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.
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)
Many years ago, despite hard work, thrift, and a small family, we were poor. As in no-heat-no-car-no-food poor. And so I started traveling to a church which hosted weekly grocery nights, when needy people could browse over tables of expired dry goods, wilted produce, and drippy ice cream at cut-rate prices. I remember the thrill of putting a true luxury, a box of crackers, into my bag, and feverishly calculating how many meals I could squeeze out of a single chicken breast.
That part of it was great. But the part I didn’t like was in the beginning: Before they opened the auditorium, they made us pray.
I hated that part.
Let me explain. I pray. I did pray at the time, I will always pray, and I will always be in favor of people praying, and in favor of encouraging other people to pray and to become closer to God.
But I am vehemently opposed to insisting that people suddenly start praying aloud, or giving intimate details about their spiritual life to a stranger, just because they happen to be vulnerable or in need. Too many Christian ministries, including food pantries, crisis pregnancy centers, and homeless shelters, include mandatory prayer in their good works, and I think it ought to stop.
Well! You may say. Those who are vulnerable or in need are exactly the ones who need to hear about God! Should we leave these poor souls in their misery? Man does not live by bread alone. Should we feed only the bodies of those in need, but leave their souls hungry?
Also: what, should we be ashamed of our faith? Should we hide our light under a bushel, cover over the name of Christ like those weasly Georgetown Jesuits?
The Good News is never out of place or inappropriate. It’s always a good time to pray, and anyone who suggests otherwise is denying our Lord.
Okay, then. How come you never insist that rich people pray? When’s the last time you made it very clear to someone in a nice suit that he needs to start being thankful, out loud, right this minute? Why is this on-command spirituality only standard practice for a guest who’s already on the ropes?
I know these good Christian folks had kind intentions. They meant it like this: we have a chance to do a corporal work of mercy—and while they’re here, we have the chance to share his glorious Good News with people. So let’s be like the early Christians—let’s pray! That’s all they meant. And I was truly grateful for the food, and for the time they volunteered.
But let me tell you what messages I, as a bona fide wretched poor person, actually received:
1. “We can see that you’re poor because of some spiritual failing, so let’s take care of that.”
2. “Don’t you forget for a moment that we’re doing you a favor. So before you get your dented box of Special K, let me see you bow your head.”
Now, there may have been someone at that grocery night who was smitten to the core—who needed to be there, needed to be forced to pray. Maybe his life was changed forever by those mandatory prayers.
But I was there. I guarantee you that thirty more people in that auditorium learned to connect the name of God with humiliation and intrusion.
Being poor means you never have a choice in anything. Even while you’re grateful for bags of free clothes, boxes of food, and rides from volunteers, never having a choice about what to wear, what to eat, or when to come and go—it stings. It makes you feel like crap. Whether you’re poor because of bad luck and tough circumstances, or because of laziness and stupidity, being poor doesn’t make you sub-human. It shouldn’t give other people an excuse to treat you like a child, even if they’re helping you.
So here is my suggestion to people who, God bless them, want to help the poor, and want to evangelize at the same time: be quiet. Put up lots of crosses and statues and Bible verses on the wall, wear T-shirts and medals—go nuts. But don’t say a word, unless someone asks. At the very most, extend an invitation: “We are available to tell you about our faith—just let us know!” or “Don’t forget to check out our lending library, if you’re wondering why we’re here.” Poor isn’t the same as stupid: people notice when help always comes from someone who believes in God.
So please, never require someone to have a spiritual experience in exchange for your help. The first thing about personal relationship, with God or with anyone else? It’s not a quid pro quo. It’s never mandatory.
We could have done without a multitude of categories of clouds, without birds that migrate, bugs that pollinate, mint and milkweed that battle, and little girls who know something about flying. We could have been moved by fear and panic and compulsion, rather than by beauty and longing. Why is there beauty? Why is there life that delights in life?
The world gleams. But it is so untidy.
“I like praying the Liturgy of the Hours,” says Leah Libresco
because, at a bare minimum, it gives me something to say to God. Not just the words of the prayers but, basically, “I’m really grateful for prayer traditions because I’d pretty much suck at having to make all this up on my own.” Instead of just being grateful for language period, it’s kind of like being grateful for slang — the shared set of references that characterize a relationship or a community.
Jennifer Fulwiler addresses a related phenomenon when she speaks of praying the Liturgy of the Hours: She realizes that, when the words don’t apply to her life, that’s a good thing, because she is praying as part of the Body of Christ. She says,
I found myself saying “we” and “our” more often than “I” and “mine.”
We all need the discipline of praying about things that are not immediately relevant to our needs. She says,
It all finally clicked. For the first time, I think I really understood the power of the Liturgy of the Hours as the universal prayer of the Church …
As my heart swelled to think of the great drama playing out all over the world that morning of which I was only a small part, I thought back to my words at the beginning of the office — “But this Psalm doesn’t have anything to do with me!” — and realized that I had learned something critically important about prayer: It’s not all about me.”
This is not to say that we can never pray about things that do concern us. But in my experience, the formal, selfless, ritualized prayer comes first, before there can be any depth of sincerity in individual prayer.
We can, for instance, try to flog our hearts into a sensation of awe during the consecration, but we probably won’t get anywhere. But if we simply humbly accept what is being offered, and obediently participate in the ritual of thanksgiving, that is what lays the groundwork for heartfelt awe and wonder.
So both kinds of prayer are necessary for us and pleasing to God — both the formal, “ready-made” prayers that we participate in as an act of will, and the personal, immediate outpourings of our own soul.
Praying only in own language is limiting and inadequate — but so, I believe, is only ever praying in the formalized language of the Church, because it’s all too easy to keep it formulaic, and to forget that prayer is conversation, and conversation implies a relationship.
We ought to pray, at least some of the time, in our “native tongue.” Leah has already discovered this:
When I think of immaterial things, I tend to think of Morality, which might not be that bad as a focus of prayer, even if I need to expand it out a little. The trouble is I also think of Math, and since it’s much easier to think about clearly and distinctly, I was running into a problem. I certainly wasn’t intending to pray to the Pythagorean theorem (which would make me a very strange sort of pagan), but I was drifting away from trying to talk to a Person and over to just thinking about immaterial ideas.
And kudos to her for noticing the problem!
So, basically, instead of fighting these thoughts, I kept thinking about whatever math concepts popped into my mind. I thought about when I’d learned them, how exciting they were, and the way I got to share that joy with my friends. Then I basically reminded myself, “God is Truth, so he totally shares your delight in these things. In fact, he delights in your delight and would love to draw you further up and further in to contemplate and be changed by higher truths in math and in everything else.”
And that meant I was basically thinking about a person and a relationship again. In my own weird little way.
Brilliant. Leah is drawn to truth; it’s her native tongue. For others, it’s goodness; for me, it’s beauty. Pythagoras doesn’t do much for me, but corn on the cob bubbling away in my blue enamel pot as the steam sifts through a shaft of evening light? This is something I invariably hold up to God, so we can delight in it together.
The saints all found different ways of praising God according to who they are, according to the native language He gave to them. And so we have St. Francis in his tattered robe, and also Josemaria Escriva with his precisely groomed hair; King David with his wild dancing, and Mother Theresa washing wounds. All of them related to God with some combination of formal language inherited from the Church, and spontaneous outpourings of their particular kinds of heart. These individual orientations are not something to struggle against; they are languages which God gives us so we can sing love songs to Him.
Do you speak to God in your native tongue? Or do you hide your personality from Him? Do you compartmentalize your spiritual life from your daily experience? Or can you remember that everything that is good comes from God?
This is the main thing to remember when we pray, and when we live our daily lives: “He the source, the Ending He.” Both root of idea and flower of expression. Here’s Hopkins:
the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is —
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.
This is how we become more like Christ: by allowing God to refine who we already are. We become more like Him by speaking to Him in our native tongue. If, like Leah Libresco, we are looking for “something to say to God,” we could hardly do better than, “Here is what I am, Lord. Make me more like You.”
Image: The Astronomer by Johannes Vermeer [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve said, “Quit telling priests what to do.” You guys are super busy and already working harder than anyone could reasonably expect.
But today I’ll give one of those imaginary dollars back, because today I’m going to tell you what to do this Sunday. Trust me, it’s for your own good.
This Sunday is, as you no doubt know, Mother’s Day, and a lot of your parishioners are going to expect you to acknowledge it. Also, a lot of your parishioners are going to be mad if you acknowledge it.
A good portion of your congregation feels that the world despises motherhood, and they look to the Church to be the one place where they are appreciated for their sacrifices and their hard work.
Another good portion of your congregation feels that the world only cares about women if they are mothers, and they look to the Church to be the one place where no one despises them for not being mothers.
Some of your parishioners are pregnant, and they’re miserable about it. Some of them desperately wish they were pregnant, and are working hard not to hate their fertile sisters. Some of them look pregnant, but are just fat, and if one more well-meaning priest blesses their unoccupied abdomens, they’re going to sock him in the jaw.
Some of them look pregnant, but they’re the only one who knows that the baby they’re carrying is already dead.
Some of your parishioners are the mothers of children who are already buried, or children whose bodies went straight into the hospital’s incinerator while their mothers wept and bled. Some of your parishioners paid to have their children put there.
Some of your parishioners have been wretched mothers, and they know it. Some of them have been excellent mothers of wretched children, and everyone assumes that wretchedness must be the mother’s fault.
Some of your parishioners hated their mothers. Some of them just lost their beloved mothers yesterday. Some of them never knew their mothers at all.
Some of your parishioners are excellent mothers who pour their heart, soul, mind, and strength into caring for their families, and as soon as they get home from Mass, everyone expects them to get right back to cooking and cleaning and making life easy for everyone else, the same as every other day.
And then, of course, you will have the people who are mad that you mentioned a secular holiday during Mass. And the people who remember how much better it was when Fr. Aloysius was in charge, oh yes, it was much better then. It’s a shame.
So, what’s your plan, Father? Gonna make all the mothers stand up and be acknowledged? You’ll be forcing a lot of women to make a statement they may not want to make. Gonna pass out carnations? Same problem. Gonna make us extend our hands over mothers in blessing? Well, you’re the priest, aren’t you. We would rather keep our hands to ourselves.
The real answer would be for Americans to just calm the hell down about motherhood, and not to expect the Church to cater to their every emotional need. But that’s not where we are right now. It’s a mess, and you’re right in the middle of it. Sorry! But I really do think you can thread the Mother’s Day needle without getting poked if you offer something like the following blessing before the end of Mass:
On this Mother’s Day in May, which is Mary’s month, we remember that our Blessed Mother was honored above every other human being besides Jesus Himself when she was asked by God to bear His Son. We ask God’s blessing on all women, because all women, no matter what their state in life, are specially privileged to bring Christ into the world. Mary is our model in joy and in suffering, in trust and in sorrow. We ask Mary to intercede for our earthly mothers and for all the women who cared for us, and we ask the Holy Spirit to increase our love so that we will always honor the women in our lives. We ask this through Christ Our Lord.
Then scoot out the side door before anyone can yell at you.
Most of us realise we’re not supposed to live in a state of constant fear. It isn’t any fun, for one thing; and we can see it leads us to make bad decisions. Jesus came right out and told us, “Be not afraid!”
How, though? Much as we’d like to, we can’t just decide to stop being afraid.
Last night, we got up to the chapter about fortitude in our current catechism read-aloud, How To Be a Hero: Train With the Saints.
Sometimes we decide to make a change in our lives,
like giving up sweets for Lent or making a New Year’s resolution to keep our bedroom neat. At first, we are able to keep our resolution out of excitement and because it is something new. Eventually, though, it becomes more difficult to wake up each morning and make the bed, or turn down an offer of candy from a friend.
And is said, “SHUT UP, BOOK! YOU DON’T KNOW ME!” Ha ha, just kidding. We had just barely recovered from a conversation about whether it was, in fact, fartitude we needed to cultivate in our house (answer: No.), so I wasn’t going to derail Edification Hour again. But I thunk it.
One of my resolves for Lent was to reinvigorate my prayer life. It . . . has not been going well. I wish I could say it’s due to the mid-Lent doldrums, but it actually petered out almost immediately.
Happily, this morning I suddenly remembered a strategy for daily prayer that even I can manage. You cover ACTS:
Or, as I used to tell my kids, it’s telling God:
You are great!
What else is there to say? If you can make the sign of the cross and thoughtfully make a personal expression of each of these things to God in the morning, then son, you have reinvigorated your prayer life. Fortitude!
(I purposely left the image at the top nice and big, in case you want to click on it and print it out for your wall. Obviously I just something I threw together with a marker, which you can easily replicate and do a better job with, but maybe you can’t find a marker.)
Yesterday, my friend Leticia Adams shared the devastating news that her oldest son, Anthony Gallegos, committed suicide at her home. He had long struggled with depression. He was the father of two young girls.
If you care to, please join me in praying the novena to St. Michael the Archangel for Anthony, Leticia, and their whole family. You can find the novena here and sign up for daily reminders.
Leticia would be very grateful to have Masses said for the soul of her son. His full name is Francisco Antonio Gallegos. You can request online for Masses to be said with Marians of the Immaculate Conception and at St. Michael’s Abbey in CA. (Those are just a few suggestions; many other places accept online requests for Masses to be said for particular intentions.)
Gift cards for cash and fast food would also be very helpful as they deal with the immediate aftermath of this tragedy. You may use the PO Box of the Catholic Sistas blog, and note that your gift is for Leticia Adams:
Leticia Adams c/o Catholic Sistas
PO BOX 71
McNeil, TX 78651
If you are local to the family, please consider donating a meal to help. CareCalendar lets you sign up to bring meals on specific days. The Calendar ID is 251799 and the security code is 7880.
There is now a YouCaring page set up to raise funds for funeral costs. If the goal is reached, any extra funds will go for college funds for Anthony’s two little girls.
There is a separate YouCaring page set up for Ariana, Anthony’s girlfriend, to help her pay bills and to care for their two daughters.
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