Update

My apologies for another long gap between posts. Life has been a little busy lately and I haven’t had time to keep up with this personal blog.

A lot of the reason why things have been so busy is that in January I launched a not-for-profit apostolate: L’Alto Catholic Institute (laltocatholic.com). The core of our mission is to team up with parishes to help them become more effective at forming missionary disciples in their community.

Please pray for the fruitfulness of this new endeavor, and if you were so inclined, consider becoming one of our Partners in Mission and support our ministry financially at laltocatholic.com/donate.

 

On Holy Contentedness

discontent

One of my favorite Old Testament stories is of the prophet Elijah squaring off against the prophets of Baal. In this scene, these two adversaries have set up a challenge for themselves, or, rather, their gods. They will each prepare a sacrifice, and whichever is set on fire by their prayer will indicate whose God is the true God. The prophets of Baal begin praying first, because Elijah is confident like that, and they begin wailing and begging for fire to come down on their wood. Redoubling their efforts, they then begin hopping around the fire, dancing frantically, pleading for their god to reveal Himself. Finally, in a last ditch effort, they slash at their own flesh with swords, hoping their blood offering will please their god and obtain for them their desire.

Following their futile efforts, Elijah actually has his helpers pour water on his sacrifice, and then simply steps up to it, and quietly prays, “Lord, answer my prayer so that these people will know that you, Lord, are God.” Fire consumes the entire sacrifice and the people fall to the ground exclaiming, “The LORD is God.”

This story sums up the entirety of the dynamics of the human heart throughout history. Every fallen human person has attempted to find something other than God that can be their meaning and their hope. Each of us lives with an idol sitting at the center of our hearts until we make the profound decision to place Jesus there instead. This story reveals the futility and the danger of this broken dynamic. Every idol promises something it cannot do. Power, money, honor, fame, pleasure all promise that they will give us ultimate rest, peace, contentment, joy, fulfillment and they are utterly unable deliver on that promise. What begins as a simple turn toward an idol as our ultimate meaning continues in a frantic search, as even though the idol does not satisfy, we press in further, hoping that just a little MORE of whatever it is we worship, is actually the answer. It’s not that objectively our idol cannot fulfill, it’s just that we don’t have ENOUGH of it yet, right? Finally, once we are in deep enough, our idols actually begin to hurt: creating addictions, destroying relationships, injuring our health.

The point of this article is to detect some of the subtle indications that idolatry has taken root in us. I think whenever we find ourselves in our life struggling with a sort of bored, generalized, immaterial discontedness, we have found ourselves in a place where idols have begun to dominate our heart’s longings. Holy discontent is absolutely a good thing; it leads to repentance. A vague ennui with life that looks for the next vacation or big purchase to give us the adrenaline shot we need to feel a sense of purpose is not. If you find yourself constantly looking at new jobs and new cities to live in thinking that they might lead to greater peace and fulfillment for your life, this article might be for you.

Even more pressingly, for those who have followed the Lord for awhile, this kind of discontentedness could be a sign that acedia or sloth has slipped into our spiritual lives. Acedia is a sadness at the Good, particularly the Good of a relationship with God rooted in the silence of prayer. Sometimes characterized by inactivity, in our world, it is actually more likely to be found in hyperactivity. The inability to be silent, constantly turned toward the portal of distraction, the smartphone, is the chief sign that we have given into acedia. “Since there is no chief or ultimate good to be found in simply being, I will at least allow myself to be titillated by a click-bait article from Buzzfeed,” is the logic of acedia. Or, maybe more accurately, “Since finding and following the peace of the chief and ultimate good is really hard and requires real sacrifice, I will at least allow myself to be titillated by a click-bait article from Buzzfeed.”

The logic of Elijah is different. His presence in the story is serene, confident. He simply waits, then asks. I think that part of the antidote to our boredom might be simply allowing ourselves to be content. Letting down with our frantic efforts and simply spending like ten minutes a day just Being Enough and Having Enough. Letting our crazed, busy, materialistic lives settle long enough to halt all desire for anything other than God. Taking time to internalize and believe that, “I don’t need to think about any of the 300 other things I think I need to do today, I just need you Lord,” could be the most profound thing we do this week. This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad IN IT. Today, I am content with what I have been given. If it is true, as St. Augustine said, that, “In all my desiring, I was desiring You,” then we as Christians need to live that way.

The repercussions of this even apply to our work life. “Never be in a hurry, do everything in a quiet and calm spirit,” St. Francis de Sales tells us. If achievement at work, getting the things done that we think we need to get done so that we can advance in our careers, is our main goal, then our work will be cramped, anxious, and unsettling. We can only find this kind of tranquility in our professions if our trust is in the Lord to take care of us even in terms of our worldly needs, instead of in our own efforts.

Isn’t this the logic of the manger and the stable? Maybe this is why people in our culture still cling to Christmas; though encroached on by materialism, it still stands as a beacon of possibility that there is more to life than the hustle and bustle of work-a-day life. While the greats of the ancient world chaotically pursue wealth, power, honor, Meaning Himself entered through the backdoor. He spends His first night of life on Earth serenely cared for by His parents in peaceful and watchful attentiveness. All is calm.

The Definitive Ranking of “O Holy Nights”

It is a well-documented and self-evident Christmas fact that O Holy Night is the greatest of all the Christmas hymns. This 19th century carol packs in some of the most richly theological lyrics around, (“Long lay the world in sin and error pining/til He appeared and the soul felt its worth,” remains one of the most compelling two-line kerygmas I have ever heard) and combines them with its famous goose-bump raising melody.

It is no surprise, then, that dozens of celebrities throughout the years have recorded versions of this Christmas classic. This song has been done by everyone from NSync (a cappella) and Leona Lewis to Bing Crosby and Vince Gill. As a “O Holy Night” connoisseur, I have taken it upon myself to provide the definitive top five ranking of these various versions so that you will know how to navigate properly your holiday listening experience. Enjoy!

Top 5 “O Holy Nights”

5) Josh Garrels from The Light Came Down the-light-came-down

Josh Garrels is a Portland-based indie folk singer-songwriter known for his own heart-wrenching lyrics and complex song arrangements. Garrels puts that producer-hat to good use in crafting this funky remake of O Holy Night which sounds like it should be grooved to sitting in a Pacific Northwest bar-that-used-to-be-a-Lutheran-church sipping on a bourbon egg nog with all of your other hipster friends.

4) Mariah Carey from Merry Christmas

mariah

Perhaps our most controversial inclusion in this list comes from this artist more Christmas-famous for her ubiquitous during December “All I Want for Christmas is You.” The former Queen of Pop breaks it down in this tune with a mix of 90s pop sounds and a whole lot of rock organ. What her arrangement lacks in good old fashioned holy reverence, it makes up in nasty vocal runs and an ineffable quality known as “getting after it.” Try to tell me her last belted out diviiiiiiine doesn’t give you goosebumps.

3) Celtic Woman from Christmas celtic-woman

Anyone familiar with Celtic Woman knows that their greatest quality is their clear and beautifully lilting voices lending themselves to perfect harmonies. This works really, really well with Christmas hymns and especially “O Holy Night.” This is the version to weep to driving home from midnight Mass.

2) Nat King Cole from The Christmas Songnkc

Nat King Cole = Christmas so no real list of any kind of Christmas song would be complete without tossing it up to NKC for a second. This was a tough decision because it is possible that Perry Como’s version is just a tad better, but in the end the King of Christmas Songs gets the nod.

1) Josh Groban from Noel 

grobanSay what you will about my man Grobes (he’s my father-in-law’s archnemesis), but the dude can sing. This Youtube video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Zh-yR0pbmU) with Groban’s version set to shots from the movie The Nativity Story has almost eight million views at the time of this writing, so I think the people themselves have spoken.

Which versions of O Holy Night would you have thrown in the top five? How did our list do? Comments below!

Creating Safe Spaces for Our Hearts

Note: this article originally ran on my friend’s new web map The Digital Continent. The site will be updated monthly, and you can go check out the first two issues at thedigitalcontinent.space

One of the most publicized and overly discussed stories of the past year was the creation of “safe spaces” on certain college campuses where triggering or harmful language could not be used. Generally, the definition of what constituted such language is nebulous and the very existence of these safe spaces was confusing and disturbing for almost anyone who is not currently 18-22 years old. They are essentially zones where students could feel safe and assured that they would not encounter any speech that might make them feel uncomfortable.

Following quickly on the heels of the forming of these “safe spaces” was a fundamental discussion about speech across the Internet (because that’s what we do these days) as pundits and that guy from high school you still can’t believe you follow on Facebook alike tried to analyze and understand what would become of our great nation if this is how the rising generation acts. Certainly, the threats to free speech posed by the culture of college campuses these days are troubling and it really is hard to conceive of a world in which shoe color can be triggering, but far more interesting is the fundamental spiritual dynamic at work in these scenarios, and, most importantly: how often do we act this way with God?


Guilt and shame are some of the most powerful human emotions and because both are so uncomfortable, they tend to be sublimated and stuffed by most distracted post-moderns only to rear their heads in strange and often ugly ways. That powerful feeling of “having done wrong” or, worse, “being wrong” does not just go away simply because we tried to binge drink it into oblivion.

Each person is aware, at some level, of their own guilty-ness. It is a fundamental human trait and one of the great proofs for the existence of God. There is a moral law, and I’ve broken it. Those who do not relate this way, we refer to as sociopaths.

For guilt being such a common human emotion, we tend to be super disordered when it comes to handling it. When someone shines light on this guiltiness of ours, we howl with displeasure at having been exposed and hurl accusations back. Furthermore, we are hypocrites about this guilt. We pore through magazines, titillated by the stories of recent celebrity wrong-doing. “How could they,” we wonder, “I would never do something like that,” and then carry on in our myriad unhealthy behavior patterns (for example, reading celebrity magazines). We blast our horn at the guy who cuts us off in traffic and then next week hop up on the freeway’s shoulder because we are late to work. We love pointing at other’s guilt; we do everything we can to make sure no one ever sees our own.

This childish game comes unraveled when it encounters the story of salvation history. God Himself, we are told, died so that those deep pangs of wrongness can be alleviated, not just emotionally, but in truth. The clouds of shame which hang over every moment of our existence, the everything being colored by that one ugly detail that we ourselves are sinners, is wiped out by one sheerly gratuitous act accepted in the profession of faith and the waters of Baptism. If I have died with Christ, I live. I am no longer guilty. All the wrong things I did are gone forever, and God makes things even better than had I not done them in the first place.

The human tendency remains, however, to refuse to confront our guilt at all costs. We try instead to eradicate these feelings by chasing them away with our own efforts at “being good.” “I will be good enough, perfect enough, enough-enough for God so that I make up for everything I’ve done.” In doing so, we step back outside of the basic structure of God’s plan for us. We create “safe spaces” for our hearts.

You can’t say that to me here. You can’t look into the depths and find the evil that lurks there.

The bad cannot be confronted, lived in, and accepted. I am a sinner. I have done wrong. We chase away our own feelings of doubt in our own goodness because we believe that the moment we expose our bad-ness, we are no longer worthy of love, acceptance, intimacy. At some point, we become so lost in our own self-perfecting efforts that we have caked our souls in the bitter chill of a self-sufficient pride which puffs itself up all the while painfully aware of its own inadequacy.

The only relationship with God worth having, and the only satisfying one, is the one that refuses to create zones in our life that cannot be uncovered by God and loved back into life.


I recently was having a conversation with a newly ordained priest and the chatting turned to something St. Josemaria Escriva said. I quipped something along the lines of the idea that Escriva could have saved himself a lot of time and verbiage by instead just opening book, writing, “You suck,” and then moving on. My newly-ordained friend took this in humble stride but did not miss a chance to educate my ignorance. Escriva, he said, is actually misunderstood because of our cultural differences, much like Pope Francis. He doesn’t talk the way we do and so we don’t get him. We especially miss his whole tone because of the religious roots of our country in Puritanism. We see any mention of sinfulness or weakness as “too fire and brimstone.” To the Spaniard Escriva, all of his talk of Be a Man! is less about chastisement and more about admonition. Love for his spiritual children drives him to attempt to stir their consciences so as to save them from their mediocrity, like a father would. We are all the proverbial burnout sitting in our parents basement getting high and playing COD and Escriva just wants more than that for us. I got that, and I loved it. Perhaps God is this kind of Father, too.

These college kids, raised in a culture in which perfection is demanded at every moment by each and every social media account they possess, simply cannot function if they are not spotless. They shatter under any potential word that might expose a weakness or a flaw. If there are chinks in the armor, then they cannot live. St. Paul boasts in his weakness because Christ, and not his own ego, is glorified in it. He knows that his flaws and his sin alike are not obstacles to the saving work of God. Not at all. They are the problem which finds their solution in Christ. But no half-hearted self-salvation is going to allow real fruit to enter into our lives and so at some point, God will dispose us of the illusion that we can save ourselves by our own action. He will bring us to a place where the only remaining option is to know deeply our own wrongness, and let Him save us.

 

 

Seasons of Rain – for Catholic Teens

NOTE: below is a brief reflection I wrote for a friend’s new website. This site, called Carpe Verbum, is a Catholic teenager’s step-by-step guide to a daily prayer life, which is rooted in the Word of God. It teaches them the ancient practice of Lectio Divina by offering them daily reflections on the Mass readings. You can find it at carpeverbum.org or simply text CARPE to 84576 to get the reflections straight to your phone. 

Do you feel God close to you right now?

As you’ve stayed faithful and persevered in this commitment to encountering the Lord daily in prayer, you have probably noticed that sometimes when you go to pray, your heart and mind are filled with beautiful reflections and peace and your soul just widens to love God. You leave prayer refreshed and joyful and courageous, ready to become a saint.

Other times, you go to prayer and God is curiously absent. You struggle to even sit still for 15 minutes and for the most part, your soul is filled with doubts and sadness. You feel distant, far away from God. Is He even real? Does He even love me? If He does, why does He leave me feeling like this?

Maybe the second experience is really common for you right now. Maybe you’re in what one of my favorite musicians Josh Garrels calls a Season of Rain. The experience of feeling alone, lost, and confused, far away from God is what the spiritual writers call “Desolation.” It can come for one of 3 reasons 1) Sin: have I committed mortal sin recently? 2) Negligence: Have I not been consistent in prayer? 3) Growth: God as a loving Father is calling me out into the desert in order to help me become more than I am right now spiritually.

I want to focus on the third type of desolation. Sometimes God allows us to experience dryness so that our thirst for Him becomes more apparent. We realize how much we need him. Penny and Sparrow, another famous musician, put these words in the mouth of God: If I get you alone/I promise you I’ll turn the light on/And if you feel the dark/Come close to me, your heart’s adjusting.

Often, our experience of abandonment is actually doing more good for us spiritually than our experience of fullness, if we allow ourselves to actually use it and don’t let it become an occasion to doubt God’s goodness. Even in the midst of desolation, you’re still with God, you just can’t feel Him. In desolation, we realize the only thing we really need is God, and that’s exactly where He wants us. He has to get us alone, away from all of the things that we normally lean on. In Hosea, God says about you, the love of His life, “I will call her into the desert, and there I will speak to her heart.”

The problem is that we, just like the Israelites after leaving Egypt, so often use desolation as an occasion to turn back toward our idols. We lose trust in God, and thinking He has abandoned us just because we haven’t had warm fuzzies in the last, like, 10 minutes, turn back toward our comfortable patterns of sin.

Recently, I got stithces. Before stitching me up, they numbed my finger and it hurt like crazy. While my finger was numb, the doctor got to work closing up my cut with four stitches, but I didn’t feel a thing. This is what God is often doing with desolation. We don’t feel anything happening, but, really, the Divine Physician is binding up the wounds in our heart. Just because we don’t feel it happening doesn’t mean that it’s not effective!

We have to trust in God that He has our best interest in mind at all times, and, if we’re feeling distant from Him, and it’s not because of our own sin or negligence, then we should still cling to Him in our times of desolation, knowing that He still loves us and is closer to us than we realize.

Recklessly

NOTE: the following is something my wife, Maggie wrote. As you can tell, she’s much smarter, holier, and awesomer than I. Enjoy!

skiing

I recently attended an event at a nearby parish that offered praise and worship and Eucharistic adoration. While I stood (well, paced) in the back, trying to get my 10 month old to sleep in her sling, I was struck by the thought while looking at the Eucharist that “Our God loves us recklessly.”  I must confess, I was initially hesitant to share the thought at the risk of sounding a bit like a bumper sticker (in the same genre as the “1 Cross + 3 nails = 4given one), but it was an occasion for the Lord to show me areas of needed growth, so share away I shall.

That evening of adoration came on the heels of a good confession with a very holy priest, who, after offering absolution, advised me in his very thick Polish accent, “My sister, the secret to a good marriage is giving without counting the cost.”
Not counting the cost. Necessary for married life, but also for the Christian life at large. I mulled over these two thoughts for the following weeks: God loves us recklessly; what if I loved like that? Loved Him, loved others that way? And similarly: Where am I “counting the cost”? 
I felt the push to grow, starting with recognizing the areas in which I was being a penny pincher, with God, with others, and, quite literally, with the Church.
With God 
   God desires first priority in our lives. We need Him to be in that place. While giving dedicated time generously in prayer is of obvious importance, and an area for careful examination of how you are choosing to spend your time, the area of growth for me was less in how much I was praying but simply how I was praying (don’t get me wrong, I can definitely use more discipline in time spent too).
St. John of the Cross said, “Deny your desires and you will find what your heart longs for.” I remember first reading that and thinking, “that’s a little Buddhist of you, St. John.” Thankfully, I read this within the context of a book explaining St. John’s writings, which helped me to understand his point: Our desire for God must be in the first place in our hearts. Other desires, even very good desires, have to fall underneath that primary one. Denying all other desires that first place is not denying their goodness or the fact they are necessary in your life, but instead just keeping the proper order in your heart. “Put God in first and everything else falls into place.” Where are the areas that you spend most of your emotional energy? What do you find yourself thinking about all the time? What causes you anxiety? I found it helpful to take the answers to those questions, and pray specifically for the grace to “deny (blank) the first place in my heart, which is reserved for you, Lord.”
   I recognized that I had become too worried/focused in certain areas and lacked the generosity to mindfully put God first in my heart, not just when I go to pray, but in what I spend my emotions/thoughts on. It was amazing to find the amount of peace that comes with properly ordering your heart!
With Others 
    There are countless opportunities to “give without counting the cost” in relationships and, in particular, family life. Frustration, impatience, feeling under appreciated – all these can point to having adopted a disposition of “counting the cost.” I am not saying being a door mat is a good idea. I do think that taking a moment when emotions of frustration or bitterness pop up to ask if a greater generosity on your part is needed could be helpful! The key is the thought process which begins with a focus on the other, not yourself. In the Gospels, how often we hear of Christ reaching out to society’s outcasts, literally touching those considered unclean so as to heal them. The focus in those encounters is on the other.That’s the difference in the story of the Good Samaritan – he didn’t allow the fact that helping the robbed man may negatively impact him as far as how he was perceived, delay his journey, or empty his wallet deter him from being generous.
  I’ve tried to be conscientious of feelings like I mentioned and not to operate from that spot. Even when we feel hurt by someone, trying to begin with the other still applies. If I’m tired after working an evening shift and then being home with a teething baby the next day, that’s not license to be upset that my husband is tired too after work. Yes, we’re human, but “if we have died with Christ we shall also live with Him”. Don’t be “frugal” with loving others- love generously!
With the Church
       This one was the most practical lesson I learned. Figuring out tithing can be difficult –  is it really 10%? and 10% of what, my gross income or what I actually take home? Can I take it out of what’s left after debt payments?
 A couple priests have recently mentioned to me that their churches are growing with young adults (which is awesome!) but that this is a population that tends to neither register with a parish or tithe (at least not consistently). Confession #1 – my husband and I parish hopped in Michigan for nearly 2 years before registering at a parish and #2 for most of that time, our tithing was extremely haphazard. So, tip #1 – if you haven’t registered at parish, do it! and #2 most churches have made it easy with online giving – eliminate the need to remember each week!
  The question as to “how much” is a tougher one, and I certainly don’t know how to give a clear cut answer on it; everyone’s financial situation is different. The whole point of this though is learning to give generous and, dare I say it, recklessly – so here’s where I came to with this question, with a little help from Genesis: “In the course of time Cain brought an offering to the Lord from the fruit of his soil, while Abel, for his part, brought one of the best firstlings of his flock.” – Gen 4:3. Maybe talking with a priest or someone who you respect and believe to be of generous heart would be helpful in figuring out what “firstling” you should be offering; I think the point is, you should feel the pinch. Cain gave what he felt very comfortable giving, Abel gave his best. It does require a trust in God, and that He will provide for you – and that doesn’t necessarily mean that if you give 10% He will give you ten fold back in the material things of this world. Keeping mindful of building up treasure in heaven is necessary.
     In all these areas, asking God for the grace to grow is a must-do; we can’t do it on our own, and we don’t have to. With a God who loves us generously and recklessly enough to come to us in the form of bread and wine, we can trust that He will help us to stop penny pinching with our hearts, and learn to also give without counting the cost.

The 7 Most Common Mistakes You Can Make While Discerning Your Vocation

Please pray for my new venture: L’Alto Catholic Institute (laltocatholic.com). Our mission is to help parishes form disciples. Click the link for more info!

kid praying-181x200

In my late teens and early twenties, following a pretty significant conversion, the question of my vocation began to loom heavily over my entire spiritual journey. A prolonged pitched battle with God ensued in which I strained mightily (and in vain) for perfect clarity and knowledge of whether I was called to the priesthood. My personal conversion, at the end of my senior year in high school, was prompted largely by the examples of great and holy men who were themselves priests and, so, for me, the attraction to that particular calling was inevitable. Even as a married man and father now, I still have deep respect for the priesthood and continue to think of it as a beautiful way of life.

Due to my well-publicized (at least within my group of friends) struggle with discerning my vocation, others have often referred discerners who have hit similar roadblocks that I had at times to me so that I might help them sort out some of what they are going through. Consistently, these young men (and women) who are discerning whether they are called to the religious life, by the time I meet them, are, frankly, exhausted. Discouraged. Confused. Caught in their own brains. What could and, really, should be this quiet and still discovery of the path in life the Father has carved out for us, leading to a more free, expansive, and trusting relationship with Him, ends up being the occasion for less peace. Why is that?

It seems to me that the frustration surrounding vocational discernment is one of the easiest tricks the Devil can use to close a devout soul off to God. The Devil always tells half-truths. He is not going to tempt these earnest young Catholics who ardently desire to do God’s will with grave sin, but instead will use their otherwise good desire to find out what God desires from them and shift it, thwart it, with little lies or by encouraging certain mistakes. Some of the most common ones that seem to come up time and again, I’ve listed in the article below.

What was funny about my personal discernment was that I got weirdly meta about it. I realized figuring out my vocation was becoming more difficult for me than it probably should be and so I got kinda intrigued by my own own struggle. Why is this so hard for me, I thought, and so became aware of some of the mistakes I was making in discerning my own vocation. I offer them to you here so that they might be a helpful examination of conscience in how you are going about this process. I hope none of these are too controversial and if I hyperbolize in order to make my point, forgive me.

1. Adopting the mentality the religious life is the only path to holiness and that marriage is an easy way out for lesser Catholics

It’s amazing how often I hear this kind of thinking from people. I definitely struggled with this mentality myself as well. Feeling within myself a radical desire for holiness, to be totally united to Christ, I assumed that I was called to be a priest. This notion is one of those half-truths that I mentioned above. Is celibacy an objectively higher vocational calling? Yes. That is just sound theology. St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, makes a distinction, however, between the highest objective calling and the highest calling for me. The best vocation for you is the one to which God is calling you. If you are being called to marriage, then God wants to use marriage to make you holier than if you follow your own wisdom into the celibate calling just because it is the objectively higher calling.

I look forward to the day when we as a Church finally but to death the myth that lay people are called to live “normal” lives. You weren’t baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ to pursue worldly aims and self-centered ambitions. You’re a new creation. Priests are called to radical holiness. Nuns are called to radical holiness. And, finally, and emphatically, lay Catholics, single or married, are called to radical holiness.

2. Not having a spiritual director OR having too many of them

A spiritual director is crucial for discerning a vocation. You simply need one. Let me be as clear as possible, if you are trying to discern a religious vocation right now, and do not have a spiritual director, find one immediately. When you look for one, keep this in mind as well from John of the Cross. Find one who is knowledgeable in addition to being holy. Holiness is obviously important, but you also need someone who understands the principles of discernment and has some wisdom born from experience as well. Do not go into your head alone without someone who can tell you what is from God and what is just you being crazy.

Also, once you have a spiritual director, listen to them. Don’t waste their time by venting your entire situation to them and then not following their advice. One of the worst things you can do to after hearing your spiritual director’s advice is the, “Yeah, but…” If they are telling you to try something you’re not comfortable with, like taking a break from discernment or pushing yourself in some other way, be obedient while trying to understand why they are asking you to consider whatever it is they are telling you. Don’t pridefully disregard their advice.

The other side of this coin is making the mistake of allowing yourself to have too many spiritual directors. The spiritual director is a privileged position reserved for one priest or nun in whose hands you feel confident placing your spiritual life. You need to follow the advice and prompting of the Holy Spirit in your prayer and then the Holy Spirit speaking through your spiritual director, not your mom, uncle, best friend, three of the ladies at daily mass, and a few other friends you met on r/Catholicism. How are you going to distinguish God’s voice if you are just filling yourself with everyone’s advice? You’ll just keep bouncing back and forth. Usually, when you’re looking for advice from too many people, you’re just looking for someone to agree with you. Or maybe I’m projecting? I’m probably just projecting.

Along these lines, as a p.s.:  you’re not called to be a priest just because some of the old ladies at your church told you that you’d make a great one. No offense, but they say that to everyone. 🙂

3. Thinking about your discernment too much.

Potentially, the greatest mistake you can make in discernment is making your entire spiritual life about this one decision. I have seen so many people essentially put their relationship with God on hold because they are so worried about what He wants from them. If all you do every time you go to pray is constantly see every grace you receive in light of whether it means you are suppposed to be a nun or not, then: 1) you are going to fray your nerves and 2) you are not going to actually grow at all. If the entire point of the spiritual life is growing in a union with Christ, then myopic fixation on this one question is going to be harmful to that process, and you know who wants that? Well, you can figure that out I suppose.

What would a marriage look like if all you ever did was ask your spouse where they wanted to go to dinner that night? No conversation, no laughter, just brass tax: where are we gonna go eat tonight, that’s all I care about.

One of the reasons this is dangerous is because if you obsess about this decision and never actually live life, you’re making a decision without any new information but also without being a new you. This is where people get stuck in discernment. They’re just constantly sifting through the same one or two thoughts and experiences hoping to squeeze more discernment juice out of them. If you’re stuck, you need new and fresh insight, not just the same thought analyzed from a million different directions.

Don’t miss the forest for the trees. You’re not going to be able to read the map if your nose is constantly a half-inch from it. It’s just going to blur your vision. When your heart starts to feel cramped, small, fearful, and fretful, you need to back up and just learn how to be in love with God again. Then dive back in.

4. “If I don’t pick the right vocation, I’ll never be really happy.”

For some reason, this is every speaker on vocation’s favorite line. If you don’t follow the vocation God has for you, you will never be truly happy in this life. Here is another of those half-truths. Is there a sense in which God’s calling for you is your path to ultimate fulfillment and joy? Absolutely. Is this line also extremely unhelpful to an 18 year old? You bet.

The amount of pressure this line puts on a young person to “get it right” cannot be overstated. The idea that the possiblity of ever being happy or holy hinges on this one decision that is happening at the outset of your adult life is overwhelming to most young Catholics.

God the Father challenges and encourages (like a dad teaching his kid to ride a bike) but He is also gentle, loving, and, most importantly, always faithful. This is the same God who St. Therese tells us takes our sins and, in His Mercy, uses them as rungs on the ladder to Heaven for us. Is He really going to banish us to a lifetime of misery and sin just because we “did not make the right decision?” It’s neither helpful to a discerner, nor entirely true. Or at least missing significant explanation.

What this line also does is make it seem like vocations exist primarily to make you happy in the sense that life will never be hard, or unfair, or fraught with suffering. That’s just not the point of vocations. Marriage, priesthood, the religious life are all places where good people choose to go to die. Jesus Christ’s vocation was to die for others. Yours is too and that’s often quite painful. The Old Self doesn’t go quietly. He howls and shrieks and begs us not to let go of Him. I have died with Christ that I might live with Him. This total breaking open of our heart that allows for charity to be poured in, ultimately, is blessedness, beatitude, eudaimonia, happiness. But it’s not worldly happiness and it often doesn’t look like what we thought it would look like.

This is more theologically speculative, so take it with a grain of salt, but the Catechism is very clear about marriage and priesthood being sacraments of mission meaning they are primarily ordered toward the sanctification of others. Essentially, your calling to marriage or priesthood is more about the holiness of your “spouse” whether that is a human of the opposite sex or the Church. It is baptism, and not the sacraments of  still reigns supreme as the sacrament of Christian holiness.

CCC 1534 – “Two other sacraments, Holy Orders and Matrimony, are directed towards the salvation of others; if they contribute as well to personal salvation, it is through service to others that they do so. They confer a particular mission in the Church and serve to build up the People of God.”

5. Believing that suffering is a sign something is wrong.

“It’s hard,” is not the same thing as, “it’s wrong.” I had someone tell me one time that they basically saw God’s will as this path that you followed and if you stepped off the path, you experienced suffering, and if you stayed on, everything was easy. I love that honesty because I think a lot of people still carry this idea around in them latently. This idea goes hand-in-hand with number 4. If vocations are to make you happy, then any felt unhappiness is a sign you’re not doing the right thing.

Honestly, for me, many sufferings I’ve experienced have more often been a sign that I’m doing something right than wrong. If things have been hard, it’s usually a sign that I’m being stretched by God in a good, albeit painful, way. If we shy away from new challenges because they are difficult or out of our comfort zone, then we will never experience the true greatness to which God is calling us. To do great things, you have to first become great. Agere sequitur esse. Action follows being. John Paul II was great because he was forged in the fires of external and interior sufferings, not because God just allowed him to skip his way through life and into the papacy. He could be a “witness to hope” because he knew what it means to continue to trust in Christ in the midst of tremendous adversity. If you want to be a great saint, you need to let God make you one, and that means getting uncomfortable even in ways that you don’t want.

At the same time, don’t cling to the broken piece of driftwood out at sea if God is reaching out to you from the boat. If you’ve been hitting your head against a wall, and feeling wrong about your choice for a long time, and haven’t yet made a permanent commitment, don’t be afraid to follow God where He’s going. Don’t fear letting Him lead you out of a dating relationship or postulancy just because you made a big deal about jumping into it. Have the humility to know when God is showing you something else. I knew a girl who admitted she stayed in an order about a year and a half after she knew she wasn’t being called because she just didn’t feel like she could leave. Now, I’m sure she learned a ton from that experience, and God’s Providence can be found in everything, but don’t cause yourself unnecessary heartache. As I mentioned, this absolutely goes for dating too. Have the courage to break up with him or her, if you know it isn’t right. Just don’t do it solely because things got hard for a minute or it’s different and uncomfortable.

People often seem to think some situation is “harming” their spiritual life when really the adversity is actually just bringing up their faults. When we suffer, we see how much inconstancy and selfishness still exists in us. Just because hardship is exposing your weakness doesn’t mean you should jump ship. That weakness is still going to be in you and is going to need to be dealt with at some point in the future.

6. Chasing your feelings around.

There seem to be a lot of topics, both secular and religious, that people love to get to a cursory understanding of and then act like experts in. Discernment of spirits seems to be one of those things. So many young Catholics speak of the experience of “feeling” called to something but seem to have very little background knowledge of how to actually make decisions based on your internal experiences of consolation and desolation. Instead, this complex process laid out by St. Ignatius of Loyola becomes overly simplified into a vague idea of “being at peace” with a decision. The rules for discernment of spirits are way more awesome and helpful than just what gave you goosebumps one time when you were praying and I recommend that if you’re going to try to discern based on the movements in your heart, or even really live as a human, you read up on both sets of rules. The second set of rules, dealing mainly with how the Devil tries to appear as an “angel of light” and use false experiences of consolation, is more advanced but crucial to understand. I won’t go into depth about the rules here but I’ll post some links to good resources that you should read up on to get a firm grasp of how to use these important discernment tools.

First Set of Rules: http://www.discerninghearts.com/catholic-podcasts/14-rules-discerning-spirits-different-movements-caused-soul/

On the Second Set of Rules: http://www.theway.org.uk/Back/4712gallagher.pdf

Really, your resource for all things Ignatian discernment should be Fr. Timothy Gallagher. Anything by him is going to be excellent.

To summarize, If you just chase whatever you’re feeling that day, you’ll become inconsistent and fragile and unable to actually attend to the directives of God in your heart. You shouldn’t spend your whole spiritual life just running after your feelings. Part of Christian maturity is being able to peacefully navigate the waves of your emotional life. I have a friend who said that discovering the Rules helped him not just uncover his vocation finally, but also just get through a day. When you can step back and ask, “Why am I desolate right now?” and come to the conclusion that it’s just because it’s February or because someone was short with you at work instead of, “BECAUSE GOD DOESN”T LOVE ME OR ISN”T REAL ONE OF THE TWO,” that’s a really helpful place to be spiritually.

7. Being unwilling or afraid to commit.

Huge one. That’s why we saved it for last. In my experience, it’s only through actually making a choice about a path and then following through on it that any lasting clarity can be found. If you constantly stay on the high dive looking down at the water, you can’t learn anything new and can’t grow. It was only when I finally applied to a diocese, and went to seminary, that I was able to discover quickly, really within a few months, that, “I am definitely not called to this.” I stuck it out for the whole year because I had promised God that I would, and that time was a crucial period of prayer for me. If I had never actually gone to seminary, who knows, I might still be trying to figure out what to do with my life. Instead, my experience of diving in, though very painful at times, led to the clarity that allowed me to commit wholeheartedly to the vocation of marriage.

If you have a pretty strong feeling that God might be calling you to be a priest, start applying to seminary. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain as long as you stay open to Him throughout the entire process.

Truthfully, I’ve never made a decision in life that I was 100%, scientifically certain about. I just haven’t, and I don’t expect that I ever will. Every decision I’ve made, and there have been plenty because your parents can tell you that your vocation is not even close to the last big choice you have to discern, has contained some level of uncertainty. That’s partly because I’m just a generally uncertain guy and partly because I’m human. There’s something about stepping into something that you’re pretty sure is right and letting God take care of the rest that is incredibly freeing and reveals your deep trust in Him.

I don’t know if it’s a “kids these days” thing or if people are generally just terrible at making commitments, but, either way, this mistake is incredibly common.  We fear what might happen if we jump. What if we’re not caught? We need to remember that this entire process is being guided by our loving, provident Father. And He takes care of us.
If you’re discerning a vocation right now, I’ll pray for you. The very fact that you’re seeking after what God wants from you alone is an amazing truth about you and shows the depth of your desire to please Him. Remember that no matter what He is good and faithful and loving. You have nothing to be afraid of. Coraggio. Take courage. Don’t be afraid to give Christ everything.

 

 

Domesticating the Lay Vocation

My personal journey to the lay vocation was a rather rocky one. Since having my conversion of the heart at age eighteen from being a cradle Catholic who didn’t actually follow Jesus to trying to be what my Baptism had made me, I’ve had a desire to give my entire life to God. As a young man, it was easy to mistake this desire for holiness with a specific call for the priesthood especially when you consider how rad being a priest is. As I would watch priests lift up the consecrated Host at Mass, I’d feel a desire within myself to live such a radical life for Christ. Extricating what God was actually calling me to from my own ideals was a slow and painful (read: extremely painful) process that included a year in seminary. With the help of a very holy spiritual director, I was able to distinguish the voice of God in my heart, and am coming up on my second anniversary of marriage and have a ten-month old daughter, Eva Marie, who I couldn’t imagine not existing. God is always faithful.

At the heart of my discernment out, though, was just finally believing with my heart the Church’s age-old teaching on the “universal call to holiness” recently reaffirmed and rearticulated at the Second Vatican Council and with every pope since. Being able to accept and love my vocation to the lay state was only possible if I could accept that it was still possible to give my entire heart to God. Marriage, and fatherhood, were not obstacles to my holiness but the very vehicle by which God would make me into the saint He’s calling me to be, if I allow Him. To realize this was to be able to let go of my fears and love where God was calling me.

There is a danger in this lay state though. Having been called to be “the salt of the earth,” us lay-folks have to deal closely with worldly things. We have to have mortgages and, often, full-time jobs that have little to do with our call to holiness. We have to pick health insurance plans and car insurance plans and homeowners insurance plans. We have to change poopy diapers and don’t get to sleep. In the midst of all of this…normalcy, it can be really easy to begin dulling the edges of the radicality of our call to holiness. This is a real issue. I’m all about finding holiness in the mundane, and, in fact, being perfected in the small things in life is part of every vocation. Read Story of a Soul and try to tell me that only lay people have to struggle with finding God in the midst of the day-to-day. If, as lay people though, we are in fact called to sanctity, then there is only one path and it’s a radical one.

Here’s what I think it’s tempting to do in the lay vocation as a well-formed Catholic familiar with the concept that we are all called to holiness regardless of vocation. It’s easy to continue to pay lip service to our call to holiness and instead tend toward a pseudo-prosperity gospel way of life where we continue to pursue all of the worldly idols that Christ came to free us from and somehow just baptize it with pithy phrases like “just trying to provide for my family” or “I’m being in the world but not of the world.” I’ve seen it time and again where the majority of our time and energy is actually spent achieving the ideals of American middle class life while somehow claiming that it fits into our lay vocation. We begin slowly to compromise and somehow find ourselves in the end with Comfort as our raison d’etre instead of Sanctity. We find ourselves just trying to get through the day instead of in continuous pursuit of Heaven.

The universal call to holiness didn’t replace the evangelical counsels This may seem like a controversial statement but all Christians, regardless of their vocation, are called to live poverty, chastity, and obedience in some form, and, luckily, NFP takes care of the chastity one, amirite? In reality, though, lay people are not exempt from the radical call of the Gospel just because they have worldly concerns to tend to. We don’t get to put all of our faith in our wealth or possessions just because we have to actually own them outright.

The constant temptation of the Christian life is to try to make Earth our homeland, our paradise. The constant search for some earthly paradise, a place to fill the urgent longing in our hearts, is at the heart of every misguided human endeavor. For us in the lay state, we can be tempted to think that living in the world, but not of it, somehow precludes us from the call of Christ to live in this world as strangers and sojourners. We can’t afford to strip the Gospel of its power by small compromises just because of our vocation.

There is no easy solution to this question. The answer is neither to just continue to chase mammon nor to sell all of your possessions tomorrow. Lay people don’t have the luxury of a well laid out rule of life to reference when confronted with the particulars of our day-to-day that solves every question. To live this life of holiness requires continual wrestling with the full weight of the preaching and teaching of Jesus Christ and the particulars of our situation. The same basic principles that apply to the religious apply to the lay-person though. No concessions allowed on account of a lack of celibacy.

What I’m not saying is that lay people, married or not, will become holy by living as monks. It is still in and through our specific situation that we are sanctified so a married person will become most holy by living marriage really well. I’m just saying that the American ideal for married life is not the image of sanctity and we are wrong to pursue it alongside our pursuit of God.

If we are going to see the kind of re-conversion of the West that we are hoping for, if we are going to fulfill the mission placed on the laity by our last three popes to Christify the world, then we are only going to do so by first becoming great saints ourselves. Become who you were created to be, and you will set the world on fire, and the manner in which we live according to that vision hasn’t changed. It’s laid out succinctly in the Bible and then affirmed and reaffirmed by centuries of Magisterial teaching and the witness of the saints and the martyrs. Self-abnegation. Poverty. Chastity. Obedience. Love. Prayer. Fasting. The fruit of all of these is the freedom of the saint who has no anxiety or discouragement in the face of the worlds myriad trials and disappointments.

To Fight for Her Heart

Fatherhood. Man. I haven’t written much about it because it’s an ineffably unique experience. Some thoughts/ideas/experiences are simple to package up and present on a verbal platter with a bow. Fatherhood is too big for that. All that I probably could say by way of reflections is that I’ve learned more about God’s love for me and for the world through the joint experiences of marriage and then fatherhood. It’s almost like, “Oh, so that’s what they meant when they told me God loves me.”

Recently, for two main reasons, I’ve spent less solo daddy-daughter time with my eight-month old Eva than I had in the first six months of her life. The busyness of my new job coupled with my wife NOT working for the time being has meant that my substantial childcare role which I had enjoyed (and at times struggled through) while living in Michigan has become non-existent. Eva and I have very little time right now just with the two of us.

While I love the increased time for the whole family together (and trust me, I LOVE it), I experienced one of the interesting and unfortunate side-effects recently. That much mom-time has led to a definite mom-phase for Eva, and I was starting to notice that she was much slower to fall asleep in my arms as I tried to bounce/rock/shush/pat her to sleep. It was almost like we had fallen out of the practice and a certain level of the security she experienced with me had been lost.

Of course, I snapped into gear and started trying to take more initiative with getting that one-on-one time including putting her down for naps and just this morning she conked out in my arms twice, no problem. We’re back. Something occurred to me though. It might seem obvious and simple but it was the idea that with my daughter, I have to fight to show her that I love her. She won’t just default into the idea that Dad loves her in a sacrificial way. Just because I’m around, and I’m Dad, doesn’t necessitate that she will live each moment of her life in this challenging world filled with the knowledge that she is taken care of and loved. She won’t receive an image of her Heavenly Father’s love in me just because I’m around and I was involved in her creation. I have to fight for my own paternity, in a sense. I have to win her heart, and not win it just for myself, so she loves daddy, but win her heart for love. If she is to believe in love, then I have to die for her.

I think I’m starting to get the Cross.