Even if you’re overall a friendly, open person, and even if there’s no one you’re openly warring with or frostily snubbing, there are people whose name makes a shadow cross over your sky. Whether it’s their fault or yours – or, most likely, some combination of the two – these are people with whom you are not at peace. When they are around, your peace is disturbed. You know who I mean.
It was not a representative of the Church that wounded me, but someone else, a long time ago. I want to tread very carefully because I cannot know what suffering other people have endured, and I would not presume to tell anyone else what to do. All I can tell you is what I have experienced.
The other day, I realized I wasn’t angry anymore. It’s taken many years to get here.
The other night, I was having a mild panic attack in the middle of the night, and I dealt with it this way: I breathed in while thinking, “I don’t know what’s going to happen next,” and then breathed out while thinking, “But I place my trust in Jesus.” I accepted my ignorance and my uncertainty, and I reclaimed my knowledge of the one true thing that will always be true, which is Jesus Himself.
It got me through that one bad night. But there has not been a single second in my life when that was not an appropriate prayer.
Image via Max Pixel (Public Domain)
There’s a reason treasure is more popular than pennies.
But woe to me if I keep on being snarky to someone who is trying hard to make amends, trying hard to be a better person. I wouldn’t smack a coin out of the hand of a widow who’s being as generous as she can be, and I shouldn’t despise a message like the one I got. I should, in fact, follow his example.
On Saturday, we went to confession. Mine was a pretty standard operation: “Bless me, father, for I have sinned. It has been two months since my last confession. I did that thing I always do, and that other thing I always do. I also did that other thing I always do, except more so than usual. And I stopped doing that thing I usually do, but then I started again. And I was mean on the internet. For these and all my sins, I am truly sorry.”
And the priest said what this particular priest always says: “Thank you for that beautiful confession.” He says this when I have a long and sordid list, or a short and sordid list, or when he can barely understand me because my nose is running from the sordidness of it all. The point is, I am not aware of ever having made a confession that any normal human being would consider “beautiful.”
But the confessional is not a normal place. It’s the one place that no one would ever go for normal, worldly reasons. No penitent goes to confession to get ahead in life, or to make money, or to get a full belly, or to impress anyone; and no priest goes to confession to be amused or entertained. It’s where we go to unload our miseries, to show our wounds and our infections, to take off the disguises that make us appear palatable to each other.
So, not beautiful. No, not especially.
Or is it? If the ugliness, the squalor, the sordidness, and the running nose were all that happened inside a confessional, then it really would be an ugly place — just a latrine, a ditch, a sewer. But of course, the part where we lay out our sins is only the first part.
What happens afterward is more obviously beautiful. The priest reaches out and picks up the ugly little load you’ve laid in front of him. And right then and there, he pours the living water over it until the parts that are worth saving are healthy and whole again, and the parts that cannot be salvaged have been washed away entirely. What is useless is gone; what was dead is alive again.
This is beautiful!
And the beauty of absolution does one of those neat Catholic tricks where eternal things reach back in time and impart beauty wherever they want, regardless of chronology. The beauty of absolution makes the confession itself beautiful. Even though my sins are ugly, the very fact that I’m bringing them into the confessional has something beautiful in it: the beauty of trust that I will be forgiven; the beauty of believing that something real and life-changing will happen; the beauty of being willing to accept forgiveness even though I know that I don’t deserve it; and the beauty of knowing that, whoever’s turn it is to sit behind the screen, it is really Christ who is waiting to meet me.
If that isn’t beautiful, then nothing is.
This post originally ran in the National Catholic Register in 2014.
Beep beep. I am here to tell you that, sometime after that seventh time (or maybe after the seventy-times-seventh time) a light bulb will click on in that dopey son’s head. After being rescued without comment one more time after time after time after time, that son is very likely to decide on his own that this is no way to live, and he’d rather face the jeers and yucks of his stupid friends than the quiet patience of his father one more time.
Not because he’s scared of his father, but because he’s not. Not because his father is mad at him, but because his father loves him, and it finally feels like it’s time to live up to that love.
Keeping grudges is such an odd thing to do. No one wants to be angry, resentful, and unhappy, surely, any more than we’d jump at the opportunity to keep a sticky, stinky, snarling vermin in the house for a pet. And yet we do keep it and cherish grudges so ardently, sometimes for decades. Why?
You can start over even if you’re not sure God loves you. You can start oven even if you’re not sure He should.
And you don’t have to run. You can shamble over resentfully. You can sidle in doubtfully. You can skulk in with fear, doubt, despair, or even rage. As long as you go because you’re acknowledging that things are not good as they are, then that is good enough. It may not feel like it is enough, but that is what Christ has promised.
The teacher started scheduling weekly “clean-ups.”
Students relished in the opportunity to admit wrongdoing, share intent to change, and restore friendships. It was a beautiful, beautiful thing. They walked out stiff and uneasy, and returned with bright smiles on their faces.
Sound familiar? Read the rest at the Register.
PIC split tree bound back together
Every day, I bless a merciful God that there was no internet to speak of when I was younger. This means there are no insanely humiliating photos of me in a crop top and acid wash harem pants. It also means that I never published an article like this one in Catholic Exchange: Marriage Is Work.
In this piece, which I absolutely would have written as a newlywed, the earnest, not-yet-married Emma Smith hears her secular coworkers lamenting the way their ex-husbands had cheated on them
“There’s so much of that out there!” my boss exclaimed. “I know one of my girlfriends who is cheating on her husband and I know a couple of other people where both of them are cheating. I guess you’re lucky if it doesn’t happen to you.”
Smith goes on to explain to the reader that she knows that her soon-to-be husband will never cheat on her. She knows this. She knows for a fact that it simply will not happen.
Marriage isn’t a drawing of the straws, where if your spouse cheats on you, well, “sorry, you just drew the short straw. There’s nothing you could have done to prevent it!” It’s not an institution where if you are a strong, happy, and healthy couple you’re just “the lucky ones.”
And she knows, she says, that people will think she’s just young and naive for knowing that her husband will always be faithful.
And yet, I can say that. I can say that because I have a faith and a God who stand behind me in that statement. And I can say that because the love my fiancé and I share is not human, it is divine. We love each other because we love God and we have discovered that in loving one another, we get to love God more fully. Moreover, the love that we have for one another is divine in origin. God gave it to us at our baptism and it had a full 15-20ish years to grow and mature so that when we met, it blossomed.
Well, let’s start with all the ways that Smith is right. She says that “marriage is something you work on … marriage is a calling.” And she is right. She says:
Our faith allows us to make these promises [of faithfulness] because He who gave us love was faithful in His love until the end. … We as Catholics are granted the same strength of faithfulness to the end when we return our love to the one who is love. When we participate in making our love a sacrament, when we make a way for God’s grace to enter the world every day, when we demonstrate outwardly our inner devotion, we can say with full knowledge and confidence that we are not in a game of luck.
Yes indeed. A strong marriage doesn’t just spring into being on its own. If we translate our love of God into love for our spouses, and when we let our love for our spouses nourish our love for God, then we will be fulfilling our vocation.
But that’s it: we’ll be fulfilling our vocation, period. That is all we can depend on: that God will be faithful to us. Beyond that, things can get very messy. When Catholics fulfill their vocation of marriage, it can turn out looking like an awful lot of things, and that includes ugly, painful things that may or may not ever get resolved in this lifetime.
Because here’s the deal: you aren’t marrying God. You’re marrying another human being. Your spouse is marrying you, and you are a human being.
And what do we know about human beings? They sin. They sin, and they sin, and they sin. Sometimes they enter into a valid marriage and then they cheat. Sometimes they understand fully what they are supposed to do, and they just don’t feel like doing it. Sometimes calamity strikes, and they crumple under the blow. Sometimes they let their own sorrows and weaknesses and selfishness overcome the love that is offered to them. Sometimes — no, my friends, always — they are a tangled ball of good intentions and bad habits, unhealed wounds and unfounded desires.
Many, many times, the grace of the sacrament helps us to avoid serious sin. Sometimes, though, the grace of the sacrament helps us to forgive each other when we sin. Sometimes it helps us to survive when our spouses refuse to repent.
So the confident if untried Emma Smith is right in sighing over the fatalistic modern view of marriage — right in condemning the idea that some people just get lucky, and there’s no way of improving your odds. But she is disastrously, innocently, offensively wrong when she thinks that we can somehow guarantee that things will turn out well, just because we intend to work hard.
Ever heard of Hosea’s wife? Ever heard of Israel? Ever heard of the entire human race? God knows that this is what happens when you enter into a marriage with another human being: one way or another, sooner or later, your love will be rewarded with pain. And I know this because I love my husband — my faithful, loving husband — and I’ve hurt him.
I pray to God, and I hurt my husband.
I understand marriage, I believe in marriage, I have spent years upon years working on my marriage, and I hurt my husband. And He forgives me, just as I forgive him.
I am glad that Smith understands so well that the grace of marriage is something that must be actively pursued, consciously acted upon. And I hope that her confidence in her husband is rewarded with unbroken faithfulness and love, and that she will not be shattered when she discovers that he does have flaws. I hope that people read her piece and realize that it makes sense to look hard for a spouse who is trustworthy.
But I hope to God she is never involved in any kind of marriage ministry — not with the childish understanding of marriage that she has now. What will she say to the woman whose husband is cheating? Or to the man whose wife won’t stay sober, or won’t stop gambling, or won’t stop browbeating him in public? What will she say to the spouses who do work hard, and have found themselves sinned against? Maybe “Let’s put our heads together and figure out how you could have worked harder to prevent this. Good marriages aren’t just a matter of luck, you know.”
And what will she say to herself when she finds herself sinning against her husband? Maybe she will not cheat, but oh, she will hurt him. She will. This isn’t a warning about your husband-to-be, dear confident, untried brides. It’s a warning about you.