How to Fine-tune a Well-formed Conscience

An angel on one shoulder, a devil on the other. We all have light and dark, kind and cruel, good and bad impulses.

As Catholics, we’re no strangers to guilt. We know when the devil on our shoulder has won out over the angel, and we feel off when that happens. Remorseful. Ashamed. Guilty.

Unfortunately, guilt can sometimes go into overdrive.

In 2019, I wrote about scrupulosity. The article continues to be a top performer on this blog, and many of its views come from organic search traffic—from readers seeking resources to ease their consciences.

Guilt gets a bad reputation, especially in a culture where “Do what makes you happy!” is the mantra of the day. And scrupulosity is bad. It is a disordered sense of guilt. But a healthy sense of guilt is a natural part of the human experience. It is a tool for the ongoing work you are doing to improve yourself.

The conscience, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “bears witness to the authority of truth in reference to the supreme Good to which the human person is drawn” (¶ 1777). Your conscience gives you a compass by which you navigate toward Goodness—and it rouses guilt when and only when it is needed to show the way.

We call an upright conscience with a solid understanding of moral truth a “well-formed conscience,” and its formation takes nurturing.

So, how does one obtain a well-formed conscience?

“A Lifelong Task”

Also in the Catechism (paragraphs 1784-1785), you’ll learn:

The education of the conscience is a lifelong task. From the earliest years, it awakens the child to the knowledge and practice of the interior law recognized by conscience. Prudent education teaches virtue; it prevents or cures fear, selfishness, and pride, resentment arising from guilt, and feelings of complacency, born of human weakness and faults. The education of the conscience guarantees freedom and engenders peace of heart.

In the formation of conscience the Word of God is the light for our path, we must assimilate it in faith and prayer and put it into practice. We must also examine our conscience before the Lord’s Cross. We are assisted by the gifts of the Holy Spirit, aided by the witness or advice of others and guided by the authoritative teaching of the Church.

Such a wealth of guidance in those sentences. So many hidden tips and tricks.

Let’s uncover them.

How to Be [Up]Right

Inspired by that passage, here are several spiritual habits that can help you develop a well-formed conscience.

#1: Seek to educate yourself on your faith and the issues of the day.

While we are called to trust in the Church, Catholics are also called to continually seek to understand her teachings. Why do we believe what we believe? On what authority?

Unfortunately, the catechesis we receive before Confirmation is not always perfect. And even if your faith formation was excellent, there is much to learn from 2,000 years of history!

In the context of conscience, it’s also important to stay informed on social and political issues that affect everyone’s lives. This certainly doesn’t mean we all must be activists or news junkies, but it does require putting faith and sound morals first in our public lives.

Where to Start: Get reading! Explore spiritual books, blogs, or even diocesan social accounts to put more of this material in your daily life. You can also find a wealth of information via—your parish may have a subscription that grants you free access.

#2: Read the Bible, on your own and with the Church.

As the Catechism states above, “the Word of God is the light for our path.” There are countless lessons in the Bible. Indeed, it is a primary source for all of Salvation History, and it demands our attention.

Pick up a good Bible and read. It doesn’t have to be in any particular order. It doesn’t have to be on a deadline. But familiarizing yourself with the language will only help inspire you to dig deeper and truly understand what God demands of you. It will also help you discover the good person you are made to be.

Where to Start: Reading scripture in a vacuum can lead to a lot of missed nuances, so in addition to personal reflection, it’s important to seek guidance from experts who can provide clarity and guide your journey. The Bible in a Year podcast from Father Mike Schmitz is an excellent source for this guidance.

#3: Attend the sacraments as frequently as you can, and visit Jesus in Adoration when you need extra guidance.

In greater doses than anywhere else, you will find God’s grace in the sacraments—and, when it comes to forming your conscience, the most crucial of these are Confession and the Eucharist.

As someone who once went many years without stepping foot into a confessional, I know this particular sacrament requires a lot of vulnerability—and it can expose a lot of shame. But I promise its comforts can help you right now. Make an appointment with your priest, or simply go during stated confession times, as soon as you can. The more you attend and the more thoughtful your examinations of conscience, the better formed your conscience will be.

And when you are deeply troubled, run to Jesus. Sit with him in Adoration and soak up his presence. It will help you in your discernment of all things.

Where to Start: Find a place for perpetual Adoration if it’s available near you. This is a beautiful sacrifice for Jesus—like watching over him in the garden. This list of Adoration sites may be helpful.

#4: Learn to recognize—and pursue, and continue developing—the gifts of the Holy Spirit in yourself.

The gifts of the Holy Spirit—wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord—are the foundation of our ethical lives as Christians. They are the intellectual mechanisms by which we seek to understand God and His will for us.

Take a look at your personal passions and consider how those gifts apply. Do you use your personal gifts (artistic abilities, athletic prowess, interpersonal empathy, teaching skills) in a way that enlightens these spiritual gifts? How can you develop both more thoughtfully? How does the Holy Spirit play a role in your personal vocation and the way you live each day?

Embracing these gifts will help you build a better understanding of right and wrong, as well as your place in the world. When we intentionally seek fulfillment and righteousness in our pursuits, we’re much more likely to hear and abide by our consciences.

Where to Start: Volunteer for your parish or a local Catholic organization. Nothing will help you put your gifts into action, and nurture their growth, more than sharing them with others. Look up Catholic Charities in your diocese to see where help is needed.

When All Else Fails

Many times, we are faced with questions and dilemmas that feel like vast chasms of confusion in a relativistic world. We try to understand what’s right, and the answer seems impossible to find. How does one proceed?

When you’re feeling trapped, confused, unsure, alone, or far away from the resources that can help add clarity to such moments, follow these three rules cited in paragraph 1789 of the Catechism:

  1. The ends do not justify the means. You cannot do or condone an immoral act in order to achieve a good result. Evil begets evil.
  2. Follow the Golden Rule. Do unto others as you would have them do to you. This means kindness, helping others be their best selves, and speaking up for those who have no voice.
  3. “Charity always proceeds by way of respect.” When you must correct someone, or object to their behavior, or reject their requests of you—do it with love.

And again, remember: No man is an island. Seek out a good shepherd—your priest, a spiritual director, a parent, a friend—for help. You are loved and you are not alone.

But Why?: Confronting God When You’re Disappointed

“It’s God’s will,” people often tell us when we’re grieving a loss or enduring a trial.

But why?

First things first: Suffering was never God’s will for us. He made us for joy. For love. For paradise.

Pride got in the way, though. And now, still, there is suffering.

This is a difficult reality. The phrase “crisis of faith” comes to mind, and we are especially vulnerable to such a crisis when we feel God is not hearing us. So let me pause here for reassurance, in case you need it.

God loves you no matter what. He sees your pain. He aches with you. He does not begrudge you for your doubt. He does not resent your anger. He can handle your disappointment. He will never punish you for having questions. He will never shun you for being frightened.

If your child was frightened and felt you weren’t present enough to protect him or her, wouldn’t you want to know? Wouldn’t you open up your arms to that child and fold them into your embrace without a single speck of resentment or anger? Wouldn’t you want to wrap them up in your love so they might never again doubt it? Wouldn’t your heart shatter into a million pieces, wishing only to take away their fear and pain and carry it yourself?

So it is with God. You are His beloved child. He died for you. He would die for you again and again. Run to Him.

Which brings us to the next question: How?

Prayer is a funny thing. It can sometimes seem one-sided or monotonous. Other times, it is like coming up from the depths for a big breath of air.

You are more likely to find that relief when you are open and frank with the Lord about what’s on your mind. Just as a wound needs debriding and open air to heal, your heart cannot be mended behind a steel wall. Even if that wall is erected in an attempt to be respectful.

Jesus may be King, but he is also a man. A man who was born in a barn. A man who was raised by a humble and quiet family. A man who consorted with average people and insisted upon average treatment. A man who died a criminal’s death, mocked and put to shame.

So he’s ready to hear your questions. God is ready to face your doubt and confusion and even your feelings of betrayal.

It is not sinful to say, “Why, God? Why have You done this to me?” It’s not sinful to feel neglected.

As for anger? Of course, you should never speak to your Father with hate. But anger is not hate. Anger is natural. Anger is a fire that can burn away death and clear a path for new life. Anger, managed appropriately, gives us the energy to seek to understand our circumstances and improve them.

Satan wants you to believe: “Who am I to question God? If I can just be more grateful, more unshakable, then I will see that life is good and I will be happier.”

But in reality, faith is eroded when we believe the lie that perpetually grateful, cheerful people are always happier and more #blessed—because suffering is inevitable no matter how cheerful we manage to be, and our mindset alone can’t change that.

So I say it again: Bring your negativity to God. Don’t suppress it. Don’t “turn it off.” Don’t feel you must hide or reject it. Give it to Him instead and He will take care of it.

How? Try these ideas and see where they take you.

Pray in a way that you’re uncomfortable or unfamiliar with.

Not used to saying the rosary? Give it a try. Never managed to say a novena, start to finish, without forgetting at least one day? Try again. Can’t remember the last time you got to daily Mass or sat in silence for more than a few minutes during Eucharistic adoration? Get yourself there.

It can be strangely cathartic to mirror your spiritual discomfort in your prayer life when you feel you’ve hit a wall in your faith.

Sometimes the extra work brings us up out of ourselves, giving us something different and positive to focus on and learn (and some new perspective on what it is we’re longing for). This can be reassuring and energizing in its own way.

Other times, the sheer effort of embracing unfamiliarity is enough to break a dam inside of us—to let all the sadness and frustration come tumbling out, such that we don’t even finish the prayer as we started it but instead allow ourselves to be vulnerable and more open to healing.

Devote uninterrupted time to vent your feelings, unfiltered, to God.

Step 1: Find a quiet place and schedule at least 30 uninterrupted minutes of solitude.

Step 2: Meditate on what’s bothering you for a few minutes. Consider the disappointment or anger you’re feeling. Recall a recent trigger. Sit inside those feelings for a short time, rather than pushing them down. Allow yourself the mindset of wondering, “Why, God?” so He can see what you need.

Step 3: Talk to Him. Don’t stop for 10 minutes (or just until you’re done—spent). Speak aloud or in your head; write it down if that’s helpful. But just let it out. Say every single thing you think. Tell Him everything you feel. Be angry. Be sad. But don’t just feel it—tell Him about it. Tell Him why you feel that way. Give a voice to everything that’s churning in your stomach and hurting your heart. You need to articulate what you’re feeling to fully understand it and make it known to Him, and to yourself.

Step 4: Be silent. Apologize if you’ve lashed out and feel obligated to do so. But mostly, be silent. Focus on your breathing, on letting go, on handing this pain off to Him and asking Him to make sense of it for you.

Step 5: Conclude. Mindfully say “Amen,” knowing that the air has been cleared and God knows how you feel. Try to move on with your day, or simply go to bed if you feel in need of rest.

Repeat as needed. Sometimes it helps immensely to do this just once; sometimes you need to do it again and again until you feel cleansed. Sometimes it’s therapeutic; sometimes it’s going to rile you up.

As difficult as this may be, any honesty is progress if you are in the habit of leaving your feelings of doubt or frustration unexplored or, worse, suppressed. Don’t make this your only form of prayer, but do use it as a tool. This exercise is for expressing your feelings and reassuring yourself that God has heard them.

Make note of the thoughts and questions this exposes for you, and take those to other forms of prayer or intellectual exploration.

Seek a meaningful conversation with a trusted priest.

As with any type of counseling, spiritual direction can offer a clarifying component to your faith life—especially when you’re struggling with feelings of doubt, anger, or resentment. Priests are ordained representatives of Christ in our world, so seeking counsel from one is an act of faith that God sees and supports.

A good shepherd tends his flock with joy, and so your priest will be happy to meet with you for a conversation (or direct you to another spiritual counselor, if ongoing discussions are important to you and his calendar is a roadblock).

You can get some “unofficial” spiritual direction by scheduling time for Confession (scheduling an appointment is best, so you have enough time for discussion and don’t feel rushed by a line of fellow faithful behind you). In the confessional, share what’s on your mind with your priest, seek absolution for your sins, and ask for his advice on how to see God’s love in your life. Lean on his faith and devotion to help nourish yours. I think many devout Catholics can say some of their most enriching, energizing, and cleansing moments—painful and intense as they may be—come from the sacrament of Reconciliation and the wisdom of a good confessor.

You might also invite your pastor to dinner, treating him to a homecooked (or takeout!) meal with a request for conversation and enrichment based on some things you’re struggling with in life.

In addition to these one-off interactions, be open to ongoing spiritual direction, too. If you’re struggling to understand how God is at work in your life, or to trust Him, you may well benefit from some guidance and support from a person who respects your faith and wants to help it grow.

Soul Food: How to Seek the Sacred in Every Day

“Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe.” We shouldn’t be testing God, begging Him to make Himself known to us. We should put our faith in Him no matter what.

Still, faith is fed by seeing—it’s just that it’s rarely in a literal sense. We must learn to see God everywhere, in the everyday world in which we live. The everyday world He made for us.

Exercises for Finding Holiness All Around You

God did make this world for you specifically. Your free will has carried you through the big and little decisions of life, but God knew where you were headed all along, and He crafted your world accordingly—anticipating your needs in each and every moment. Can you recognize His handiwork?

The divine can often be found even in the mundane, and spotting it is a balm to the soul on a weary day.

So next time you’re craving a chance to see God working in your life, give one of these exercises a try.

Record and reflect on three (possibly tiny) gifts for today.

Throughout the day, write down three of the delights you experience while going about your routine—big or small. Capture anything that made you smile: a child’s antics, a promotion, your pet’s warmth, your favorite song coming on the radio, affirmation from someone you love. Anything.

At the end of the day, look at the list. Ask yourself:

  • Why did these things make you happy?
  • What about your personality or history is reflected by them? How are these gifts wrapped up in bigger blessings (e.g., the people in your life or the place you live)?
  • How easily might you have missed these moments if your day went slightly differently, or if you weren’t paying attention?
  • Might any of them have answered some recent prayers, even in a small way?
  • What, if any, major or difficult decisions in your life led to any of these delights?

God made you uniquely you, and then He showered you with these small joys to feed your spirit—ensuring the world came together in such a way that you would feel His love in those moments. Contemplate these experiences deeply until you can see this patchwork of His tenderness for you.

When you can see how He has blessed even the small moments in life, it’s easier to ponder His bigger plans. Are you feeling aligned with God’s hopes for you? If you’re feeling separated, how can you draw nearer to Him based on the strengths and preferences He has woven into you?

Stand outside—no matter the weather.

“Some people, in order to discover God, read books. But there is a great book: the very appearance of created things. Look above you! Look below you! Read it. God, whom you want to discover, never wrote that book with ink. Instead, He set before your eyes the things that He had made. Can you ask for a louder voice than that?” – Saint Augustine

Step out the door and stand in the fresh air. Do not let your mind wander. Instead, spend five or ten full, actual, timed minutes and soak up the scene you are seeing in as much detail as possible. Imagine you’re a painter and will need to recreate the imagery on canvas, from memory. Notice the details:

  • What is the precise color of the sky? Are the clouds foreboding, puffy, wispy—or are there no clouds at all?
  • If it’s precipitating, how does it feel? Is the rain a fine mist, or heavy droplets—as if someone is watering you like a gardener with a hose? Is the snow light and fluffy, or heavy and dense?
  • Do you see signs of life around you? Notice how diverse or distracted any passersby appear to be. Look for birds, rodents, insects—anything moving of its own accord. How many miracles has God breathed life into here?
  • Are there buildings or other manmade structures in sight? How much work and creativity went into designing and erecting them? How much care goes into maintaining them?
  • What is the flora like? Is it looking healthy or withering? How many shades of green or brown can you count?
  • What time of day is it? What’s the season? How is this scene different, in this moment, from any other?

Once you’ve had a chance to soak it in, contemplate the depth of the whole world. How many beautiful, complex things are happening all at once, even when no one is watching? Consider that there are more than 7,000,000,000—seven billion!—other human souls on the earth, and each and every one of them can step outside at this moment, too, and see thousands of things that are unique to each of their experiences. Thousands of unique and beautiful things, times 7 billion perspectives.

God made all of this. He knows all of it, intimately, in every single nanosecond. He is with all of us at once, holding our hands and lighting our paths. Can you feel Him?

Pause to actively admire someone you passively admire.

We all have role models, mentors, friends, and beloved family members. There is someone in your life—perhaps someone you directly know, or perhaps an influencer or even a saint you admire from afar—who you look up to.

God’s greatest masterpiece is reflected in the face of each of His children. The human person is His most beloved creation, and it’s easy to see why if we look on one another with love.

So think of someone who you admire—someone who, in your eyes, embodies God’s love and works hard to live according to His design. Look for Him in that precious soul:

  • How did you come to know this person? In what ways have they spoken to you when you really needed it?
  • What do you know of their history? What adversity have they overcome to become stronger?
  • Why is this person, and the part they play in your life, important? How does God speak to you through this person’s influence?
  • What makes you similar to this person? What makes you different? Do these similarities and differences please you, or do they present opportunities for self-improvement? (Remember: You don’t have to completely mimic this person, because you are uniquely wonderful. Consider what you can learn from them, not how you can become them.)
  • Where can beauty be found in this person—and not just physical beauty, but spiritual? Keep in mind that scars and suffering can be beautiful, too, when they foster growth.
  • What makes this person unique? How did God make them different from anyone else you’ve known?
  • If you were to send this person a gift, what would it be? What would suit them specifically and why? (Then send it, if you can!)

Every single person on this earth has been loved by someone—at a minimum, by God Himself. That means every single person you pass by, or interact with online, or hear about through a friend, or whose name you read in the newspaper—each of them can be the subject of this reflection. And no two reflections will look the same.

Again, multiply that realization times 7,000,000,000. How vast is the creativity and compassion of a God who made each of those people so unique?

But First: Seek the Sacraments

To be clear: The best way to find the sacred is to go to church. Run there—do not walk—as often as you can. Spend as much time as you are able with Jesus in the Lord’s house. We should all strive to be like Padre Pio, who told his brothers: “When you want to find me, come near the Tabernacle.”

Immeasurable peace can be found in the sanctity of the church: in the floral scent of the incense, the soothing rumble of the organ, the beauty and detail of the artwork, the stories told by the icons, the ancient significance of the chants, the wisdom of the pastor, and above all, the nourishment of the Eucharist.

The liturgy is the single most profound setting—the most literal connection to Heaven—that we can immerse ourselves into in this life.

So please, always prioritize the sacraments if you are feeling far from God. He is there, waiting for you.

But when you can’t get to church—when you are limited to wherever you are in this moment—then seek out the sacred in the small. In the simple. In the everyday. You can find Him there, too.

Ruled by Faith: A Testimony for Structured Religion

I am a deeply disorganized person by nature. As a kid, my bedroom was always chaos. As an adult, my desk looks much the same. So I didn’t think I’d be a very schedule-focused mom before I had children.

Since my first was a baby, though, I have seen time and again how kids thrive with structure. I have become “that mom” who relies heavily upon a consistent bedtime, specific snack and meal times, and “5-minute warnings” for my children.

And it’s not because I love creating and enforcing rules. It’s because I can see how much happier and more relaxed my kids are with a reliable edifice to guide their day and give them some sense of what to expect from others and themselves.

When I hear questions about why the Catholic faith is defined by so many “rules,” this is the best analogy I can offer to defend the Church. So let’s dig into that today.

Faith and Obligation

Do we Catholics have a lot of rules to follow? Absolutely.

Catholics are beholden to weekly Mass obligations (plus a few other obligatory days throughout the year), highly countercultural expectations of sexual morality, obedience to the hierarchy of bishops on many issues, fasting requirements (although these are greatly limited in the modern era), and, of course, pursuit of the sacrament—to name some of the big ones.

When we break these, we are obligated to go to Confession so that we can act on our repentance and know of our forgiveness from God. This isn’t meant to shame us or give the priest in the confessional inappropriate power over our relationship with Jesus—not at all. Instead, by confessing to an ordained representative of Christ, we give voice to our mistakes in a way that acknowledges how they have distanced us from God, and we are given an opportunity to have that slate wiped clean by God. Each time, He forgives without exception. We are left truly guilt free.

Still, the list of rules can seem like a lot. It might even look like a weight tied to our ankles as we seek out every opportunity for happiness.

But I challenge you to look at it another way: The structure of Catholicism isn’t a weight that drags us down, but the buoy that keeps our heads above water in an ocean of uncertainty.

Lost at Sea

I think the one thing everyone on this planet can agree on is that our world is not perfect. And because that’s true—because there is pain in our world—we are forced to navigate an infinite number of difficult choices on a journey toward fulfillment and betterment. But how? How can any of us find our way across broken bridges with torn-up maps?

From a Christian perspective, we believe that man and woman were made in the image of God, designed for a life of paradise in unity with our Lord.

However, we were also made with free will, because our Creator wanted to give us the gift of real, authentic love. And when that free will was tempted by selfishness, paradise became fractured.

The bad news, now, is that we’re left with this imperfect world featuring great sorrow and suffering.

The Good News? Life is still full of hope, because Jesus has saved us and we are destined for a joyful eternity.

To reach that destiny, we rely on the mercy of God to see past our mistakes, heal the wounds we inflict on ourselves by choosing to do wrong, and welcome us into His embrace. And He is ready and willing to do so. He wants to give us these gifts. We were, after all, made for them and the joy that they bring.

Still, we are capable of rejecting those gifts—or losing sight of them. We are swimming at sea, trying to spot them on a seemingly endless horizon. Very quickly, caught up in the current, we lose track of up and down, left and right, north and south. Sometimes we make a bad call on which direction is best. Sometimes we get tossed into an unfortunate position by the pitching of the water. Either way, it is exhausting. In fact, it’s barely survivable.

We are swimming for our lives. But faith keeps us afloat. The faith in our hearts reminds us that there is an end to that horizon and we will find it, in time.

Having faith gives us a life preserver in this stormy sea. The practice of that faith is what makes us strong enough to hold on and ride the waves until the time comes to rest and find our reward.

How Accountability Bears Fruit

Just like my kids, if I’m left to conduct my life without structure—never quite clear on where to go or when to get there, without guidance on responsible behavior, unsure of what habits and patterns will help me grow best—I’m not really set up for success.

Worse, I won’t be able to tap into the full potential of who I was made to be. Instead, I’ll spend so much attention trying to define my boundaries that I’ll risk blowing past the deeper introspection that will help me nurture my best qualities.

Put another way: If I am too concerned with looking outside myself to sift through ambiguities and learn what good conduct out in the world looks like, there will be no energy left for looking inside myself to foster real growth.

On the other hand, with well-defined guideposts giving me clarity on what “good conduct” means, I am free to look deeper into my own soul and my relationship with God. I don’t need to learn the best practices of life, because I have a structure in place to give me those lessons from the start. There is no “reinventing the wheel” on living well. I am well practiced in discipline and self-control. Thus, I’m not only confident in the way I’m living my external life, but I’m reclaiming the time and space I need to cultivate a healthier and more fruitful internal life.

Faith formation and my initiation into the sacraments established this structure for me. Then, when I dug deeper into that structure as a young adult, I was able to see the truth that motivated all of it—and better understand how the “rules” aid me in blocking out the bad things in life in favor of preserving and exploring the very best things.

It’s also reassuring that this structured faith is 2,000 years old—initiated by Christ himself—and has been deeply questioned, tested, and explored by the brightest theological minds of human history. There is great comfort in leaning on tradition; it lends authority to the rules of today. Plus, there is palpable reassurance in knowing that many beautiful souls have led this life before me, and found God on this path. If I can love God and follow their example, I can be holy, too.

All of this being said, the real key to understanding the beauty of accountability is to seek to understand it for yourself. I could go on and on about what it means to me, but it isn’t likely to be enough for you.

The human mind is a creative, independent, logical, and curious thing—and it is never enough to be told what to do “just because.” God made us this way. He gave us deep intellect and an adventurous mindset so that we could take ownership of this life, exploring its nuances and the motivations of our faith, and becoming closer to Him in the process.

So, if you’re feeling restricted or put off by the structure of religion: Rather than turning away from the rules, explore them. Educate yourself on what they are and what motivates them at a theological level, and meditate on what you learn in light of what you’ve experienced for yourself.

If you want to chat about where to start, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me. I’d be happy to help offer recommendations. And I bet your priest would say the same!

The 3 Tenets of Lent: Because “Giving Something Up” Isn’t Enough

Over the last few years, I’ve reformed the way I observe Lent. Previously, I could see that I was using the liturgical season simply to break bad habits or lose weight or accomplish some other self-focused thing, and it wasn’t as spiritually productive as it should’ve been.

So I started a tradition for myself: I planned out weekly observances—small, changing sacrifices that keep me thinking and meditating—paired with special prayer intentions that remind me to offer up my small sufferings throughout the season.

It’s been really fruitful for me. It has been so helpful in bringing me out of myself for Lent, and inspiring me to focus on the greater world and the enormity of Christ’s sacrifice for me.

But, going on three years of this, I wanted to change it up a little for 2021. After all, it’s important to keep your mind guessing—otherwise, routines become so routine as to almost go unnoticed.

With that in mind, I’m holding myself accountable for following through on all three traditional Lenten observances—prayer, fasting, and almsgiving—in new ways.

This led to my personal theme for Lent 2021: Lift Up, Give Up, and Take Up.

I’ve created a free, downloadable worksheet you can use to create a plan like mine this year, if it interests you. Please find it here! And feel free to share, too. The file features a filled-out example, as well as a blank sheet for you to complete on your own.

Now, let’s dive into the theme below.

Lift Up

During Lent, the penultimate goal is to meditate on Christ’s sacrifice for us, and to remind ourselves of our urgent need for that sacrifice. It all comes down to this.

Sometimes, we (or at least I) get so caught up in choosing a personal sacrifice that we forget how it’s supposed to mirror the ultimate sacrifice: death on a cross, willingly endured for the salvation of the world.

That’s why the first tenet of Lenten observation is prayer. We are challenged to lift up our attention to the Lord in a special way during this season. How else can we begin to appreciate the profound sorrow of Good Friday or the unequivocal joy of Easter Sunday?

Give Up

This is the one we know well, right? During Lent, we choose a sacrifice that will help make us better people and reflect the selflessness of Christ.

Lent is a time to intentionally give up a guilty pleasure, bad habit, or vice that draws your attention inward instead of inspiring you to reflect God’s love outward.

This second Lenten observation—fasting—helps cleanse the soul and bring our mental focus onto faith. When we fast, we turn away from our physical demands in favor of the demands of the soul. In this way, we nurture unity between body and spirit, because we’re reminding ourselves that we can never be fulfilled in this earthly life. Only the promise of eternal life with God can do that.

Take Up

There’s one more way to focus on selflessness and sacrifice during Lent: almsgiving.

Becoming better people isn’t just about looking inward and looking up to God. It’s also about doing God’s work in the world around us—so we should take up an important cause and go out of our way to support our neighbors during this season.

Prayer and fasting help us practice the first great commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” Practicing charity in Lent helps us fulfill the second: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:36-40)

Almsgiving isn’t just about donating your treasure or even your time, either. Donating your time in prayer and spiritual kinship with a particular person or prayer intention is a sort of almsgiving, too.

My Lenten Practices for 2021

For each of the six weeks of Lent, I have chosen a specific fast (something to give up) or a specific practice or devotion to observe for each day of that week. I have a specific prayer intention for each week, too, so whenever I find myself thinking about or practicing that week’s observance, I will lift up that intention to God in prayer.

As I mentioned above, having a different practice to observe each week keeps me on my toes—“what can’t I eat this week again?” or “have I done my devotion today?” become common refrains in my train of thought—and thus gives me more opportunities to pray.

And then, during the Triduum, I try to observe the solemnity of that very special season—to make the holiness of it a central fixture in my mind, so I can thank God for all that He has done for me.

Finally, I know that having a couple of things to practice for the entirety of the season can be fruitful, also. It is always a good idea to establish healthy, lasting habits or help one’s neighbors more frequently.

Based on all this, here’s the schedule I’ve planned out for this year:

Periodic Observances

Week 1 (2/17-2/23)

  • Give Up: coffee
  • Intention: the Church Suffering

Week 2 (2/24-3/2)

  • Take Up: daily act of charity
  • Intention: the Church Militant

Week 3 (3/3-3/9)

  • Give Up: condiments
  • Intention: families struggling with infertility

Week 4 (3/10-3/16)

  • Take Up: daily rosary
  • Intention: the unborn

Week 5 (3/17-3/23)

  • Give Up: chocolate
  • Intention: my family

Week 6 (3/24-3/31)

  • Take Up: daily act of charity
  • Intention: the poor and persecuted

Paschal Triduum (4/1-4/3)

  • Give Up: TV
  • Focus: glorifying God

Ongoing Observances

  • Lift Up: At least 10 minutes of my attention every week to stand outside and thank God for the beauty of Creation
  • Give Up: Unproductive complaining aloud (and petty or unkind internal complaining)
  • Take Up: The needs of our local community by making weekly new, material donations to Saint Vincent de Paul or a pro-life ministry

For my daily acts of charity, I’ll be referencing a list of random acts of kindness and try to fulfill one every day.

It looks complicated all written down, but in practice, this is a fruitful and straightforward way to keep focused during Lent and be agile in the mindful practice of my faith.

Now, what are you planning for this year? Let me know in the comments or on Facebook—I’m so inspired by you all! Again, that free planning sheet can be downloaded here if it’s helpful for you!

And finally, please reach out if you have any special intentions that line up with the intentions I have listed above. I would be so honored to include your name, or the names of loved ones, in my prayers during the upcoming Lenten season.

11 Quick Prayers for the Overwhelmed Mom

Parents are busy people—and many, this year, have been busier than ever.

I’m friends with a lot of wonderful moms with small kiddos, and a common refrain for all of us is that the bustle of family life sometimes leaves little time for the deep conversations with God that we so crave in this stressful season of motherhood.

It’s not just the physical effort that keeps us busy (although our hands are literally full most days). It’s the mental load, which occupies our minds so thoroughly that there’s no space left for reflection.

What we sometimes forget is that God doesn’t need a treatise on our faithfulness every day. He doesn’t need long, poetic tributes or formal applications for help. He meets us in the little moments of crisis and joy—the in-between times when we’re looking for the next thing that needs doing. He loves our labors, because every overwhelmed moment is a gift of self to our families and, thereby, to Him.

So I try to say many Our Fathers and Hail Marys and Glory Bes as I go about my day—to let them be the tunes I whistle as I work. It reminds me that my labors are holy and important, and gives God thanks for the blessings He has given me (even when I’m too tired to really articulate my gratitude).

I hope you give that a try, because it’s been so good for me. And, in those moments you want to express something a little different, keep these brief prayers handy. Remember that you are His beloved child, and He is delighted by every “I love you” and “I trust you” and even every “please” and “thank you.”

For when you find yourself in wonder at the beauty of Creation.

Dear God, please reveal to us your sublime beauty that is everywhere, everywhere, everywhere, so that we will never again feel frightened. My divine love, my love, please let us touch your face.

(St. Francis of Assisi)

For when you are lonely.

Remind me, dear friends and intercessors in the Church Triumphant, that there is a place for me beside you at God’s table. All you holy men and women, pray for me.

For when you’ve lost your patience and really, really need it back.

O My God, relying on Thy infinite goodness and promises, I hope to obtain pardon of my sins, the help of Thy grace, and life everlasting, through the merits of Jesus Christ, my Lord and Redeemer.

(Act of Hope)

For when you are in pain and want to offer it up for another.

Father, help me to join my suffering to the redemptive suffering of your Son, my Lord, Jesus Christ. By virtue of this self-giving love, bring comfort to [a friend in need] and help us both draw nearer to you.

For when you are among friends, neighbors, or even strangers.

Help me to spread your fragrance everywhere I go—let me preach you without preaching, not by words but by my example—by the catching force, the sympathetic influence of what I do, the evident fullness of the love my heart bears to you.

(St John Henry Newman)

For when you are full of joy.

God, there is no greater joy than to feel you near me. I thank you abundantly for the abundance of your love!

For when you’re frightened.

For the sake of His sorrowful Passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world.

(From the Chaplet of Divine Mercy)

For when you have a difficult decision to make and need guidance.

O Holy Spirit, sweet Guest of my soul, abide in me and grant that I may ever abide in Thee.

For when you are just so very tired.

Sacred Heart of Jesus, I believe in Thy love for me.

For when you need some peace and quiet.

My God, close my ears and eyes to the world and open them only to your grace.

For when you need your own mama.

Pray for us, O Holy Mother of God, that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.

(From the rosary)

“Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin” and Other Spiritual Clichés

As the saying goes (get it?), every cliché became clichéd for a reason.

We use them to teach, communicate at work, share in solidarity, reference favorite movies. It’s a perfectly fine way to contribute to a conversation in many settings.

The risk, though, is treating clichés as if they have finality. Clichés can help us connect with others or articulate a relatable thought, but they should never be a conclusion—because the only thing a cliché proves is its own popularity. That isn’t the kind of evidence you need in a debate.

When it comes to faith and morality, clichéd thinking is an especially important fallacy to avoid. Discussions on these topics may be heated. Sometimes, a person will want to engage on them because they are in crisis. The issues on the table are critical, and they are complicated. A proper conversation should involve a lot of thought and evidence. But too often, the same oft-cited clichés are treated as if they can stand in as a final word.

They can’t. Clichés may not be untrue, but they aren’t the whole truth, and when you’re talking about something as nuanced as faith or policy, that’s an important distinction.

“Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin”

We hear this so much in today’s world. And it’s an important reminder to check our biases and offer forgiveness. None of us can judge the state of another’s soul. None of us can see the interior of another’s heart. It is essential that we know our place in this way.

However, this concept of Christian compassion isn’t an open door to relativism. We can never damn another person, or purport to know how God sees them (except to rest assured that they, as are we all, His beloved children). But this doesn’t mean we must support everything they do or say when we believe those words or actions to be wrong. It’s okay to call out wrongdoing. In fact, it is imperative. And to be shut down with this cliché in response is not to be beaten.

Remember, though, that we are not here to change hearts. Only God can do that. We can (and must) share truth, and live a good example that shows kindness, meekness, and penance—but that’s all we can do.

“Let Go and Let God” (Or Its Cousins, “God Will Never Give You More Than You Can Handle” and “Everything Happens for a Reason”)

And on speaking of what we cannot do—there’s quite a lot of it. Of course there is. Of course we can’t change the world all on our own, or single-handedly save our country, or even, frankly, guide the precise path of our own lives.

In this way, it’s important to give over our worries and anxieties to God and trust in His care for us. He is our Father, and He will carry us through it all—either on this earth or to salvation—if we let Him.

But we can control our own behavior. We are entirely responsible for the way we live our lives, even if we can’t foresee all of the outcomes of our behavior. So yes, we should be letting God “take control of our lives.” But no, this is not a reason to set aside hard work, or attempt to convince ourselves that deeply important issues are not worth examining and stressing over.

Sometimes we need that stress to remind ourselves of our roles and how we can better help our neighbors, as well as ourselves. And sometimes, if someone is suffering, we need to acknowledge their pain instead of brushing it off as something God will remove from them if only they believe hard enough.

Pain can be cleansing. So can hard work.

“Actions Speak Louder Than Words” and “You Can’t Have it Both Ways”

This is one you might hear often in partisan debates: “If you say you believe in x, you’ve sure failed to show it with real action!” That impulsive response to a difficult statement, or one that appears contradictory, is understandable. It’s so hard to wrap our minds around some of the issues we face in public policy today, and how all of those issues intersect and interact (spoiler alert: neither major American party gets everything right).

But Catholicism is a “both/and” faith. So much of what we believe might appear confusing, but nuances often reveal that there is no contradiction when two things—like rejecting abortion and rejecting birth control—appear to be discordant.

The proper thing to do isn’t to accuse someone of failing to act on their beliefs. Instead, ask how they have, or how you might go about doing the same. Better yet, ask why and how they believe those two things at once.

What to Say Instead

People don’t come away from difficult conversations feeling like they’ve learned something if they’ve heard too many platitudes.

That said, we’re not all incredible orators. It’s hard to come up with the right answer to a tough question when put on the spot.

I don’t know about you, but I find myself falling back to clichés when I’m just not sure how to articulate more detail. I grasp for something relatable and recognizable, and want to offer that to “prove my point” by way of helping someone understand where my head is at. But that’s not the way to teach someone something. And it can be a dangerous cop-out—because, if I feel like I’ve expressed myself in an “easy” way and the other person “just doesn’t get it,” neither of us is challenged to dig deeper and discover something important.

So, if you want to say something but aren’t quite sure how to say it well—don’t take the easy way out. Instead, be honest: “You know, I’m not precisely sure how to give you the best answer for that right now. Let me look into it a little bit more and get back to you with better insights.” Then, actually do that research and follow up as promised.

That is a difficult thing to do, especially if the conversation is heated or it feels like something huge is at stake. But you know what? That’s humility. Humility is objectively good. It’s also so impactful, because it shows people that you are aware of your own limitations and respectful of their time and attention. It also means you can extend the conversation and treat the subject with the care it deserves—and, if necessary, take a pause so everyone can catch their breath and return to the discussion with more information.

Whether you’re talking politics, faith, or ethics (or all three), remember that you are not responsible for having an astute, complete answer to every question. No one should expect that of you—and neither should you expect it of yourself. Check your pride. Be a good listener and a steady speaker. Above all, be open to learning. That’s how we grow.

Challenge is good. Tough conversations can be stressful, but they can also be incredibly productive—not just in influencing others, but in growing our own intellect. Give them the time and attentiveness they deserve instead of bandaging incomplete thoughts with relatable but empty banalities. St. John Chrysostom, patron of orators, pray for us.

Why Catholics are More Enlightened Than You Think

The Church is more scientific, universal, intellectual, and merciful than you may have been led to believe. Here’s how.

We believe in social justice.

The Catholic Church has the utmost respect for human life. That’s all human life, at all stages, with all kinds of needs:

  • We support a living wage because denying people the ability to provide for themselves and their families puts money above the wellbeing of our neighbors.
  • We support immigration and the responsible, generous, and charitable protection of people who are asking for help to improve their lives and escape danger.
  • We serve the poor and vulnerable because socioeconomic status does not devalue the inherent worth of our brothers and sisters. It is our duty and our privilege to affirm this worth.
  • We reject racism and any other attempt to make one person appear less valuable or worthy of life and liberty than the rest, because we are all made in God’s image.
  • We oppose the death penalty because cruel and unusual punishment violates the dignity of the human person.
  • We respect the earth and serve as thoughtful and responsible stewards of the environment and all of its inhabitants, because Creation is among God’s most beautiful and generous gifts.
  • We defend the most vulnerable among us—including the disabled, homeless, sick, dying, and unborn—from abuse or undignified and violent death, because no one’s impulses or preferences outweigh the gravity of life itself.

Examples of these virtues are abundant in the saints, and such generous and beloved souls as Pier Giorgio Frassati, Oscar Romero, and Frances Xavier Cabrini.

We believe in the dignity of every person.

A defining characteristic of the Catholic Church is her universality. The Church welcomes people of all backgrounds, races, and life stages. Each of us has a unique place in the Body of Christ, is made in God’s image, and is gifted with the ability to make this world a better place.

The diversity of saints is an excellent reflection of this truth. Our faith community has been blessed by wonderful people across many ethnic, social, racial, and cultural backgrounds, some of whom are now canonized. Read about some of these examples of Christian unity here and here.

Additionally, the Church upholds the valuable contributions of each of her members in the daily operations and success of our communities around the world. Vowed religious individuals and devoted laypeople, as well as priests, are at work running our churches, schools, hospitals, charitable organizations, and other networks every day. We are all called to serve, because all of us are worthy of being served and all of us are capable of having an impact that cannot be duplicated by anyone else.

We believe in the beauty of the human body.

Despite popular thought, the Church upholds the perfect beauty of both sexes. Men and women have unique roles in our faith, as well as in our domestic families and in roles of public ministry. Though the priesthood is a vocation specialized for men, women play an extraordinarily important role in the life of the Church.

After Jesus—who is, of course, the truly perfect incarnation of God as well as man, and the only human we worship—the human most beloved by Catholics is Mary. As the mother of God, Mary represents an ideal of not just womanhood, but humanity. She was obedient to God, as we all must be. She persevered in the face of adversity, persecution, and danger. And she was strong, intelligent, and devoted enough to raise her child into an educated, worldly, and loving man who would change the history of the world.

And after watching him die a criminal’s death, she went on to support his friends and help grow the community he built like only a woman could.

Additionally, also in defiance of popular accusations, the Church is passionate about the goodness of the human body and the beauty of human sexuality. In fact, Church teaching asserts the divine nature of sexuality and insists everyone who participates in it puts their partner’s joy above their own—demanding a mutual respect that has simply disappeared from popular discourse around sex.

We aren’t influenced by groupthink.

The Catholic Church is a 2,000-year-old institution. Many accuse her of being outdated and slow to adapt to modernity.

And maybe, in some ways, they’re right. But these things are not inherently bad.

The Church has withstood the test of time, despite the atrocities that have afflicted humanity and the shame some members and leaders of the Church earned for themselves along the way. Jesus promises the disciples in Matthew that evil will never prevail against the Church. Ours is a ship that is truly unsinkable—despite the deeply imperfect people at the helm.

So our faith is one of slow evolution and cautious change. We do not allow the latest controversies or fad philosophies to dictate Truth, and we do not give in to current whims at the risk of damaging the faith and salvation of millions. Scripture and tradition guide us, as they should. Theology is a place of healthy discourse and respectful debate. Teachings are not altered lightly. And dogma can never be contradicted.

We resist peer pressure, reject negative influences, and are true to ourselves—always.

We are artists, architects, scientists, scholars, servants, and teachers.

Catholics have served in virtually every role of society. Some of the most beautiful masterpieces originated with our love for God. A majority of the world’s non-governmental healthcare is provided by our love for our neighbors. Many of our greatest intellectual traditions have roots in the Church. A host of extraordinary scientific advancements can be attributed to great Catholics throughout history.

For more, start by Googling any of these Catholics and their contributions to society:

  • Teresa of Calcutta
  • Dolores Hope
  • Flannery O’Connor
  • Clarence Thomas
  • Elizabeth Ann Seton
  • Gregor Mendel
  • Georges Lemaitre
  • Dorothy Day
  • Fredrick McGhee
  • Mary Kenneth Keller
  • Thomas More

You may be surprised by how deeply this faith has influence literature, the arts, mathematics, life sciences, physics, and more. There is no curiosity and intellectual insight quite like that which is inspired by a devotion to the Maker who designed it all.

We know our weakness.

The Church is clear on many things when it comes to right and wrong. Catholics live by a moral code and a formed conscience, and sometimes we are made unpopular by the worldly things we reject (looking at you, HBC).

We also know that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. In many ways, humility is a hallmark of our faith. We know our limits.

Thankfully, our limitations aren’t the end for us. We have an incredible wealth of history, tradition, and theology to help us overcome personal barriers. An abundance of grace has brought forth many bright Catholic minds, who have assembled lasting resources to benefit the faithful around the world.

These minds compiled the Bible. They established sacred Tradition, which passes down the teachings of the apostles from generation to generation. They have helped establish the forms of our liturgy, inspired many devotions and prayers, and taught us about the beauty of the sacraments. I could go on and on.

But, in her wisdom, the Church also leaves a lot of choices to the discernment of individuals and families. A massive theological library, many papal documents (of varying subjects and authority), and insights from saints aid in that discernment. But ultimately, on issues of vocation, hobby, work, family size or routines, and more, we Catholics have the benefit of a clear moral structure that helps us recognize right from wrong—and then pursue the life we were made for, the life we love.

We are guided by love.

Above all, Catholicism is a faith defined by love: love for God and, thereby, love for neighbor. We actively seek to see and resolve our neighbors’ suffering, because we are all brothers and sisters with the same Father—and we are here for each other.

As Pope Francis has said, “Today more than ever, there needs to be a revolution of tenderness. This will save us.”

Drawing Inspiration from JPII on Reconciling Suffering in Our World

Pain is a reality for us all. It is the sad truth of our world that perfection is out of reach.

(Far out of reach, actually. Most of us can’t agree on what perfection even is.)

And there are many kinds of pain: the sorrow of loss, the sting of hate, the ache of loneliness, the distress of being unwanted. Some of these things I have felt. Some I’m privileged not to have experienced for myself. But each of us has a story to tell, and every one of those stories features pain.

Whatever your experience, all suffering is a tragedy. And all of it has shaped us—for better or worse—into the people we are now.

Sometimes we shroud our pain with silence, feeling averse to vulnerability. Too often, we feel like our pain is weakness—as if we should be able to “let go and let God” or “rise above” or “focus on gratitude.” And to some extent, that mind-over-matter attitude is important.

But it can also negate the redemptive promise of our suffering.

Did Christ not suffer for us, more deeply than anyone? Was he not shamed, whipped, mocked, tortured, and nailed to a cross to pay for the sins of others? Did he not weep? Did he not die?

Suffering is not worthless. Pain is not weakness. No one is stronger than Jesus, and it is by Christ’s trials that we are redeemed. So, by our own trials, we can feel him and the depth of his love for us. And that is powerful.

But Why?

I, as I’m sure you do, sometimes catch myself in abject disbelief in the face of pain. Why does a loving God let a neighbor hate his neighbor? Why does the Divine Physician let a pandemic run rampant?

Why did the Father deliver his Son into the hands of murderers?

The answer is not simple. And, put simply, God does not send any evil or ill wishes upon any of us. Our world is broken by our own free will and the imperfections of reality on this earth. Imperfect people just cannot expect to live in a perfect world.

I recently read a book of essays from Saint John Paul II—recently published, though written before he became pope—called Teachings for an Unbelieving World: Newly Discovered Reflections on Paul’s Sermon at the Areopagus. In it, the great JPII discusses the nature of belief in God in a culture of unbelief.

John Paul II explains how God made us in His likeness: “God creates the human being both rational and free, wanting above all to express his image and likeness in the human person. Even at the cost of abusing the great gift of freedom” (page 31).

We are free to do as our rational thought compels us. God wants this freedom for us—because, without it, how can we truly, deeply experience love? Love never arises by force.

That freedom, though, comes with responsibility. It means that God can’t dictate every development in our journeys or the world around us. It means pain is a part of this life.

What to Do?

Central to a handful of JPII’s teachings in this book is the notion that suffering does not separate us from God—indeed, it actually unifies us to Him in a bond that reflects the two-fold nature of Christ, who is both God and man.

God is the creator of both the ultimate justice and the ultimate love—and sometimes, these concepts are difficult for us to reconcile. Isn’t judgment inherently hurtful? Isn’t love inherently joyful?

But this is not so—not at the heart of what these virtues entail. As John Paul II outlines in this book:

God himself is the “reconciliation” of justice with love. … All that Jesus “did” and “taught” testifies to the “reconciliation” of justice with love in the dimension of God himself, just as the Cross and the Resurrection constitute its supreme witness. (51-52)

Take, for example, the sacrament of Confession. Just as God holds us to high standards when it comes to doing what is right, He is delighted by the prospect of wiping our slates clean again and again—no matter how many times we fall—and drawing us into His embrace.

Likewise, God can work joy into our lives through the pain we endure. The way He created us might have allowed for suffering to enter the world, but it also allows for more authentic love between us and Him, and us and each other.

After all, without death, we would have no need for Christ. And oh, what we would be missing if Christ had not come for us.

In the miracle of Christ’s humanity and divinity, comingled in one truly perfect person, we are given a glimpse of what it means to be human and what it means to know God. In his suffering, we can see how justice and love are, in fact, quite easily reconciled—even if the depth of that reconciliation is beyond our understanding. JPII explains:

During his prayers in Gethsemane, “Christ united himself to the Father in a special way, and in a special way drew near to him, entering into the eternal dimension of the redemption of the world. However, it must also be emphasized that in this prayer Christ also drew near to humankind in a special way. The words: “If it is possible, let this cup pass from me” testify to his participation in the suffering of all people from the beginning to the end of the world. Christ united to the father—“Yet, not my will but yours be done”—is at the same time united to every human being, and is in “solidarity” with the destiny of humanity on earth. In this prayer, Christ opens, so to speak, a special space in which every person can find himself in the most difficult and crucial moments. The prayer in the garden of olives remains the specific paradigm of the “universalism” of Christ in the history of humankind. (104)

I love this. I love how, with faith, we can see suffering not as pointless pain in an empty world, but as an opportunity to grow—into better versions of ourselves, into more principled people, into closer relationships with Jesus, and into gratitude for the salvation that will ultimately deliver us from every kind of pain.

Suffering Quote

St. Paul touches on this in Romans 8:15-18: “When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (emphasis mine).

May we all endure suffering with our eyes toward Christ, do what we can to lessen the suffering of our neighbors, and offer up our pain for the salvation of the world. It is a heavy cross to bear, living in these times. But great rewards await us. Justice—and love—shall prevail.

Clarity and Confession: Reflections on Penance

You can’t pick a favorite sacrament. You just can’t. Each has its own beauty and wonder and draw. But there is something uniquely moving about Penance.

That’s not something I pictured myself saying back when I was preparing for my first confession. Or in the almost-decade I spent avoiding another one. Or even the first few times I returned to the confessional after that. But it’s a sentiment that’s dawned on me over the last couple of years.

I bet nearly all of us cradle Catholics have vivid memories of anxiety and embarrassment leading up to our first reconciliation. What adolescent, after all, looks forward to announcing their sins to another person—let alone a priest? There’s so much pressure to deny what is “bad” about us at that age, when we want so badly to be liked and loved and trusted.

And for adult converts, faith formation is a process of incredibly personal self-discovery. It isn’t easy to lay bare the ways we fall short to another person.

So it’s no surprise that I have come across some misunderstandings of the purpose of this sacrament, from Catholics and non-Catholics alike. To be clear:

  • Confession is not an opportunity to impose guilt.
  • Confession is not a mechanism by which the Church holds control over your relationship with God.
  • Confession is not a conspiracy to dig up dirt in order to keep you “on the hook.”
  • Confession is not an exercise in self-defense, in which we try and shore up our value despite our sins.
  • Confession is not a get-out-of-jail-free card, given to or by someone merely for intoning formulaic words like a magic spell.

“The Human Heart is Heavy and Hardened”

Make no mistake: Sin is a heavy burden. We are obliged to live in accordance with what is morally good not for the sake of following rules, but because it is in our nature to want and to be what is morally good.

This is why our conscience speaks loudly when our courage fails to do so. It’s why we like to say that an act of kindness “restores our faith in humanity.” It’s why giving feels good. It’s why love is the pinnacle of human connection.

Catholic or not, most of us believe that someone who is kind and genuinely devoted to doing the right thing is a healthy and well-ordered person.

When we don’t live according to this inclination toward goodness, it weighs on us. We feel depressed. We feel ashamed. We feel lost, or helpless, or unworthy. And that feeling spirals, doesn’t it?

It is painfully easy to look back at the laundry list of things we’ve done wrong and think, “Well, too late now.” We build bad habits and “fall off the wagon” again and again, and eventually, it seems like the only path forward is one big, ugly circle back to where we started. There is temptation, maybe subconscious: “What’s the point in trying to do better? I fail every time anyway.”

Sometimes, we choose to cope with this via mental gymnastics that attempt to resolve cognitive dissonance by convincing us (and others) that our vices aren’t so bad after all. But, when our conscience is well-formed, this self-indulgence rarely keeps us happy for long.

And then there are the burdens that settle on our hearts through no fault of our own. Burdens that weigh heavy on us, interrupting our spiritual practices and our perspectives on ourselves, the world, or God Himself.

In 2020, as a multitude of global and social crises overwhelm us with sorrow and frustration, we know how tumultuous simply living in this world can be. It is backbreaking work, and none of us can do it alone. Deep in our stormy thoughts, it is so difficult not to simply lean into that despair and lose sight of what is still good and true all around us.

“God Must Give Man a New Heart”

How can any of us hold up the weight of the world alone—especially while dragging our own hopelessness along, too, like boulders fettered to our ankles?

The answer is, of course, that we can’t. We’re never meant to carry the whole world alone. But we are woefully incapable of lifting even our own little share in it effectively when we are restricted by sin and the suffering that plagues us when we turn away from the Lord and his boundless love.

If you have a toddler, you know what it’s like to watch someone attempt the same task in the exact wrong way, over and over, while not just refusing your help, but completely snubbing your suggestions for how to get themselves sorted. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gently explained to my son that the easiest way to remove a shoe is to push it down his heel first, only to watch him fruitlessly tug on his toes whilst screeching his frustration right back at me.

Think how God must feel when we refuse His guidiance.

As Catholics, the sacrament of confession is our opportunity to turn our ears toward God. He wipes our slate clean, yes—and it’s a delightful relief every time that gift is given—but He also speaks to us in and around the confessional. Through the priest who ministers to us, or the quiet moments of prayerful penance afterward, or the newly opened curtains that let His light shine on rooms in our hearts that had been darkened by sin—He speaks to us.

The grace bestowed through Penance is one that restores our hearts to what they were designed to be. We become white as snow, receptive as Mary was in the moment of her Fiat, unwavering as John the Baptist as he taught bystanders that he must decrease as the Son of God must increase.

Sisters and brothers, I beg you: As soon as you are able, flee to the Lord in this generous sacrament. I promise you won’t be sorry.