Why do we hold onto grudges?

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?

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly here.

Image: Orin Zebest via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Can we endure the light?


There was a man who could read people’s souls, and he would sometimes deliver messages from God.

It sounds fishy, but if you saw his face, especially his eyes, you’d believe it. For some reason, he visited my house when I was a teenager. When I came in the room, his dark eyes pooled with pity, and he asked, “Is there anything you would like to ask?” There wasn’t. I was on an ugly, dire path, and I knew it, but I wasn’t ready to turn around yet. So I walked out of the room. Fled, really. I could see that he was very close to God, and I couldn’t stand being that close to him.

It is not enough, you see, to recognize the presence of God. You can identify holiness, but it won’t do you any good if you’ve been living in a way that doesn’t prepare you to endure it.

Herod, for instance, recognized the Christ. Or at least he was well-versed enough in scripture to know that something big was coming, something that could change the world. But when he found Him, his whole thought was to extinguish that light, because it was a threat. Not to be endured.

Herod was a brilliant, powerful, and exceptionally brutal tyrant, who protected his throne by killing everyone who might someday threaten it, including his wife, two of his sons, his wife’s grandfather, her brother, and her mother. You cannot live that way and then suddenly rejoice when your savior comes. You don’t want a savior, when you live that way. It’s not that you don’t recognize salvation; it’s that you hate it.

The magi, on the other hand, also found and identified the Child Jesus, and had (what an understatement!) a different response. Before they ever appeared in the Gospel, they had spent years studying scripture and anticipating the arrival of the Savior. But their studies clearly brought them beyond some academic knowledge of the coming king. Isaiah spoke of glory and brilliance, a “Hero God” — and yet when the magi found Him in Bethlehem, just another poor baby Jew, they still knew who He was — and they rejoiced, and adored, and gloried in His light.

It’s not enough to identify God when you find Him. It won’t do you any good unless you’ve been living in a way that makes you ready to want salvation.

Several years ago, I had a little glimpse of Jesus. He was in the form of another man, someone who served God with every moment of his life. When I walked into the room, he was on his knees on the floor, binding the ankle of a boy who had hurt his foot. The boy was not grateful, not at all. He sulked and pitied himself, but the man radiated love. His posture was a living expression of love. The room shone.

This time, when I saw holiness, I didn’t run away. I stayed and watched, because the light of charity that shone in that room had something to say to me: “Be like this.”

In the first reading at the Mass of the Epiphany, Isaiah says:

Rise up in splendor, Jerusalem! Your light has come,
the glory of the Lord shines upon you.

Nations shall walk by your light,
and kings by your shining radiance.

This is a light that may reveal all kinds of things. It’s not enough for those “nations” (and we are the nations) to recognize and identify God. It’s not enough to be able to realize what holiness is when we see it.

How are we preparing, before that light appears? The magi knew it was coming, and they prepared themselves to welcome and adore it. Herod knew it was coming, and he made plans to extinguish it. Herod acted like exactly like Herod when His savior appeared, and so will we act exactly like ourselves when we meet God.

Just being in His light will not be enough. If we live like Herod, we will respond to Him like Herod, with fear, with loathing. We will see the light, and we will want to put it out.

When the glory of the Lord comes to shine upon you, what will that light reveal?


Image: “Epiphany” by Gallardoblend via Deviantart
This essay was originally published on Aleteia in January of 2016.

“Emotional rest” is our duty and our salvation

We often think of rest in terms of physical breaks – actually lying down, putting our feet up, breathing slowly, maybe cracking open a beer. While rest like this is vital, it’s at least as important to take a break from emotional drudgery and chaos. This year, I’ve been working on taking emotional breaks.

Boy, does that sound bogus! Catholics don’t have time for squishy, feel-good nonsense like that! We’re too busy with the salvation of our souls to worry about – ptui – “emotional rest,” right?

Well, let me tell you . . .

Read the rest of my latest at The Catholic Weekly.


Image: Steve Snodgrass via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Never mind the baby, here’s Advent?

(Because it’s totally appropriate to riff on a Sex Pistols song title when meditating on the Christ Child. Moving along!)

It has come to my attention that I’ve now put up two posts (here and here) encouraging Christians to place themselves in the presence of Baby Jesus while we’re still waiting for Him to be born. Why would I do such a thing?

I can see how it might be irritating. Advent is the season of anticipation and preparation. It just is. We have a perfectly good liturgical year, and there’s no need to go rearranging it on a whim. It’s like the weather in New Hampshire: If you don’t like it, just wait a minute. Christmas (or Lent, or whatever) will be here before you know it, so let it be what it is.

Well, a couple of things. First, we may be a little too impressed with our current understanding of what is liturgically proper and essential, especially within the domestic church. What we consider essential and incontrovertible warn’t always necessarily so. For instance,

In England, especially in the northern counties, there was a custom (now extinct) for poor women to carry around the “Advent images”, two dolls dressed to represent Jesus and the Blessed Virgin Mary. A halfpenny coin was expected from every one to whom these were exhibited and bad luck was thought to menace the household not visited by the doll-bearers before Christmas Eve at the latest.

I wonder what Facebook would think about that! Sadface Angryface, at very least.

The truth is, the no one really knows when Catholics started to observe Advent as a season of solemn penitence. These things aren’t carved in stone, and they’re not moral issues, especially when you’re talking about issues like which hymn to play and whether or not to take a statue out of storage a month earlier than usual. So there’s certainly nothing immoral, or dangerous, or illicit, about putting the baby front and center before Christmas Day actually arrives, either in the physical church or in your spiritual life.

Second, I probably would have been irritated, myself, if I had heard all this premature “baby, baby, it’s about the baby!” stuff many Advents ago.

What changed my attitude? I had a premature baby myself, eight years ago.

She was only just barely premature, at 36 weeks, and she had only transient health problems, thank God. But I thought I had a whole other month to prepare! I wasn’t ready, at all.  No baby clothes washed and sorted, no hospital bag packed, no babysitting lined up, cradle still in storage. I hadn’t even done much nesting yet, and we were still working on names.

But there she was, small and sleepy but very much arrived. She came home wearing clothes and a blanket the hospital had donated, because I had no idea I’d be leaving with a baby that day. Did she care? No, she did not. She cared about her empty belly and her wet diaper, and her need to be held. The due date circled on the calendar meant precisely nothing.

And that was when I learned that being ready is great, but it is by no means required.

What is required is rising to the task at hand, ready or not — or, as I keep harping on, tending to the person at hand, ready or not. It would have been no good to protest that I couldn’t possibly take care of a baby for at least another two weeks, according to the plan. She was here, and she needed to be fed and cared for without delay. And that was how I worked out my salvation that particular year — with excruciating visits to the lactation consultant with six other kids in tow; with painful, round-the-clock pumping and a bewildering assortment of silicone tubing and bitsy little membranes that needed to be sterilized and not lost track of. It was hard, physically and emotionally. But I learned so much more about myself and about love and sacrifice than I would have if I had had that extra month to “prepare.”

So, yes, DO THE LOVE THING NOW is a big part of my spirituality in general, at least for now. For me, “Oh, hang on, I’m still preparing” is just an excuse, and I’m really just goofing off and hoping I look busy. All too often, I’ll try to put my responsibilities off indefinitely, calling it “preparation,” but halfway hoping I’ll get let off the hook, and, when the acceptable hour arrives, I won’t have to do it at all.

Or else, if I do throw myself into preparations, I feel so obnoxiously proud of myself that I become completely insufferable, and give myself way more credit than I deserve. Well, bringing home that dark-haired little baby without even a bag of diapers to our name, I felt God poke me and say, “Hey. If this works out, you’ll know it wasn’t because of you.” Got it!

But that’s just me and my issues. If approaching Advent this way doesn’t work for you, that’s fine. Everyone has a different lesson to learn, different bad habits to correct for, different defects to fill out — and different kinds of encouragement and sustenance that God wants to give you, too. Whatever it is that you need, Advent can help. Or if not, the next liturgical part of the year can. Cycles are great that way.

Now where’s my ha’penny? I was promised a ha’penny.


Photo by Sanjasy via Pixabay

Drip, drip, drip.

I had a dream, and I’ll tell you what it meant, because it might be meant for you.

Quick disclaimer: I think that dreams are mainly a way for the quieter part of your brain to tug at the sleeve of the noisier part of your brain, and to say, “Hey, shut up for a second. Here’s what we really think and feel about The Thing.”

As I’ve said in the past,

Sleep is a place where the supernatural, the natural, and the occult can all get a leg in.  Aquinas  acknowledges that God occasionally communicates with people in their dreams.  But I’ve also heard many people say that they or their children had persistent dreams of malevolent rats, spiders, snakes, or other fearsome creatures — and that these disappeared after the room was blessed or some occult influence was rejected.

But most dreams are just your own mind at work.  If my subconscious takes the trouble to put on a memorable show about something when I’m asleep, then it’s often something I really need to deal with; and so, especially with disturbing dreams, I make an effort to decode them.

The other day, I dreamt a long, long dream about running and hot air balloons and factories and meddling kids; but the whole time, I was putting off looking under the kitchen sink.

In real life, I have, in fact, been putting off looking under the sink, because I know it’s dripping. But in my dream, I got down on the floor and opened up the cabinet. I saw that there was a little valve controlling the drip, and I was pretty annoyed that it was such a simple fix. Why didn’t we just take care of this sooner? So I tightened it right up, and–

WHOOOSSSSSSHHHHH. The water came gushing out in a horrible flood. Oh, no, I must have turned it the wrong way! So I quickly tightened it up in the other direction, as far as it would go, and–


So, I put it back the way it was.

It wasn’t easy, either. You had to get the position just exactly right, and there wasn’t any wiggle room at all. It took a really light touch to get the balance perfect, to keep it from gushing and spewing and wrecking my entire kitchen.

And once I got it in just the right spot, it was still leaking. But at least it was a slow leak. And I knew I could live with that, at least for the time being. It couldn’t go on that way forever, but I was right up against the end of the dream, so I had to let it be for now.

I share this with you because it is November. Thanksgiving, Advent, Christmas. For lots of people, this means yummy cinnamon smells and twinkly lights and hot chocolate by a fire. For lots of other people, who don’t live between the pages of Real Simple magazine, this time of year means having way too much to do. Way way way too much to do. Even way too many truly important things to do, even after we simplify and prioritize and trim off all the nice but extraneous things we’d like to do.

A good many of us are going to find ourselves not getting everything done — important things, vital things. We are going to walk around with a sense of guilt and dread because we know there is this steady drip-drip-drip of failures going on behind the cabinet doors; and we’re probably beating ourselves up for not getting down to business and taking care of it, you lazy, irresponsible bum.

But I’m here to tell you: It’s probably not your fault. It’s probably not a matter of just forcing yourself to squat down and adjust things until it’s all nice and tight and tidy and taken care of. Right now, probably that can’t be done. It’s just not a tidy time, and that’s not your fault.

Not only is it not your fault, but you’re probably already working really hard, and employing a lot of skill and talent and a delicate touch, to keep it that drip of failure as slow as it is. So let it drip! You can definitely revisit it later; but don’t blame yourself for not doing things that no one person could do. There is such a thing as doing everything you’re supposed to do and still failing. All of your hard work is keeping that drip slow. Good work, you.

Does this apply to everyone? No, it does not. Some people do need to work harder, get their acts together, and make a bunch of adjustments so that things get better. If you’re not sure about your own situation, then write down all the things you’re supposed do every day and ask yourself if you’d expect someone else to do them all perfectly. If not, then lay off yourself. Let it drip.

We’ll give the final work to the poet Spike Jones:

Maybe it’s not your fault. Maybe you’ve just met your Water Lou!


Don’t bother lying to God

When my mother was a new Christian, she was in with a crowd that put great stock in outward appearances. Since she had many more kids and much less money than everyone else, she felt horribly self-conscious about her house, which was shabby and cluttered despite her constant housekeeping. She got in the habit of saying, if someone stopped by, “Oh, please excuse the house. We’ve been away all day and I haven’t had a chance to tidy up!” or “Sorry about the mess around here! The kids have been sick and I’m so behind.”

Then one day, she just got sick of it. The smarmiest, must judgmental neighbor of all happened to drop in, and she said, “Well, I’m sorry about the house. This is how we live.”

I wish I knew the rest of the story. Did the judgy woman gasp and flee? Did she tell everyone that Mrs. P. lives like a pig and isn’t even ashamed of it? Did she (it’s possible) think, “Wow, that’s kind of refreshing. Someone just told me the truth”? It’s possible that the woman was even grateful that someone trusted her with some difficult information. It’s possible she went away and asked herself why it was that people felt they needed to lie to her.

Telling the truth is says something about us, and also something about the person we’re talking to. When we tell the truth, its a risk to ourselves, but also a great compliment to them.

The older I get, the less patience I have for people who try to shine me on. It feels rude to be lied to. Do you think I’m too dumb to know the truth? Too weak? Too shallow? Who has time for pretense? There’s so much nonsense in the world that we can’t get around. Why add to it by pretending to be someone we’re not?

I’ll tell you something. God is even older than I am, and he has even less interest in hearing lies. My brother Joe tells about a priest who had a big problem. And he was mad. Mad at the world, mad at his situation, and mad at God. So every day, he went into the adoration chapel, knelt before the Sacrament, and told the truth: “I don’t love you, God.”

Every day, every day he did this. Until one day he said it, and he realized it wasn’t true anymore.

I’d like to know the rest of that story, too. I do know that it’s never useful to lie to God. It’s never useful to lie to ourselves about what our relationship with God is. It’s never useful to run away from God, and refuse to talk to him, if we feel like we can’t say the right things or feel the right things. No one has time for that, and it’s an insult to God to even try it. If you feel like you have to hide, then tell him that. If you feel that he’s not fair, tell him that. If you aren’t even sure he exists, tell him that. There’s no time for anything less than the truth.

Utter honesty is a luxury we do not always have with the rest of the world. Civility, duty, and charity often demand that we reserve such blunt honesty from other people, at least most of the time. So do what you need to do when you’re presenting yourself to the rest of the world. Sometimes it’s appropriate to lay it all out there; sometimes you will want or need to be a little more guarded.

But not with God. Never with God. Go ahead and tell him, as you open your front door, “This is just how I live.” It doesn’t relieve you of the responsibility of changing things, if that’s what needs to happen; but God will not help you change until you are willing to talk to him about where you are. He is a gentleman. He only comes in where He is invited. Honesty is an invitation he always accepts.


Image By Miguel Discart (2014-04-05_14-13-49_NEX-6_DSC08220) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Life is too short for bad sex with a good husband.

This is the greatest letter I’ve gotten in a million years. It’s from MightyMighty atLetters To Us. I’ve bolded the best lines. She mentions Greg Popcak’s excellent bookHoly Sex, which I’ve been meaning to review for a long time; and also references theReal Catholic Love and Sex blog, which is full of good and honest discussions. Here’s the letter:

I don’t want to be a freaky fan girl, but would like to take a sec to tell you how awesome your book is. I read it during a loooooong period of abstinence after our 3rd was born. It was sort of funny the way it worked out. I was reading a book about how sex is good and not a joke on women & reading similar things on realCatholicloveandsex.com [now apparently defunct – leads to porn site!]. All while waiting for some clear signs of fertility to start showing up so that we could chart. By the time it happened at 11 months postpartum, I was actually enthusiastic about sex for the first time since before our first was born.

Normally my interest is completely tied to what’s going on with me physically, but thanks to your book, I’ve realized how that’s not being very loving–it lowers sex into something that is just about scratching an itch. If it’s really about love, it is worth making the effort to be together throughout whatever parts of the month are open to the couple. My husband has now read your book (he wanted to understand the huge change in attitude) and he is working on making some similar changes himself. We’re both pretty guilty of first asking, “Am I in the mood?” instead of asking what our spouse/marriage needs in this moment. I pointed out, “We don’t do that about other things that are good for us, like exercising or paying the bills or eating. Maybe we ought to stop acting like being together is as optional as watching Netflix together.”

I feel like reading Popcak’s “Holy Sex” helped me start shedding some of the prudery I had about sex being a little bit frivolous/selfish and your book helped me shed the rest of it + the poisoning lies the culture teaches about sex. (Men are animals, women are the gatekeepers, sex is mostly about getting pleasure, God sorta hates women for setting them up for either 20 pregnancies or no sex when their hormones are cooperating, etc.) At some point I thought, “Life is too short for bad sex with a good husband. I am going to get to middle and old age and really regret spending the healthiest years of my life this way, just like I already regret spending my teens and twenties dressing like a frump.”

My dad died at 61 last year and my mom just said last week, “I really regret not lavishing more affection on your father. He shouldn’t have had to coax me. I should have been more….[hand gesture indicating va-va-voom]! He deserved that!” I was shocked, but glad to see that it’s really never too late to get a healthier view on sex.


PIC dancing peasant couple

In another letter, she says:


It was very helpful to read your (semi-sarcastic) comments about developing some skill in bed. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has put minimal effort into any session that I was participating in out of duty/charity. I find that putting in the same effort as I do when I’m all gung-ho (when I’d honestly rather just read in bed) takes the session (is there a better word??) from kind-of-degrading-to-both-of-us-because-I-feel-used-and-he-feels-judged to just as good as when I was up for it. For whatever reason, I needed permission to stop acting like a prude and start trusting that my husband wouldn’t be scandalized by me being enthusiastic.

I now realize that acting like sex is dirty if it’s too enthusiastic gives power to the smutty culture that reduces sex to “consensual pleasure.” God made sex awesome and me participating in it fully is good, not dirty. What’s dirty is when two married people feel smug for having sex without having given each other their all, including the trust needed to let go, unconditional acceptance for each other’s everything, and the effort to really be generous with one another, not just their fertility. Good job! You ate a protein bar at a 5 star restaurant! You went to Italy and never left the hotel! Good job, you’re Catholic and you still managed to separate love from sex!


 So smart. Thanks, MightyMighty!