Joining Jesus in the Desert

We begin another Lent. Once more we enter the desert, joining Jesus as he prays and fasts for 40 days. Jesus is the new Adam who overturns the disobedience of our first parents by conquering victoriously over the temptations of the devil. Christ is now our head; we are members of his Body. We can now share in his victory, freely participating in our own small way.

Jesus urges us to let our “yes” mean “yes” and our “no” mean “no” (Matthew 5:37). And he shows us how. He conquers Satan decisively. There is no wavering in his “yes!” to his Father’s will, nor in his “no!” to Satan’s whisperings.

The human story is often otherwise. Remember Eve in the garden. Rather than a firm “no!” she dialogues with the devil. Little by little, he twists the truth and lures her into disobedience. Adam, meanwhile, does not even put up resistance! He cowers away from the confrontation with evil.

We are true children of Adam and Eve. If we do not swiftly call upon Jesus and fight temptation, it only increases. We’ve all seen the “devil on the shoulder” shtick. The poor angel on the opposite shoulder never seems to have a chance. That is why it is so important not to waver in our “no!” The devil has no power over human freedom authentically exercised. If we firmly resist, he will flee (James 4:7). Joining with Jesus,  we rediscover the powerful depths of our human freedom.

In manifold ways we struggle to say “no!” with full freedom – “no” to the food we do not need, “no” to the snooze button, “no” to spending money we don’t have, “no” to letting our eyes and our heart wander in lust, or “no” to gossip and fault-finding.

If you’re like me, you have been waging some of those wars for years with seemingly no progress. Like the apostle Paul, the good that I desire I do not do, and the evil that I hate I do (Romans 7:19).

Praise God, I’ve had some breakthroughs in recent years. Some battles that once felt impossible have become manageable and even winnable – with the assistance of God and others. As I continue my journey down the path of  conversion, I am discovering that “yes” and “no” extend far deeper than the mere moment of temptation.

I have found quite helpful the book entitled Boundaries (by Henry Cloud and John Townsend). They explore this theme of “yes” and “no” at many levels. For example, it was eye-opening for me to see how easy it is to feel responsible for other people’s burdens, other people’s reactions, and other people’s emotions. It’s challenging enough to be responsible for my own! I don’t need to add a weight that is not mine to carry.

In theory, we are totally free to say “no” gently and firmly, without becoming apologetic or defensive, without battling through guilt. Sometimes we feel guilty when we are doing the right thing! We often need others to remind us and encourage us to hold firm and be truly free in our “no.” Without fraternal support, we can easily become susceptible to blaming and shaming. Whether in words (How could you…?) or in glowering glances of disapproval, the disappointment of others can feel utterly impossible to bear. In our instinct to survive, our brain tells us that we need to do something about these negative reactions, or else…or else what? The truth tells us otherwise. We are free to say “no.”

The Lord has also convicted me about my lack of freedom in saying “yes!” Like many of you, sometimes my “yes” was more about avoiding false guilt and shame – rather than fulfilling a deep desire for goodness and justice. Then enters the resentment or bitterness or anger at being manipulated, the moments of feeling trapped or overwhelmed, the pity parties – all the fun stuff.

In contrast to our stunted  and stumbling assent, the “yes!” of Jesus is free and wholehearted. He boldly declares, “No one takes my life from me; I lay it down freely” (John 10:18). There is no “I have to…,” no avoidance of conflict, no people pleasing. He freely says “yes!” and freely says “no!” He does so in human flesh and with a human will. He thereby opens up the possibility of our doing the same.

Lent is a time to enter the desert with Jesus, where he helps us to engage the age-old disciplines of fasting, almsgiving, and prayer.

Effective fasting can come in many forms: giving up drinking, talking less, eating simpler foods, cutting out social media, etc. Jesus tells us we must deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him. Self-denial is a wonderful way to exercise our “no” muscles. If we learn to say “no” freely and habitually in smaller matters, we can learn to do it in the more challenging and complex situations that I have been describing.

Almsgiving can also take on many forms. It includes works of mercy such as visiting the sick or  imprisoned, working in a food pantry, doing chores for an elderly neighbor, volunteering in our parish, etc. If done well, these works of charity help us exercise our “yes” muscles freely and wholeheartedly in love.

Prayer, when authentically pursued, builds us up in communion. In healthy relationship with God and with each other, the old lies of our heart can be cast out. The truth of Jesus can set us free. God’s grace is a gift from on high to be received, not by isolated individuals, but by members of one body. That is the beauty of Lent. Individuals engage in penance, yes, but overall we do so together as one Body of Christ, as one faith community. By sharing in his desert vigil and by sharing in his passion and death, we also come to share in the glorious freedom of his resurrection.

Watching and Waiting

Advent is a season of watching and waiting, a time of abiding in expectant hope, confident in the coming of the King.

Advent is so much more than preparing for Christmas. The early days of Advent focus especially on the second coming of Jesus. Our watching and waiting for his coming is not static and sterile, sitting here idly until some future day when he eventually comes. Rather, theologians often speak of an “already but not yet.” Christ has not yet come in glory, but he is already growing and bearing fruit in the lives of his holy ones.

There is a famous Advent homily in which Saint Bernard of Clairvaux describes a third coming of Jesus, in between his birth at Bethlehem and his coming in glory. No, he is not talking about “the rapture,” but rather the coming of Jesus into the heart of every true believer. As Jesus promised at the Last Supper, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him and we will come to him” (John 14:23).

This coming into our heart is a process of dynamic growth and nurturing. As we abide in expectant hope, our desire for the Lord increases. That desire is itself springs from a seed planted by the Lord.  The more we desire his coming, the more our capacity to receive him grows. The greater our capacity, the more we receive. The more we receive, the more deeply we desire. And the cycle of “already but not yet” continues until he comes again.

Think upon the parable of the sower (Matthew 13:1-23). Christ sows his Word. Some seeds fall on the path, others on rocky ground, others among thorns, and others into good soil. Advent is a time to become good soil, totally receptive, growing in faith and hope.

That is the sad irony of December in the modern world. In the midst of Advent, we are constantly exposed to commercialism and consumerism and unneeded busyness. The self-indulgence of “the season” in society around us can be a rather different cry from the penitent cry of John the Baptist to “prepare the way of the Lord.” We can easily heap excessive expectations upon ourselves, thinking of all the things that we “have to get done.” Then we find ourselves too busy or stressed out to do any watching or waiting. But are we not free to order our lives as we choose?

With God’s help, we can recognize some of the weeds and thorns in our heart, obstacles that need to be uprooted with firm resolve. We also have hard and dry places in our hearts, tough soil that needs the gentle dew of the Holy Spirit to soften and moisten, freeing us to become totally receptive like Mary and Joseph.

Our free cooperation matters much. But in the end, God is the one who provides the growth and provides the fruit. We are called to abide in love. The watching and waiting is challenging! We are so conditioned to expect instant gratification and easy results.  The parable of the sower reminds us to be patient and receptive.

Henri Nouwen wrote often about our powerlessness, and how challenging it is for us to be humble and patient. We depend totally upon God for the growth – much like the farmer in the field. Nouwen offers the image of an impatient gardener digging up the plant periodically to check on its growth. That tactic definitely doesn’t work! How hard it is sometimes to watch and wait in hope, trusting that we are a beloved child of God and allowing the growth to happen on his timeline.

For the time being, it is the growth that matters. The fruitfulness will come eventually, so long as there is steady growth. By contrast, we will wither and die if we cut ourselves off from the source of all growth.

Healthy Christian community helps so much. True Christian friends will notice what God is doing in us and encourage us. It is good to notice the growth God is working and to praise him for it. That thankfulness and praise stirs up the desire of our heart all the more. There is no risk of pride when our heart is Christ-centered and full of praise.

Psalm 1 offers a image of the tree that is planted beside the flowing waters, putting out its roots to the stream, staying green amidst the drought, whose leaves never fade, prospering and bearing fruit. Contrast that with the ways of the wicked, who linger in the ways of fruitless desires. They are like the chaff that gets blown away.

It is easy – especially at this time of the year – to become anxious or overwhelmed and then plunge ourselves into one of our “panic rooms” – reaching for our phone, grabbing extra food or drink, plunging into pleasures that don’t actually bring peace.

Instead, we can choose to be patient and gentle with ourselves. It is normal to feel unsettled during changes of seasons and when re-connecting with family. Instead of isolating ourselves, we can choose to stay present to our heart, present to Christ, and present to those around us. We can receive grace and grow in patience. The fruit will come in due time.

Advent has always been a favorite season of mine. It touches the deepest desires of the human heart. May God give us all the courage to root out the weeds from our hearts. May he cultivate and soften the hard and unreceptive places. And may he help us to abide in expectant hope, watching and waiting patiently as Christ comes to us, gives us growth, and bears much fruit.

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.