Loving Him More

My pastor used to lead our youth group in prayer in front of the Blessed Sacrament, having us repeat after him: “Jesus, I love you. Help me to love you more.”

Help me to love you more. It’s a prayer I continue to pray.

But what does that mean? How will we know when we are loving Him more?  It won’t necessarily translate to a certain feeling when we pray. It probably won’t be a glow in our heart or feeling as we walk around, our mind constantly on Jesus. It might not even mean prayer is easier.

Rather, it’ll mean we begin growing in virtue. It will mean we begin living differently – because we want to live differently. Because it’s better to live differently.

A friend was relating this to me the other day. She has begun to stop into the church during Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament every day, and her prayer to Jesus is simply, “Help me to love you.” And what has she noticed? She has more patience with her grandchildren.

Loving Jesus more means more patience with our children, spouse, or coworkers. It means more perseverance in the monotonous or small tasks of our lives. It means being able to smile at someone even when we’d rather scowl. It means taking the next step in a project when we don’t feel like it. It means not just picking up our cross, but loving it.

Loving Jesus more is not a feeling, but a doing. If we ask him to help us love Him more, that will translate into the strength to live the Christian life: to love Him in our neighbors and to enter more deeply into prayer.

At times we have the warm glow of consolation in our prayer life, but other times we won’t feel anything. The measure of our prayer life is not the feeling we have when we pray, but the way we live our lives.

If we don’t pray daily, we won’t have the strength to accomplish our daily work virtuously or love our neighbor. We can’t live the Christian life without an active relationship with Him. Jesus prayed … so why do we think we don’t need to?  Or maybe we know we need to, but do we actually do it?

Saint Teresa of Avila likened the Christian without a prayer life to a crippled or paralyzed body. The body has hands and feet but cannot use them. We must speak to God daily. We can do this throughout the day, with aspirations or short prayers repeated as we work. The Jesus prayer is a tried and true way to keep your mind close to God while you go about your day.

It’s also important, however, to set aside time specifically for prayer. While we should pray while we work and offer our work as a prayer, we also have to have specific times where our minds and hearts are least trying to focus solely on Him. It might not be easy, especially if our days are full of taking care of a family or long hours at work. But it’s necessary.

And if we find ourselves caught in a routine of rote prayers, we can heed the advice of St. Josemaria: “To avoid routine in your vocal prayers try to say them with the same ardour with which a person who has just fallen in love speaks… and as if it were the last chance you had to approach Our Lord” (The Forge, 432).

We must be a people whose lives show we are in love with our Lord. So, we repeatedly ask Him, “Help me to love you more.” It’s a prayer He will answer – perhaps not in the glowing consolation of a warm feeling, but with the strength to live the Christian life.

 

This post first appeared on Integrated Catholic Life.


Have Yourself a Counter-Cultural Advent

Here we are once again, beginning my favorite season of the year: Advent.

I’ve decided that Advent is the most counter-cultural season we celebrate.  I’m not only referring to the fact that the world seems to celebrate Christmas as soon as it possibly can. Although this is true, I’m referring to the philosophy behind Advent.  The world doesn’t like to wait. And it certainly doesn’t like to delay answering its own desires.

Lent is a little counter-cultural, but not as much as Advent.  In Lent, we embrace penance and almsgiving, which our culture understands to a certain degree. Its approach to sacrifice tends to be more utilitarian—working towards a goal of losing weight, training for a marathon, or freeing oneself from an addiction—but there is still at least some understanding of the emphasis of the season.

Outwardly, it’s pretty clear that our world doesn’t understand Advent.  But celebrating Christmas the day of Thanksgiving—or the day after Halloween—is just indicative of a greater problem in our society: the inability to embrace any privation, to delay gratification, to live with some need.  Our culture is one of satiating wants, fulfilling needs, and gratifying desires.  It seems these days we believe the greatest poverty is someone who is unable to have what they want, whether it’s material or philosophical. I should be able to have, do, say, or believe anything I want… simply because I want to have it, do it, say it, or believe it.

Advent is the exact opposite.  It means putting off what I want (to celebrate, eat, drink, and be merry) on purpose.  Is it because I hate Christmas music?  I hate decorations?  I hate Christmas cookies?

Of course not.  It’s because I love those things.

In Advent, we embrace a time of longing and anticipation, which includes an element of penance, since we are accepting a delay of pleasure.  Ultimately, the four weeks of Advent are waiting for the Messiah.  It means entering into the time of our ancestors, as they waited for the first coming of Christ, and embracing our own waiting of His second coming (either at our death or at the end of the world).  With both of these times of waiting, there is an understanding that this world does not satisfy, and we are waiting for the One who will.

We need to stir up this desire for Christ’s coming.  We need to put ourselves in the shoes of our ancestors, who looked with longing for the fulfillment of the prophecies.  We can become so comfortable, so complacent, or even so busy that we forget how much we need Christ.  We forget how much we long for him.  How do we stir up that desire?  By entering into this season of delayed gratification, this time of accepted privation, these four weeks of waiting.

Advent is a time to recognize the hole in our hearts.  It is a hole we accept, because we know it ultimately will not be filled in this lifetime.  During Advent, we embrace it.  C.S. Lewis, taking a page from St. Augustine, posited, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”

We can ignore that hole, and we can try to fill it with other things.  Or we can recognize that this world will always be inadequate.

That is what these four(ish) weeks are all about.  Yes, you can put up your Christmas tree today, you can stuff yourself with Christmas cookies tomorrow, and you can sing Christmas carols at the top of your lungs the day after that.  Or you can wait.  You can embrace the longing, the desire to do those things, knowing that your craving will be satisfied soon enough.  And perhaps those decorations, those cookies, and those carols will be that much richer, thanks to the waiting.

Originally published on Integrated Catholic Life.

Learning to Carry Your Cross

Five years ago, I was in the middle of a rocky phase of life.  I was moving apartments, there were major changes at my workplace, and a priest who kept me sane was suddenly transferred to another mission.  There was change in my personal world, my work world, and my spiritual world. Lent was still several weeks away, but I felt like I was already living it.

During those days, I realized that while I often prayed “Your will be done,” I really didn’t trust Him. It was a prayer far easier to say than to live.

Just when I thought I couldn’t deal with any more change, two days before Lent began Pope Benedict announced his resignation.  I almost laughed at the absurdity through my tears that day.  Was this really happening?  I thought January had been full of change… now I was even losing my Pope?

I had been in St. Peter’s Square for Benedict’s election and again for his installation.  In the eight years of his papacy, I had devoured every word and followed every trip.  I had a Cardinal Ratzinger Fan Club mug years before he was even elected.  If there had been one thing I thought would be free from change at that moment, it was the universal Church. Boy, was I wrong.

I learned that Lent about control and sacrifice. Ultimately, I learned that I liked to control my sacrifices!  I can give up chocolate, not eat between meals, or turn off technology.  These things may really help me grow in the spiritual life. But while there is a lot of good in self-imposed sacrifice and it can be pretty difficult, I’m usually far more willing to impose sacrifice on myself than to accept the crosses I’m given.

If only I could barter with God:  “Um, thanks, God, but I don’t really want what is happening in my life right now.  How about I fast tomorrow instead?  Thanks.” Needless to say, that isn’t the way it works. In the end, the best sacrifices are the ones that we don’t need to seek out and are already being asked of us.  Rather than running away from them, it’s time to pick up our crosses and follow His lead.

Scripture repeatedly reminds us, “Sacrifice or oblation you wished not, but ears open to obedience you gave me. Burnt offerings or sin-offerings you sought not; then said I, “Behold I come.” (Psalm 40, as in the liturgy).  It is not that God doesn’t want our sacrifices, but that He wants our obedience more.  The book of Hebrews applies these words to Christ Himself. Christ gave the ultimate and perfect sacrifice, but what was pleasing to the Father was His perfect obedience in that sacrifice (Hebrews 10:5-9).

The greatest gift we can give God is obedience, and the hardest time to tell him, “Behold, I come,” is when that obedience requires our childlike trust.

Perhaps the greatest sacrifice we make this Lent is not one we choose for ourselves, but one that is found by humbly accepting the crosses that come into our lives every day.  God knew I needed to learn how to trust Him that Lent.  And while I still struggle with it, I know those months helped me learn an important lesson: when all feels shaky around you, your cross is actually the safest and most stable place to grip – because Christ is holding it too.

 

 

Originally published on Integrated Catholic Life.

Good King Wenceslaus and Christmas’ Call to Holiness

Most Christmas carols are about that first Christmas night or the celebration of Christmas today.  But one stands out as something different. In a way, the carol “Good King Wenceslaus” isn’t as much about Christmas as it is about what Christmas requires of us.

“Good King Wenceslaus” always gets stuck in my head on two days: September 28 and December 26. The carol recounts the story of Wenceslaus I, the Duke of Bohemia, walking with his page on the feast of St. Stephen (December 26).  Wenceslaus is now a canonized saint who has has own feast (September 28).

The carol tells the story of Wenceslaus and his page walking through the bitter cold snow. Wenceslaus sees a poor man gathering wood to keep his home warm. The king tells his page to give him not only wood, but also food and drink.  As the song ends, the page is getting colder and fears he can’t walk with the king much longer. The king tells his page to follow him and walk in the footprints he has already made in the snow.  When the page does, he finds there is warmth in the saint’s tracks:

In his master’s steps he trod / Where the snow lay dinted / Heat was in the very sod / Which the Saint had printed / Therefore, Christian men, be sure / Wealth or rank possessing / Ye who now will bless the poor / Shall yourselves find blessing.

Why are we singing a song about a duke walking in the snow on December 26, and why do we consider it a Christmas carol? What can this carol teach us?

Christmas is not a day, but a season. First, unlike most Christmas songs that describe either the preparation leading up to Christmas or the Christmas carols that describe the coming of Christ, this carol speaks of the day after Christmas.  It serves as a reminder that Christmas is not a day, but a season.

In our society, it can actually be hard to celebrate Christmas for the season it deserves. People look askance when you still have your decorations up after New Year’s Day, as if you’re the laziest person on earth.  Try telling someone “Merry Christmas” anytime after December 25 and they will probably think you need to move on to the next holiday. We need to reclaim the season of Christmas.

It is a carol of holiness.  This Christmas carol never mentions Christ, Mary, or Bethlehem. Instead, it is the story of what it looks like to follow Christ. In a way, this is a carol of the universal call to holiness. Despite his rank, Wenceslaus sees himself first as a Christian, and therefore seeks to serve his fellow man.  Sainthood is not reserved for the priests and nuns, but is the vocation of even the king of the kingdom.

It is not just the fact that Wenceslaus seeks out the peasant and gives him “flesh” and “wine,” but also that Wenceslaus treats his servant with respect.  That is a uniquely Christian act.  While our modern culture likes to pretend that societal values such as respect for others is a natural way to live, these values are actually the product of a Catholic culture and the counter-cultural message of Jesus Christ (see Seven Revolutions: How Christianity Changed the World and Can Change it Again by Mike Aquilina and James Papandrea).

We need witnesses and community. Wenceslaus’ page found that following in the footsteps of his master made his journey easier.  We also should follow in the steps of the saints, who have finished this race of life before us.  They show us that the Christian life is livable, and that the vocation to holiness is possible. Holiness is not easy, nor is the path of the saint an easy one. But when we fear we can go no longer, we look to the saints for intercession and example to help us continue down the narrow path.

Similarly, we also find that surrounding ourselves with Christian friends makes living as Christians easier. The Christian life is meant to be lived in community, and we need a culture where we can live, celebrate, and mourn with people who share our Catholic values. If you don’t have such a community, begin cultivating one. If you desire witnesses, begin by being a witness to others.

Holiness always costs. As the carol evokes St. Stephen, it hints at the fate that awaits Wenceslaus as well. Remember, the Catholic Church doesn’t just remember Wenceslaus in this carol, but also on his own feast day. That day, the priest celebrating Mass wears red, as he does on the feast of Stephen, because Wenceslaus was also a martyr for the Faith he held dear.  His brother killed him while he was on his way to Mass.

Wenceslaus followed in the footsteps of St. Stephen, who had followed in the footsteps of Christ.  Holiness is not just about caring for the poor, but is also about having the courage to stand up for the Faith when it costs us. We may not be persecuted for the Faith to the point of shedding our blood, but as Augustine reminds us, “Every age is an age of martyrdom.  Don’t say that Christians are not suffering persecution; the Apostle’s words are always true… ‘All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted’ (2 Tim 3:12).  All, with no one being excluded or exempted. If you want to test the truth of this saying, you have only to begin to lead a pious life and you will see what good reason he had for saying this.” (Sermon 6,2)

The carol “Good King Wenceslaus” reminds us that Christmas is more than just a day of celebration with friends and family.  Christmas should change us, because that night changed the world. We have to answer the call that was made that night in Bethlehem and follow in our Master’s steps. While it will cost us if we do, we also will find blessing.

 

Originally published on Integrated Catholic Life.

What Will I Give Him?

Have you marked everything off your Christmas to-do list? Last year, Advent was the longest it could possibly be and I still felt like I was running behind the rest of the world. Strangely enough, this Advent – the shortest it can possibly be – I’m not stressed at all about Christmas shopping, baking, and card-writing. Maybe I’ve finally decided that regardless of what the world might say, I know Christmas doesn’t just last for a day.

When you look at your list of Christmas presents to make or buy, have you remembered the most important Person on that list?  Maybe you remembered the mailman and your niece’s boyfriend. But have you remembered… Jesus?

What will I give the Christ child this Christmas? It’s easy to become distracted by making sure we have presents for everyone on our list and a few extras for those we might have forgotten.  Have we thought about what we are going to give Jesus? It’s His birthday, after all.

For some of us, perhaps we need simply to give Him more time.  Maybe it’s easy for me to busy myself serving on seven different organizations at church and helping my neighbors, but it’s hard for me to slow down and be with Him.  Christ wants us to love Him through serving our neighbors, but that doesn’t replace the need to pray and be with Him, too.  I’m sure you love receiving presents from your friends and family, but if they’re just buying you a bunch of stuff and never actually spending time with you, the presents feel a little hollow.  Perhaps this Christmas, you could give Christ your time.  Just sit with Him, whether in the silence of an Adoration chapel or even in your own bedroom (or closet, locked away from relatives, if necessary!).  You don’t even have to speak. Just be there with Him. Maybe he wants to speak to you.

For others, maybe we need to give Him more attention.  Maybe I try to set aside time for prayer or even daily Mass, but they’ve become items to mark off my to-do list.  Perhaps I say the Rosary but find my mind on the mysteries of my life rather than the mysteries of His.  We all know the feeling of buying someone a present simply because we know we should buy one – there is no feeling or sentiment behind it, but it’s simply something to get so we can mark it off our to-do list. Sometimes, this is the best we can do.  But other times, we know we’ve simply given up and phoned it in.  Some days all we can do is offer even our measly attention spans to Christ. But other days, we know we could try harder, we know we can ask Him for help.  Prayer isn’t just words, but our heart united to those words.

For others, you feel you have nothing to offer Christ but your pain. He wants it.  For others, you have great joys in your life and you’re a little afraid that you offer Him those, He will take them away. He wants these, too.  He wants whatever we have to offer Him – because most of all, He wants us.

Do not worry if you feel you feel you have very little to offer Christ.  He wants your time, your attention, your pain, your joy.  We may feel that we can’t give Him something grand. We forget that He created us, and He created us very grand.  Have the courage to give Him your heart for Christmas.

 

A Story Still Being Written

This spring, four of my friends and I had a mini-reunion. We have all gone our separate ways since college, and it usually takes a wedding to get us all back together. That was the case this time.

As we were all traveling by car or plane to the wedding destination, one of my friends reminded us via group text about the liturgical feast that weekend: Divine Mercy Sunday. Thirteen years earlier, we had spent Divine Mercy Sunday in Paris. Now, the exact same five of us would be spending it together again, for Sarah’s wedding. Where some would see coincidence, I only saw Providence.

How much had changed in thirteen years… and how little had changed. As we stayed up talking into the wee hours of the night before the wedding and danced the night away at the reception, you might have thought nothing had happened in the past decade. Sarah still danced the same, albeit now she was in a big white dress. We still had the same inside jokes, the same laughs, and the same memories. But now there were husbands and babies for some, various careers and professional successes for others, and additional degrees for all of us. There were heartaches and losses, crosses and triumphs, lessons learned through mistakes and maybe a few regrets. The grey hairs poking through and the first signs of wrinkles were signs that the five girls sitting up at 1 am talking about doughnuts had wisdom which the five girls in Paris did not (although we had probably discussed doughnuts then, too). But our friendship had been forged in Christ, and there was a resulting eternal feel to it, despite maybe our own failings here and there.

None of us could have predicted life and its twists and turns. And that’s a lesson not only to look back with, but to look forward with as well.

We are in the midst of the story.

We all have a story, and part of knowing God is knowing our story. But we can’t forget that the story is still being written. Ultimately, it is being written by Him, although looking back we can probably all see the smudges where we tried to take the pen all by ourselves.

As long as we take in breath, that story is in the middle, not the end. And that must give us consolation. Not every story looks like a fairy tale – in fact, contrary to what that grass looks like on the other side of the fence, none do. And no story is the same. But even when the light seems dimmest, the road seems to lead nowhere, or we think we messed up the story – it’s still being written.

And perhaps in those confusing times, looking at the previous chapters is most necessary. Because we can be reminded that just as the joys might be passing, so too are the sorrows. Whenever the present moment seems too heavy, we can look back in the story and remember that no story is stagnant. And every story has marvels that only He could write.

Thirteen years ago, on the eve of Divine Mercy Sunday, the five of us were standing in a hotel room in Paris, staring as the world news on a tiny French TV told us the only Pope we had ever known had died. We headed back to our home in Rome the next day, knowing our lives would be forever forged by the experiences we were about to have.

Some days, those experiences and graces are forgotten. Other days, they are my life preserver. Did I know in Paris what life would look like 13 years later? Of course not.  I don’t know what the next 13 years will look like, either. And that’s okay. Because if I look hard enough, I see a beautiful story, marked with God’s grace, that is still being written.

Whether you worry about your own future or the future of a child or grandchild; whether it’s a spiritual struggle you’re experiencing or a more earthly need; whether you’re in a joyful time right now or a particularly dark one; the story is still being written.

It was fitting to be reminded of it that weekend, because it’s one of the greatest reminders of God’s mercy. Wheat and weeds are growing side by side right now, the cross and the resurrection seem to be coexisting. But all God asks for is love, hope, and perseverance. Trust Him – He’s still writing the story.

 

 

This post was originally published on Integrated Catholic Life.

Being satisfied

Today after Mass I stopped to get a bagel and coffee, and the man making my bagel looked up in the middle of the process, paused, and said, “You have really great hair.”

Talk about making my morning! As I left, I had the desire to write an open letter to every high school girl who hates her hair. I was there.  I would yell – and probably cry – about my huge, coarse, frizzy hair that never did what I wanted it to do.

And now look.  I just had to wait fifteen years, and wah-la!

What seemed to be the end of the world wasn’t.  It just takes a little perspective. (Something that teenagers tend to lack. no offense.)

On the topic of perspective, I wanted to share some thoughts on the day we celebrate today: Satisfied to be Single Day.  Yes, a completely made-up holiday to anticipate another completely made-up holiday, Valentine’s Day.  (All props to St. Valentine, but while he’d love for you to celebrate his feast day, he could care less about diamonds and chocolates.)

A good friend in college told me about Satisfied to be Single Day, and I distinctly remember celebrating it with her.  We went shopping at a huge mall, ate Häagen-Dazs ice cream, and then went to Mass and a Holy Hour with my sister (who, at the time, was also still single).  It was a really fun day.

Over the years, it’s harder and harder to find friends to celebrate the day with me. And it’s not just because many of my friends are now married. It’s because there’s the idea that to be “satisfied” with something, it must be what you planned and wanted.  Now, granted, much of that is due to the nature of the creation of the “holiday,” I’m sure, which was probably invented by bitter people sick of the hype around Valentine’s day and who want to try to pretend they could care less.

But that’s not why I celebrate it. (Although Valentine’s Day does make me want to gag.)

To be satisfied with something does not mean you chose it, you never want things to change, or that you are perfectly happy with it every minute of the day.  I’ll be the first to say that being single can be very, very lonely. It comes with lots of headaches and heartaches, from the profound to the mundane.  It comes with having to listen to the complaints and problems of your married friends, when you really just want to shake them and say, “Don’t you understand what you have!?” And it comes with a lot of questions and uncertainty.

But I’m still satisfied.  Why? Because, for one reason or another, this is where I am. This is the road I think God has placed in front of me.  Frankly, and I don’t mean to sound cocky, but if I didn’t want to be single right now, I wouldn’t have to be.  But I have come to discover that love is much bigger than your marital status.

So yes, I am going to celebrate Satisfied to be Single Day.  Not out of bitterness, not out of jealousy, and not out of hatred for marriage.  But because I’m grateful for the abundance of blessings and gifts God has given me, and I want to thank Him by using those to His glory. The man with three talents didn’t get angry that he wasn’t given five.  He went out and used the three he had been given. The man with five wasn’t angry that he was given different talents than the man with three.  Everyone is given gifts, and to sit around and bemoan we weren’t given different ones is a slap in the face to the Giver.

I used to dream of white dresses and numbers of bridesmaids.  Not anymore. Not because I’ve necessarily given up that dream, but because I have found so many other dreams in the process. Why waste my time reading bridal magazines when I can write a Bible study, experience a new craft brewery with friends, or play trivia and eat guacamole?

I have to admit, much of this sanity and perspective came from a woman who has become a very dear friend. (I would link to her blog, but she’s so busy living life her latest post is a review of a vacuum cleaner from several years ago.) She taught me – not with words, but with actions – how full one’s life can be, even – gasp – if you aren’t married.  She is a wonderful teacher, one of the most diligent workers I’ve ever met, and a constant inspiration to me. When we’re together, which is sadly not as often as we both wish, we don’t spend our time talking about boys or lamenting the struggles of our lives. We talk about movies and books and theology. We cook and we laugh and we shop and we eat good food and we love life together.  She has taught me – probably without even realizing it – that life is very, very good, and that even though in many ways our field is still a man’s world, there is something very satisfying and life-giving in what we do.

It’s not easy to be satisfied with where we are in life, but everyone can find a reason not to be satisfied.  Stay-at-home moms can forget that they dreamed their college days away thinking about babies.  Busy professionals can forget that they thought that next promotion would make them happy. Rather than always looking at what we don’t have, why don’t we spend some time today being satisfied for what we’ve been given?

Sometimes happiness is all about perspective.

The First Martyrs of the Church of Rome

Today we celebrate the feast of the First Martyrs of the Church of Rome, which officially commemorates the martyrs killed under the Emperor Nero (54-68).  Fittingly, their feast is celebrated the day after the two most famous martyrs killed during that time, Peter and Paul.

While no one knows for sure why or how the famous burning of Rome took place, we know that Nero need a scapegoat.  And he found that scapegoat in the new mysterious sect that had been growing steadily in Rome.

The historian Tacitus gives an account of the persecutions under Nero:

“Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace.  Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judæa, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.”

It is believed that Christians were also killed before the time of Nero, during the reign of emperor Claudius (41-54).  Claudius probably expelled the Jews from Rome for a time because of disturbances caused by a certain “Chrestus,” and he was famously opposed to the proselytizing of any religion.

Saint Prisca was a thirteen year-old girl killed during reign of Claudius.  She was of a noble family and was baptized by Saint Peter.  When the emperor tried to kill her in the amphitheater with a fierce lion, the lion licked her feet and did not hurt her.  Later she was beheaded.  She’s remembered as the “protomartyr of the West,” killed more than ten years before Peter and Paul.

Whether or not there was a girl named Prisca – modern historians doubt her existence – we know her story was repeated again and again, as the persecutions against Christians raged throughout the Roman Empire for almost three hundred years.  Lions, arrows, beheadings, fires — the martyrdoms were varied, but the witness the same: these people, regardless of age or sex or wealth, were willing to die at the hands of their emperor before denying their Lord.

The stories of the early Church martyrs also remind us that their witness did not begin with their deaths.  There must have been something that set them apart.  How did the emperors know about a thirteen-year old girl’s religion?  Why were there disturbances because of “Chrestus,” why was their “superstition” known by Tacitus, and why were they punished for “hatred against mankind”?

Their faith did not remain in the catacombs, hidden from view.  Their faith spurred them onward — to preach to their neighbors, to bring the good news to others, to live their lives differently.   Secular sociologists note that Christians were more likely to survive the diseases that plagued the city of Rome precisely because they were cared for by other Christians.  The Christians were known for their generosity to the poor and their service to the widows and orphans.  They didn’t just worship on Sundays — they served Christ every day of the week.  And it was obvious to those around them.

Someone once rhetorically asked me a thought-provoking question.  If I was arrested for being a Christian, would a jury find me guilty?  Or would I be acquitted for lack of evidence?

We know how the Christians went to their deaths singing songs of joy, their deaths prompting even more conversions.  “Martyr” is from the Greek word for “witness.”  But in order for them to be rounded up and thrown in jail, their witness must have been visible in the world before their deaths.  And so must ours.

When “freedom of religion” becomes “freedom of worship,” we must take notice.  What threats against religious liberty mean for Christians in this country is that we cannot live our faith outside the catacombs.  It is fine to go to Mass and worship, but our beliefs cannot influence our daily lives. We cannot live as Catholic Christians in our workplace, in our hospitals, or in our schools.

May the martyrs of the early Church be witnesses and reminders to us, in 2016, that our faith sends us out into the world.  And may their intercession give us the strength to be witnesses ourselves.

St. Josemaria Escriva

As we continue to pray for religious freedom, the ability to allow our faith to impact our everyday lives, we turn to a saint who reminds us that the battle is most often won in the ordinary.

St. Josemaria Escriva lived during a complex and turbulent time: the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s.  It was a time of violent persecution of the Church, when thousands were killed simply because they were Catholic.  Churches and convents were burned.  Priests, religious, and lay Catholics were murdered because they wore a scapular, prayed a rosary, or went to Mass.  It is estimated that one diocese in northern Spain lost 85% of their diocesan priests to martyrdom.   Over a thousand Spanish martyrs from this time have been beatified or canonized.

In the midst of this, St. Josemaria Escriva, a priest, was ministering to his flock.  Hiding in attics and celebrating Mass in secret, Escriva was experiencing the very antithesis of religious liberty.  And what was he preaching during this time?

The same thing he had preached in the years leading up to the war: find God in your ordinary work.  Escriva was reminding the people that holiness was found not in great deeds, but in the humble performance of everyday tasks.  All activity, when directed toward God, sanctifies us — whether it is as menial as washing dishes or as heroic as hiding a priest in your attic.  If our actions are done in love — love for God, love for neighbor– they become much greater than routine tasks.

“Let me stress this point: it is in the simplicity of your ordinary work, in the monotonous details of each day, that you have to find the secret, which is hidden from so many, of something great and new: Love.”

He reminded them that holiness was accessible to all — God had given everyone a mission, and our responsibility was to fulfill it. “Do you really want to be a saint? Carry out the little duty of each moment: do what you ought and concentrate on what you are doing.”

For some, that means serving our country in the military or in public office.  For others, it means raising children, a new generation of faithful Christians.  It means serving God in our work but also in our recreation.  He spoke of the apostolate of friendship, the apostolate of entertainment, and even the “apostolate of the dinner-table.”  Every deed, every moment, was a chance to glorify God and preach His Word — not necessarily by using grand theological language, but with a Christian joy that is contagious.

With this simple plan, Escriva set out to change the world.  If every Christian did his duty, lived his life, followed God’s Will, and served his Father in Heaven with joy and peace and love, we could survive any persecution.

If we look at the complex situation of the Spanish Civil War, which is often badly simplified as a conflict between Republican/Communist forces and Nationalist/Socialist forces, we step back and ask, “Who won?”  History books will say that Franco and the Nationalists won.

But ultimately, Josemaria Escriva and the Gospel won. Governments come and go. Christ the King reigns eternal.

Battles are fought, lives are lost, and history cruelly repeats itself.   The greatest heroes are the saints, who achieve the greatest prize: eternal life.

At times, the odds we face appear insurmountable.  What are we to do as Christians in the world today?

Josemaria Escriva reminds us to get to work.

“It is difficult to make our mark through quiet work and the proper fulfilment of our duties as citizens, so that later we can demand our rights and place them in the service of the Church and of society.  It is difficult… but it is very effective.”

Some Christians are called to be martyrs, as so many were during the Spanish Civil War.  Others are called to survive persecution, as St. Josemaria Escriva did.

But we are all called to be faithful.

“It is surprising how often, even in the name of freedom, many people fear and oppose Catholics being simply good Catholics.” -St. Josemaria Escriva

When I am “the Church”

What is the Church? Perhaps I used to think that question had an easy answer.  But even flipping open the Catechism will give you several different images, definitions, and nuances.  It’s something Councils have discussed and ink has spilled out from theological pens about for ages.  The Mystical Body of Christ, the Bishops in union with the Pope, the People of God, the Bride of Christ, Ekklesia, the Kingdom of God.  People use the word to speak of our liturgical assembly and the local community but also the teaching body with its hierarchy.

I know what the Catechism tells me about it, I know it’s instituted by Christ, and I know it’s one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.

But what does this mean when someone is in my office, upset about what the Church teaches, and I’m trying to decide just what Church they’re talking about?  They’re angry at “the Church,” and I’m trying to decipher whether they’re angry at a person, angry at a teaching, or angry at God.

What about when someone asks me if I love the Church, and after I say I do, they then reveal how much “the Church” has hurt them?  I try to unpack in five minutes or less—before they write me off—how the Church can be holy when it’s made up of sinners, and they look at me blankly.  Suddenly I’ve become a theologian spouting concepts that mean nothing to their everyday life.  They have come to me with a wound, and I have tried to bandage it with definitions.

As I drive home and think over the conversation for the fiftieth time, I simultaneously love my job and hate it at the same time.  Once again, I’m reminded that I’m the face of the Church for someone.  Like it or not, every Christian is liable to be “the Church” for someone.  If I cut someone off in traffic and they see the Rosary hanging around my rear-view mirror, it might be the last straw in their disillusionment with Catholics.  If I distort a teaching of the Church to someone, it could be their understanding for the rest of their lives.  While everyone is accountable for their own journey of faith, I can’t hide from the fact that I could be a player in their drama.

On the reverse side, I have to cling on to the hope that I’m an actor in their drama in a positive way.  Perhaps they have a misunderstanding of a teaching of the Church that I help clear up.  Maybe they think all Catholics are heartless until they witness some small act of charity on my part.  Every time I fail at my vocation as a Christian, I pray someone witnesses when I succeed—not to benefit my pride, but so that they come away with a better idea of just what the Church is.

“The Church is both visible and spiritual, a hierarchical society and the Mystical Body of Christ. She is one, yet formed of two components, human and divine. That is her mystery, which only faith can accept.” (CCC 779)

Yes, that is the mystery.  Perhaps I need to talk less and pray more.  If it’s a mystery that requires faith, I can only explain so much. “It is only ‘with the eyes of faith’ that one can see her in her visible reality and at the same time in her spiritual reality as bearer of divine life” (CCC 770). The person sitting in my office has encountered the sinners, and I need to help him encounter the Savior.  She has encountered the wounds, and I need to help her encounter the Divine Physician.

At the very beginning, the Church was made up of a Pope who denied Christ and a friend who betrayed him.  There will be plenty of Judases to give us reasons to leave the Church.  Like it or not, the Church is made up ofpeople, and those people are sinners… of whom I am the first. (1 Tim 1:15).  May I never forget that I may be “the Church” to someone today.  Something I do, something I say, something I don’t do, may be filed away in someone’s consciousness as a paradigm of their image of the Catholic Church, for good or for ill. Christ, make me a worthy member of your Body today…

This post first appeared on “Between the Sundays” at Integrated Catholic Life.