With-ness and Witness

Advice is overrated.

When we are suffering or struggling or stumbling, we don’t need fixing or figuring out nearly as much as we need witnesses and companions. We need fellow human beings who are with us and for us, and who are willing to stay connected to us even when the answers aren’t obvious.

Consider the Crucifixion of Jesus. Although most of his closest companions fled and abandoned him, a few faithful witnesses remained at his side: “Standing by the Cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene” (John 19:25).

For almost any of us, what an agonizing and overwhelming sense of powerlessness this scene would evoke! We could not bear to watch the one we love in utter torment. We would very quickly feel like we had to fix it or make something happen. But they stood. They witnessed. They remained in a state of with-ness. They loved.

I’ve been a priest for nearly 21 years, and have found myself in the face of all sorts of human misery. As a pastor of two churches, I was one of the first to hear the shock of a cancer diagnosis, whether from the patient or from his loved ones. I preached at funerals following suicide, tending to the survivors who were stricken with guilt and shame. I had a front-row seat to family drama when it came time to seize the car keys or relocate a declining parent into memory care. I saw all the various ways people deal (or don’t deal) with the dying of a loved one. I certainly saw death – or at least the before and the after of death, since the moment itself is veiled. I met with the depressed, the suicidal, the anxious, or the scrupulous. I heard thousands of Confessions, often of people feeling shame as they found themselves returning to the same sins over and over. I met many people who were desperately striving to fix their spouses or their children (even when the “children” were older than I was). I encountered far too many burnt-out caregivers who found themselves stuck in rage or depression after months or years of trying to do it all by themselves.

How was I “with” those people? How did I witness?  I’d like to say it was with the heart of Mother Mary as she stood at the foot of the Cross, but that hasn’t always been the case.

I can think of many times, in younger years, in which I felt like I had to fix it. I had to help them feel better, or change their attitude, or help them believe the truth. I had a preconceived outcome and saw it as my job to convince them of it. I compared their situation to those of other people who had it worse. I got them to laugh. I said pious things. I bypassed their deeper heartache.

To be fair to myself, I know many people who remember with gratitude the care I provided ten or twenty years ago. I was still myself, even though less mature. I have always been curious about people and caring about their suffering. I was not always in touch with my own sadness, shame, fear, or anger. I used to minimize my pain, ignore entire sectors of my heart, and avoid looking at the full truth of my story. That kept me from a deeper “with-ness” with others.

As I look back, I actually went quite often with people into difficult or intense situations – for as long as I can remember. It’s part of my story. From a tender young age, I learned to contain my own emotions and be strong for others. If others felt shame or panic or rage, I just had to take it. So I got really good at taking it. But “taking it” is different from “being with.” I take it because I have to. I learn how to be selectively present, and feel resentful if it gets overwhelming or extreme. And as the resentment or stuck-ness sets in, I become highly susceptible to addictive behaviors once the “have to” goes away.

Jesus willingly and freely entered his Passion. He chose it. He didn’t do it because he had to or because he should. Yes, he agonized in the garden (how could he not?). But he surrendered to his Father’s will in full freedom.

No one took Jesus’ life – not the Pharisees, not the soldiers, and not his Father. Every Good Friday, we hear the story in John’s Gospel. He is very much the one in charge. At any moment he could stop it. But he doesn’t. He chooses a solidarity with our suffering, a “with-ness” that defies normal comprehension. He plunges into the depths of our human misery – all the harm others have ever done to us, all the ways we ourselves have harmed, and all the damaging effects. He freely says “yes,” willingly connecting himself to all of it.

The three Marys willingly stayed connected to him. They stood at the foot of the Cross, not because they “had to” or felt stuck, but because they wanted to be witnesses and wanted to be with.

I still have a lot of growing up to do, but I am learning to be with and be a witness. In the face of powerlessness or heartache, I still sometimes notice in my bodily sensations an urge towards cracking a joke or generalizing or spiritualizing. Those are moments in which I can be curious about why I am pulling away. More often, I choose instead to remain with. Now that I have explored far more places of heartache in my own heart, I find myself able and willing to go into deeper and darker places with others, without losing myself. That exploration often takes us beyond the presenting symptoms (addictive behaviors, relational struggles, anxiety, etc.) and down to the roots. I keep discovering that the majority of our families, though beautiful, carry far more brokenness and dysfunction than we wish to talk about.

The same holds true for our church families. So many have left our churches over the last few generations – too often because we in the Church harmed them or neglected what they really needed. Among those who remain, you will find a significant number of anxious and not-yet-converted Marthas (cf. Luke 10:38-42), or of judgy and controlling older brothers or sisters who don’t want to see that they are every bit as lost as their “fallen away” or “prodigal” siblings (cf. Luke 15:11-32).

What do hurting people experience when they come to our churches? Do they encounter loving witnesses who are ready to stand with them at the foot of their cross? If so, they will feel a sense of safety and belonging; they will discover a secure home in which they can begin to heal and mature.

Too often, both people and priests alike behave like those who don’t yet recognize our total and radical need for the Divine Physician. When we humbly and truthfully acknowledge that need, when we get serious about walking a path of ongoing healing, we will discover in ourselves a much greater capacity for with-ness and witness.

The Law of Gift

“Man cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.” So said Vatican II, in words that John Paul II often repeated. Many call this principle the “Law of Gift.”

But what is “a sincere gift of self,” and how is it actually possible?

I’ve been re-reading John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, now over 40 years old. Okay, I’ll admit – I never actually finished it the first time around, twenty-one years ago. I found some of his reflections tedious and confusing. I drifted into other distractions. But in so many ways, I wasn’t emotionally and spiritually ready to engage all that he was saying.

At the time, I was gung-ho about upright sexual morality. So in my reading of Theology of the Body (TOB), I was scavenging for ammunition.  I wanted “the Truth” so that I could fight the culture war, save marriages, and help young people stay pure. I was well-intended but misguided, because I was conveniently avoiding the brokenness within my own heart!

Even so, I was captivated by the beauty of TOB: the inherent goodness of our bodies; the God-given glory of sexuality, and the invitation to make a free, total, faithful, and fruitful gift of ourselves. I began preaching that message of self-gift.

Meanwhile, I prayed and toiled that I might somehow be strong enough or good enough to be self-giving in that way. I tended to one of two extremes. When I felt like I was “succeeding” in my sacrificial self-giving, I was puffed up with a sense of grandiosity. Then, inevitably, I would struggle or “fail” and would be flooded with shame and discouragement. In both cases, I was keeping parts of myself buried deep, where no one could see them (not even myself!).

In recent years, the Lord has been uncovering layer after layer in my heart, and showing me repeatedly that he desires ALL of me – not just the presentable parts. As that journey progresses, I think I understand more fully the stunningly beautiful invitation of John Paul II. Under the loving gaze of God the Father, with much protection and nurturing from Mary my heavenly mother, I am invited to grow as a whole person so that I can make a free and wholehearted gift of myself.

There are two sides to this beautiful teaching: integrity and self-gift.

When we hear “integrity,” we tend to think of following the rules or getting it right. But the word literally means “wholeness.” I cannot give all of myself if I am unwilling to take hold of all the pieces of my heart – much less to invite God or others close. It is only when I grow in wholeness that I can make a total gift of myself.

Just as there are two sides to the Law of Gift, so there are two common ways of deviating. The first is the one that I was committing for many decades, namely, “spiritual bypass.” We avoid going into the painful places of our own heart. Instead, we rush to “love” or “serve” others. We tell ourselves we are making a gift of ourselves. We tell ourselves we are sacrificing or (in Catholic lingo) “offering it up.” But in many cases, we are actually avoiding the Cross. We are resisting a full participation in the paschal mystery. We are unwilling (or perhaps not yet ready) to enter into the suffering and death of Jesus, to endure the hope of Holy Saturday, and to encounter the newness of the risen Jesus. He eagerly desires to go into those places of our heart with us, but some of us are not yet ready.

“Gift” is only gift if we give all the pieces. That is what integrity means. It means being authentically human – not just a spiritual or cerebral being, but also fully alive in our emotions, our imagination, and our desires. It means being EMBODIED!

Many Catholics talk about “Theology of the Body” – but prefer to keep the teachings only at a spiritual or moral level. Rather ironic, isn’t it, since its focus is the body?  I’ve often suggested that TOB is like a giant crate we’ve brought home from IKEA. It’s an amazing addition to our home – or will be, if we ever take all the pieces out of the box, much less engage in the hard work of assembly!

Meanwhile, in the broader culture, there have been amazing breakthroughs in neuroscience, in developmental psychology, and in trauma research. Trauma shows up in the body. Trauma is healed in the body. I am in awe of how well these findings connect both with the teachings of Thomas Aquinas and John Paul II. But Catholic have been SLOW to integrate and make connections.  We need to!

If we do not, the opposite error will prevail – that of personal “autonomy” or “independence.” In a well-meaning but misguided effort to reclaim the shattered pieces, many contemporary clinicians exalt the Self (with a capital “S”) as the be-all and end-all. It is well and good to become disentangled from abusers or to overturn oppressive structures. But our true human purpose is to make a gift of ourselves – to be the grain of wheat that falls to the ground and dies and bears much fruit.

And that brings us back to the original quote, which articulates the Law of Gift: “Man cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.”

We are, at our core, relational beings – because we are created in the image and likeness of a relational God. We will never become who we are if we do not make a free, total, faithful, and fruitful gift of ourselves. But it is a “sincere” self-gift – one that requires authenticity and integrity. If we bypass the broken places, we will never become a whole person that way. Our “gift” will be far less fruitful, because our “yes” is not yet free and wholehearted.

May each of us grow in integrity and discover the ways God is truly inviting us to make a gift of ourselves!

Jesus’ Story and Our Story

My original title today was “The Logos and our logos.” No good. The reader would start thinking of the Nike logo or the McDonald’s logo. I could go with the actual Greek alphabet and say “the λόγος and our λόγος” – but that would scare some away.

Logos (λόγος) is the Greek word for “word.” But it can mean so many other things: reason, explanation, discourse, account, sentence, meaning, language, communication, and much more. It’s one of those Bible words that simply can’t be translated without losing much of the meaning (much of the λόγος!).

The beginning of John’s Gospel dramatically presents Jesus as the eternal λόγος, who was with the Father in the beginning, and who is himself God. He is the spoken Word through whom all things came to be. That Word becomes flesh and makes his dwelling among us. That Word gives purpose and meaning to our otherwise meaningless existence. He makes it possible for our life to be worth something, and opens us up to share in his eternal life.

That’s John 1. Today I want to reflect on Hebrews 4:

“Indeed, the Word (λόγος) of God is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating even between soul and spirit, joints and marrow, and able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart. No creature is concealed from him, but everything is naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must render an account (λόγος)” (Hebrews 4:12-13).

I had a great “aha!” moment this summer on retreat when I was praying my way through the Letter to the Hebrews. Over the last 12 years, I’ve been slowly soaking in the New Testament on my annual retreats. During each hour of meditation, I read and meditate on the English translation of a chapter or two at a time. Then I go back and look at the Greek.

In this case, I was dumbstruck that this oft-quoted passage begins and ends with the word “word” (λόγος). Jesus is the eternal Word of God, living and effective, penetrating soul and spirit, laying bare our hearts. In his presence, my own λόγος comes to full light. I am part of a story. My human life is a “word” in its own right. My story will be told; my “word” will come to full light – possibly in this life and for sure in the next. Jesus, the eternal λόγος, promises to take all that is buried or hidden and expose it fully (Luke 8:17).

His story is a judgment upon my story and your story – not in the sense that he is eager to dole out condemnation. Quite the opposite! He did not come to condemn the world, but to save it. He does not will the death of the sinner, but that we turn to him and live! But the only way for our guilt and our shame to be healed is for the entirety of our story to be brought into his light. So long as we keep parts of it buried away or hidden, we cannot be a whole person. The conflict that is playing itself out in the drama of your story and my story cannot be resolved until Christ, the great protagonist, is allowed to be present to all of it.

This is why we Catholics put the Paschal Mystery at the center of all things. Every Sunday we gather to remember and participate anew in the saving event that is the suffering, dying, and rising of Jesus. Every year we enter the Paschal Triduum – the holy three days that is one single celebration – to remember THE story – the only story, the one true story, without which our human experience cannot be redeemed or resolved.

Hebrews 4:13 is typically translated in English as us giving an account in the presence of Jesus. Literally in Greek this passage says “All things are naked and uncovered to the eyes of him to whom belongs our λόγος.” The vulnerability of this experience is indeed unsettling. But deep down, don’t we all ache to be known, seen, heard, and truly understood?  Only the eternal λόγος can make that happen – and only by uncovering and laying bare all that is within us!

We belong to him – not in the sense that he owns us, but that we are ordered to him in a relationship – both in creation and in redemption. The original creation happened through him. Through God’s Word all was made. God spoke us humans into being, breathed his Spirit into us, and declared us very good. He gave us stewardship of the entire cosmos. We failed. He never stopped loving us. He promised to send the woman and her offspring to crush the head of the serpent. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. The Word died of the Cross and rose from the dead. The Word promises to take our tangled mess, to expose and uncover all of it – and to heal, restore, and gloriously transform us.

This, I think, is also the meaning behind Simeon’s cryptic words to the Virgin Mary: that a sword will pierce her heart so that the hearts of many may be laid bare (Luke 2:35). She is the New Eve, the promised woman. Her heart is fully pierced, fully vulnerable, and fully exposed – for sure at the Cross on Good Friday – but actually at many moments. Jesus declares “Behold, your mother!” so that each of us can receive her fierce and tender motherly care throughout the rather unsettling process of our own hearts being pierced by the Word, exposed, healed, and transformed. His eternal Love is both fierce and tender, and it is the only way.

Jesus does not expect this transformation to happen all at once. It’s a gradual process that happens over time. Like any great story, ours has moments of triumph, moments of loss and heartache, moments of betrayal, much adversity, and many setbacks. At every chapter, we can remember that THE story has already been told, and the victory has already been won – in the person of the λόγος. His story gets to become our story. Will we, like Mary, say “yes”?

Jesus and Restorative Justice

What is justice?

The greatest minds in human history have often pondered this challenging question: Plato in his Republic, Aristotle in his Ethics, Thomas Aquinas in his Summa.  Wise women and men do not pretend to have all the answers, but they stir up our curiosity by inviting us to ask the right questions.

Justice is a theme that runs throughout the Scriptures. In God’s plan, justice is wedded to mercy (Psalm 85:10). He does not desire the sinner to die but to turn back and live (Ezekiel 18:23). He sends his own beloved Son Jesus to seek out and save that which has been lost (Luke 19:10). He does not desire to condemn the world but to save it (John 3:17). When he acts justly, it is always ultimately with a view to heal and restore the creatures he has made – if we desire it. When he acts mercifully, it is never without an invitation to tell the full truth about the harm.

Think of Adam and Eve in the garden in Genesis 3. In their shame, they hide themselves – as though from an angry tyrant who is going to make them pay. He does bring Fatherly justice – holding them accountable and explaining to them the consequences. But he also promises eventual healing and restoration through “the woman” and her offspring. Adam and Eve are unable, at first, to tell the truth about what they have done. They try to shift the blame – anything to get the attention off the shame they are experiencing. God’s questions are for their good: Where are you? Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree? God exhibits both justice and mercy because he is a loving Father who ultimately desires our wholeness and our sharing in his glory. He never lies or ignores the truth, but he also does not desire our loss. Rather than make us pay in strict retributive justice, he sends his own beloved Son so that we can receive his mercy.

But there is so much more than a “not guilty” verdict! The Father and Jesus desire our healing, our restoration, and our wholeness! That is the primary motive for the Father asking his Son to die and rise. Jesus proclaims to his disciples that he came so that we might have abundant life (John 10:10). When he starts appearing to people after the resurrection, he brings life, joy, peace, healing, restoration, wholeness, and holiness – so much more than what they had hoped or dreamed!

How damaging it has been for some Christians to think of the death of Jesus only in the sense of paying the price for our sins. Yes, there is justice – God is a loving and truth-telling Father who does not pretend as though our sins never happened. We can only be healed and restored if we take seriously the harm that our sins have caused – the way in which we have ruptured relationships with him, with others, and with ourselves. AND the Father desires restoration, wholeness, and holiness.

Consider Jesus and Zacchaeus, the tax collector who has exploited many vulnerable people (Luke 10). Jesus eagerly seeks out Zacchaeus, who is stunned at being desired and delighted in. But Jesus also allows Zacchaeus to name the harm he has caused and work to repair it. Mercy and justice go together.

Consider Jesus and Peter in John 21. Jesus stokes a charcoal fire there on the seashore – fully knowing what he is going to do. Following the miraculous catch of 153 fish, he then invites Peter into a conversation that is simultaneously remembering, truth-telling, and healing. Peter stands once again by a charcoal fire, just like the night before Jesus died – only now Peter is allowed the opportunity to say three times that he loves Jesus. Peter experiences much distress in this experience – as Jesus knows he will. It is not a shaming of Peter, but rather helping Peter journey through and out of the labyrinth of shame as he begins experiencing healing and restoration.

Peter is much humbler in this encounter than at the Last Supper, when he boldly declared he would lay down his life for Jesus. In the Greek text, Jesus asks Peter “Do you love me?” – using the verb agapein to denote a self-sacrificing love. Peter responds (truthfully this time) that he loves him with philein – a brotherly love. Jesus foretells the eventual day when Peter will indeed love him so greatly as to lay down his life. For now, he simply invites Peter, “Follow me.” When we read the Acts of the Apostles, we see the restoration and transformation of Peter taking ever fuller effect. The risen glory of Jesus begins shining in and through him.

Repair and restoration take time. But they include a safe space in which both the one who has harmed and the one who was harmed can be heard, can tell the truth about what has happened, and can seek so much more than simply making someone pay.

I have friends who desire this kind of reform in our criminal justice system – which we all know to be broken and badly in need of repair! I am not an expert in those areas, but I hope we begin asking more of the right questions! Both Scripture and our Catholic Tradition have so much more to offer than a justice that only thinks about retribution.

As a priest, I am especially interested in how restorative justice can take root in our marriages, our families, and our church institutions. Too often, when serious harm has happened, we do not use our God-given creativity to open up a safe and healing forum in which all sides can tell the truth about the harm and seek full restoration for all who have been impacted.

Our families of origin and our church families have often failed in this area – especially when there has been sexual harm. Most people I know feel even more shame and awkwardness talking about sexuality – even though it is one of God’s most glorious gifts to us. Consequently, those who have been harmed sexually – whether by someone working for the church or by someone else – often find that neither their family of origin nor their church family is a safe haven to bring their story. I can think of more than a dozen individuals I know personally who suffered even greater betrayal because their story was not received with care.  Simultaneously, our society currently offers no path of redemption or restoration for those who have perpetrated sexual harm – they are branded as permanent outcasts beyond the reach of mercy.

Our just and merciful Father says otherwise – he desires healing and restoration for all who will receive it. As with Adam, Eve, Zaccheaus, the Samaritan woman at the well, or Peter, such restoration is only possible if we are willing to be truth-tellers – both about the harm done to us and about the harm we have done to self and others. Jesus will invite us to follow him on a healing path that includes (sometimes awkward or messy) repair. We will die and rise with him as we come to full maturity in him. In the end, if we welcome this full encounter with his love and truth, his righteousness will shine in us.

Purity Culture – Conclusion

This is the fifth and final installment of my reflections on the “purity culture” often found in Christian homes and churches. Out of fear that young people will be corrupted by the sex-obsessed culture, we sometimes miss the mark ourselves. We link shame and sexual desire together in ways God never intended; we abdicate our responsibility of providing apprenticeship in chastity; or we model a moralistic self-righteousness rather than humble growth and fruitfulness. Perhaps the biggest mistake is turning “purity” exclusively into a moral issue and/or a sexual issue. That is certainly not the biblical view nor the Catholic view.

Lie #5“Purity” is mainly about sexual morality

In the Beatitudes, Jesus teaches, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:7). Isn’t it interesting that most American Christians hear these words and instantly imagine sexual morality?

Yes, Jesus proceeds to address adultery and lust in the subsequent chapters. But he also addresses murder, aggression, anger, unforgiveness, and greed. He teaches about prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. He invites us to seek first the Kingdom of God, and in so doing to persevere in seeking, asking, and knocking.

Above all else, Jesus speaks from start to finish about a relationship with God the Father. He invites us into communion. He desires us to be “blessed” by our Father, who sent his own Son to die for us while we were yet sinners. We do not and cannot earn our way into relationship by good conduct. We enter our covenant with God as ones who are poor in spirit; grieving and mourning, meek and humble; aching with hunger and thirst. Jesus knows that we will be presenting broken lives to God for mending.  Purity of heart means bringing God all of the scattered pieces of our shattered hearts! It is then that real growth can begin.

In other words, when Jesus speaks of being “pure in heart,” he is inviting us to be wholly and wholeheartedly consecrated to God. That means allowing every dimension of our being to be blessed by him. It is the opposite of hiding away pieces of ourselves in shame! It was the devil who tried to convince Adam and Eve to run and hide after they had disobeyed God.

Toxic shame is perhaps the single greatest obstacle that keeps us from letting ourselves (ALL of ourselves) be loved by God and others. Many of us are more susceptible to shame because we learned to tie performance and relationships together: “I am only lovable if…” or “I am only lovable when…” To the extent that those lies have purchase in our hearts, Christian morality becomes a torment rather than Good News.

The urge to hide ourselves is challenging enough when we feel shame over moral faults. But the devil has worked still greater harm in many of us. In moments of betrayal, abuse, abandonment, or neglect, he has crept in and whispered lies – convincing us to hold contempt toward our desires, our bodies, our sexuality, or our capacity for delight. We then enter a false battle for “purity” – trying to rid ourselves of that which is best in us! If we feel shame every time we feel desire, how can we grow in healthy relationships? Hiding ourselves does not lead to intimacy.

Our shame can be healed by moving away from hiding and towards relationships: becoming truly and safely seen, known, heard, understood, and cherished – not some idealized version of ourselves, but as we currently are, a work in progress.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (n. 2518) speaks of purity of heart as a threefold sharing in God’s purity: in our charity, our chastity, and our orthodox belief. In other words, we are created to share in divine Goodness, divine Beauty, and divine Truth.

Truth, Goodness, and Beauty – the human heart has an almost insatiable longing for all three! The devil HATES this longing in us, but cannot erase it. So he attempts to divert and distract us away from the intimacy of relationship that is at the core of all three.

Our intellects are ordered to the Truth. Purity of heart includes surrendering to the Truth whenever the evidence is in front of us. The humble heart is willing to be proven wrong – or incomplete. The arrogant heart resists the vulnerability of surrender – either through obstinate refusal to believe what God has revealed or through a dogmatism that thinks it knows everything – as though Truth is an object we could possess. The closer we get to divine Truth, the more we realize how little we truly know!

Our wills are ordered to Goodness. We long to love and be loved. And so God commands us to love him with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. It is a two-way street: freely receiving and freely giving. Growing in purity of heart includes recognizing any ways in which we are blocked – either in giving or receiving. The more we love, the greater our ache to become more God-like in our love.

Our ache for Beauty flows from both our intellect and our will. Here we find the intense desire of eros that is such a glorious divine gift. No wonder the devil tries so hard to ruin it! Early and often, he entices us to curse our desire for Beauty – to feel shame around this God-given longing.

Yes, our desires often run wild – overindulging in food, becoming possessive in relationships, or wandering into sexual fantasies. That is why the Catechism speaks of “apprenticeship” in chastity. There is an appropriate pruning or discipline – not for the sake of cutting off desire, but of fully claiming it.

The word “purity” is first and foremost about our relationship with God –with sexuality as only one dimension. It is a damaging distortion to use “purity” in a moralistic sense. Instead, the Catechism of the Catholic Church devotes ten full paragraphs to the much more helpful words “integrity” and “integrality” (see nn. 2338-2347). Little by little, we learn how to put all the pieces together, aided by healthy relationships with God and others.

Becoming a whole person in our sexuality, our desires, our emotions, and our relationships is not a matter of “on” or “off,” maintaining or losing. It is a lifelong task. The Catechism proclaims this integration to be “a long and exacting work. One can never consider it acquired once and for all. It presupposes renewed effort at all stages of life” (n. 2342).

We are called to keep growing in charity, chastity, and truth our whole life long. The more we grow, the more we will long to grow. Getting a taste of God’s Truth, Goodness, and Beauty is described by many of the mystics as a “wound” – but in this case a wound of love that keeps us coming back to our lover for more. Once we begin tasting from the spring of living waters, our thirst for God intensifies. We desire more; we ache; we taste; we desire; and so the cycle of growth continues.

Apart from those living waters, we wither and die. If we only bring parts of ourselves to the living waters, the relationship will remain impartial and restricted. God desires ALL of us. The mystics desire ALL of him. Unlike lust, however, there is no devouring here. Jesus and his bride become one flesh, in a way that causes both to flourish. Every healthy and holy human relationship imitates that heavenly nuptial union. It is indeed a daunting and lifelong task to keep maturing in imitation of Christ. We need not shame ourselves or others in the process, but allow the kindness of God to keep spurring us on to deeper repentance.

The Conversion of St. Monica

Another rerun! This post was first submitted on March 10, 2019.

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.