battleground is the human heart. We live in a confused and disconnected age in which most human beings in affluent countries have developed a distorted understanding of what it means to be human, what it means to love, what sexuality is for, and what constitutes healthy relationships. Many people do not experience a harmony of body, mind, and spirit in their lifestyle choices or in their relationships. This dysfunction and disconnected way of living has infected Catholics of all walks of life.

Some have suggested that priests getting married would somehow solve the problem. I totally disagree. Marriage is no solution to sexual dysfunction. Sometimes married people figure that their mate will make their emptiness, wounds, fears, or insecurities go away. Not true. Marriage does not heal old wounds – that is not what marriage is for! Likewise, some young men figure that the grace of Holy Orders will heal their old wounds. Not so. In both cases, the wounds worsen. We then become wounded wounders. When priests are wounded wounders, the opportunity to wound is worse.

Our society believes the lie that sexual gratification is a “need.” There are many things we are convinced (in the moment of temptation) that we “need” – sex, junk food, an impulse buy, approval from others, etc. Underneath the urges can be found our deeper and truer desires: to know that all will be well, to feel connected, to feel wanted, and to be a child of God. We definitely need those things in life, and if we stop paying attention to our emotional and spiritual needs, we might find ourselves drifting into some ugly behaviors – even if we are priests.

Penance is quite helpful in laying bare the deeper desires of our heart. As we begin to say “yes” and “no” with fuller freedom, we rediscover the harmony of body, mind, and spirit. Healing in one area cannot happen without paying attention to the others.

Penance also is a wonderful way of expressing the communion of the saints – our oneness and solidarity in Christ. Even if I myself am not the perpetrator, by doing penance I am proclaiming, “I belong to the people of God!” Like Moses atop the mountain or like Jesus in the desert, we suffer for the sins of the whole community and pray for God to win the victory in every human heart.

Our “old self” will not go down quietly. Part of us will always rebel repeatedly against the newness that Christ brings. That epic struggle, that battle-to-the-death, is part of the human experience. It must be fought by saints of all walks of life: monks, nuns, priests, bishops, married men and women, widows and widowers, elderly, disabled, teens, and children.

Therefore, I plan to join our bishops by fasting at least four days this week. In my case that means eating only one meal, and if needed one or two small snacks. More importantly, I am committed to listen attentively to the still small voice in my heart inviting me to reduce or renounce other behaviors – the “panic rooms” that I wrote about last month. Dying to self is painful. Sometimes God’s requests bring tears to my eyes. But they always bring new life to my heart.

The Lost Coin – Wisdom from Gregory of Nyssa

You are a beloved child of God. He made you good and beautiful, in his own image and likeness. You are cherished by him, chosen by him, and precious to him. He desires your heart and longs for you to be intimately close to him. He doesn’t want your achievements and accomplishments; he wants you – all of you. His greatest joy, shared by the angels and saints in heaven, is when you turn to him with all your heart and receive his total and unconditional Fatherly love for you.

If you are like me, you know those truths on an intellectual and theological level, but struggle to believe them and receive them with all your heart. In our more reflective moments, we painfully realize the magnitude of our sinful choices. We have damaged our relationships with God and others and self. We have become lost. There is, in the end, no denying that painful truth.

In the menacing shadow of our sinfulness, we fear that we are no longer lovable. Like Adam and Eve in the garden, we hide from love and protect ourselves. We minimize our struggle and our pain in the presence of others and of God. In resisting vulnerability, we “safely” block out the love that is being freely offered to us. Then we end up feeling even more alone and unloved, and the cycle of sin begins anew. In the depths of our heart we yearn to be loved for who we are, but in our fear of rejection we dare not dream that dream.

In the 300’s, Saint Gregory of Nyssa offered a profound reflection on the parable of the Lost Coin in Luke 15. Gregory has to be one of the most overlooked and underappreciated Christian authors of all time. He was an intellectual giant in the fields of philosophy and theology. In an age that was much confused about the Trinity, he offered keen insight into how it is possible for God to be an eternal communion of love, three persons yet truly one God. Others were thinking in terms of separate substances; he was thinking in terms of relationship and an eternal communion of love. He “got it” about God.

He also really “got” the full truth of what it means to be human beings made in God’s image. He takes sin quite seriously, yet views our sinfulness as our condition. It is not who we are. It is not our identity. In our brokenness and distress, we tend to identify ourselves with our sins – but that is not how God sees us. We remain his precious children. The divine likeness that we bear is smeared and soiled, buried and hidden – yet remains what it always was. We are always God’s precious children.

That is where the image of the Lost Coin comes in. We are made in the likeness of God. Just as a coin is stamped with the image of the emperor or king, so are we stamped with God’s own likeness. Just as a coin is made from precious metal, so are we made “very good” in God’s design.

He entrusts us with a universe that is resplendent with truth and goodness and beauty. And we soil and tarnish it. By our own free choices, we choose lesser goods rather than real relationships, and we sully ourselves.

Yes, the shiny coin held proudly in God’s hands chooses to slip out and dive deeply into the muck. In its outward filth and stench, the coin becomes lost and barely recognizable for what it is. Yet inside it remains what it always was. In the words of Jesus, “The Kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21).

Without the grace of Jesus, we cannot recover that lost coin, that inner goodness and truth and beauty that is yet within us. Like the woman in the parable, we can find other coins. We can do good and grow in virtues. We can achieve and accomplish and serve. But, unaided by grace and faith, that one coin will always elude us. Only when we light the lamp of faith and call on the aid of Jesus can we find that lost coin.

Even though sin is secondary, its effects are very real. We will need the purifying grace to Jesus to cleanse the mire and filth that has covered over the coin. It can be quite painful to be vulnerable and surrender ourselves to that purification and cleansing. But then the inner beauty of the coin – always there and never really lost – shines forth once again. At its core it remains the precious metal that it always was. It has lost none of its true worth. It still bears the mark of the King of Kings.

As Luke tells us, the angels and saints are eagerly cheering us on. There is more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over all the others who (think they) have no need of repentance. The citizens of heaven yearn for those moments when the light of Christ breaks through, when we “come to our senses” like the prodigal son and surrender ourselves to our Father’s love. They erupt into joyful cheers when we once again believe the full truth about ourselves – that we are precious and beloved children of God, who belong in the house of our Father. Then the healing grace of Christ restores us, and his glory shines forth for all to see.

 

(For those wanting to read more, Gregory’s reflection on the Lost Coin is found in Chapter 12 of his work On Virginity)

Solitude or Isolation?

Atop Gleouraich in Scotland in 2009

Do you enjoy being alone?

Many people’s favorite hobbies include time spent alone: curling up by the fire with a good novel, going for a long walk, building model trains, cooking a gourmet meal, or entering into the silence of prayer.

For me personally, hours or days spent alone have been some of the best and some of the worst moments of my life.

I’ve had profound experiences of peace, joy, or even exhilaration amidst solitude: making a 30-day Ignatian retreat, stumbling on deeper truths while researching or writing, hiking up a mountain in Scotland, or walking on a 120-mile pilgrimage. Each of those experiences were challenging, even demanding – but always rewarding in the end. They yielded personal growth and left me feeling more fully alive, more truly human, and more truly myself.

I’ve also spent many thousands of hours of my life in self-isolating and fruitless pursuits. They gave a momentary reprieve from my burdens, but left me feeling empty and disconnected. In my adolescent years it was endless hours of video games. Later in life, it was time wasted on the internet, creature comforts like food and drink, or long hours spent being busy, working and toiling in the pursuit of “success” in a way that brought no real joy or peace, no lasting fruit.

Is it good to be alone?

Our Christian Faith offers both sides of the coin. On the one side, “It is not good for man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18). We are made for communion – with God, with others, with ourselves. Sin is a rupture of that communion. As a consequence of that rupture, isolation and loneliness become truly hellish experiences. Indeed, authors like C.S. Lewis (in The Great Divorce) or his friend Charles Williams (in The Descent into Hell) have offered chilling literary depictions of how those who “go to Hell” begin the experience of isolation and alienation and misery here and now. On the positive side of the “alone” coin, we see Jesus spending long hours in solitude, whether fasting for forty days in the desert or spending the whole night in prayer. We see godly men like Benedict or Anthony of the Desert spending entire years in solitude, and bearing abundant fruit in the lives of others.

There is an important distinction between solitude and isolation. The one actually connects us with God and others and self, heals us, refreshes us, restores us to communion, and bears much fruit. The other isolates and ruins and rots, becoming a foretaste of Hell.

To turn to movie imagery, we can contrast the “Fortress of Solitude” in Superman with Elsa’s ice palace in Frozen. Superman withdraws into his fortress to reconnect with his roots, to think and meditate, and ultimately to re-emerge with clarity of vision and an eagerness to serve. Elsa spends years trapped in isolation until her heart finally melts, and she re-discovers the beauty of vulnerability, communion, and love.

I find the story of Saint Benedict especially captivating. His three years of solitude in the cave at Subiaco changed his life. It set the stage for him finding true peace in healthy relationships with God, others, and self. The Benedictine way of life went on to have a 1,000-year impact on Europe and ultimately on the United States. Thanks to the monks, the wisdom of the ancients was saved and preserved; barbarian tribes became civilized Christian peoples; universities and human learning flourished; lasting and stable democracies emerged.

I remember my pilgrimage to Subiaco in 2012, kneeling in that cave and pondering how many millions of lives were impacted because of one man’s fruitful solitude in that place. I love the description written a century later by Gregory the Great: “Then he returned to his place of beloved solitude, and was alone with himself in God’s sight.” This was no flight from reality into isolation, no numbing of emotional pain or escape into fantasy. He abided in God’s presence, and he abided “with himself.” It was a spiritual battle that God helped him to win. The end result was a superabundant fruitfulness when he lived in community with others.

Authentic solitude is an essential part of the human experience – whether we are introverts or extroverts! Only when we have periods of silence and solitude can we get in touch with our deepest desires and deepest fears.

Indeed, solitude is a chance to face our loneliness rather than flee from it. We experience loneliness by feeling overwhelmed and unsupported in a new and scary situation, feeling misunderstood or unappreciated, feeling excluded or rejected or left out.

I have felt all of those things in my own life. It is painful. I spent far too many moments in my life trying to self-isolate or numb my pain. A wise man that I know likes to say, “isolation is the first drug.” Different people turn to different drugs: gambling, marijuana, pornography, sexual affairs, food, alcohol, shopping, etc. Each is ultimately an attempt to isolate and escape, to distract and divert, a flight from communion with God, running away in shame and self-disgust, rather than facing the messiness of our heart.

It doesn’t have to be that way. God made our hearts, and made them good and beautiful. We are beloved sons and daughters of God, and profoundly connected with the other members of the Body of Christ – both those still fighting here on earth and those already victorious in heaven. We are never truly alone. Authentic experiences of solitude serve to heal and restore our communion with God and others and self. They help us abide in love and truth and to bear fruit.

Abiding in Love and Truth – First Post

Love is the true purpose of our human existence. Love is our origin and our destiny. Love is what nurtures us. Love is our deepest desire. Love is what sustains us along the arduous path. In love we grow; in love we are perfected and become who we are. Those who experience authentic love experience an amazing and unshakable joy, even amidst the hardest circumstances. Those who experience a lack of love languish, even when others are eager to help and heal. Devoid of love, human existence becomes meaningless and miserable.

But what is love? That is the real question.

Many people across the spectrum would agree with the statements I just made about love. Whether male or female, young or old, believers or unbelievers, conservatives or liberals, most of the people that I meet would like their life to be about love. Even the most jaded or cynical, beneath their façade, are protecting a tender heart that desperately yearns for love but is too terrified to seek it.

If virtually everyone believes that human existence is supposed to be about love, why so much misery and brokenness? Why so much confusion and chaos? Why so much polarization and hatred? What has gone wrong with the world today?

We have forgotten the connection between love and truth. It is impossible to abide in love if we do not also abide in the truth. “Love rejoices in the truth” (1 Corinthians 13:6).

We’ve all heard those famous words of the apostle Paul, repeated at so many weddings: “Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, is not pompous, it is not inflated…” Perhaps we are so familiar and so sentimental in hearing the words that we tune out by the time he speaks that crucial phrase: Love rejoices in the truth.

Love and truth are inseparable. Love is only love if it is ordered to the truth. If we are living a lie, love will not last.

“What is truth?” The words of Pontius Pilate echo through the centuries. We live in an age of relativism. We delude ourselves with the notion that we can create our own truth. We think we can make life mean whatever we want it to mean. This was, in fact, the original diabolical temptation to the first humans: “You will be like gods…” (Genesis 3:5). Each of us faces that decision at each moment. Do I open my heart in receptivity to all that is true and good and beautiful? Or do I assert my own ego, grasping and seizing and controlling, creating my own version of reality?  Relativism has given so many people just the leeway they need to indulge selfish desires or avoid doing the difficult thing. Pope Benedict XVI aptly exposed it as the “Dictatorship of Relativism.”

Truth and goodness and beauty were once delighted in and pursued by the greatest human minds. Whether philosophers or poets, architects or astronomers, many of the intellectual giants of the ancient and medieval world yearned to give themselves over to the truth. The more they did so, the more they perceived a mystery that was beyond their own limited experience. They saw themselves as stewards, not masters of the mystery.

The truth is objective and transcendent. We do not “create” it, even though our human creativity may unleash a deeper experience of it. Rather, “conversion” is a much more suitable word. If our hearts are sincere and receptive, truth or goodness or beauty will sometimes break through like a shaft of light. We discover that our approach has been incorrect or incomplete. We let ourselves be changed.

Or perhaps we don’t. Perhaps we harden our heart and stay the same. That is where misery and chaos and destruction enter into the human story.

Relativism is a threat to the truth, which means that it is ultimately a threat to love and to human flourishing. In this blog I will call upon my expertise in philosophy and theology to reaffirm objective truth.

However, I will also talk extensively about the subjective dimension of truth. Knowing the truth is one thing; internalizing it is another! Most of us can relate painfully to the experience of Paul: “I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want” (Romans 7:19). Like him, we have much need of the healing and integrity that Jesus Christ brings.

The truth is not relative, but it most certainly is relational. Love and truth are inseparable. God is love, i.e., God is an eternal communion of persons in relationship. We have been created in God’s image and likeness. We are destined to see God face to face and become like him. Therefore, we will only discover the full truth of our human existence in healthy relationships with God, self, and others.

Like so many today, I have experienced a great deal of brokenness in my own heart. My intellectual and spiritual beliefs have not always matched up with my emotional or physical experiences. I have received much healing in Christ. With help from some great friends, he is teaching me how to abide in love and truth. Therefore this blog will also share personal lessons learned.

Abiding in Love and Truth. That is what each of us truly desires. It is the exhortation that Jesus offered us the night before he died. He proclaimed himself to be the way, the truth, and the life. And he called us to abide in his love as branches on the vine, bearing fruit together in him.

I look forward to sharing more soon.