Catholicism

7 Reads Every Catholic Mom Needs on Her Bookshelf

I love learning about the rich traditions, history, and teachings of the Church. But let’s be real: it’s difficult to find formal educational opportunities when your schedule is mandated by two rambunctious toddlers and a full-time job. (And even when I have the hours available in a day, my inner introvert rarely has the energy for more than an occasional retreat.)

Still, I don’t want that learning to go undone “until I have more free time.” So, a few years ago, I decided to devote part of the time I spend on my favorite self-care activity—reading—to my faith.

Committing to more spiritual reading has been incredibly fruitful for me. Along the way, each of these titles has had a profound effect on me as a Catholic woman and mother.

#1: Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich

The constant sleeplessness of the newborn phase or the piercing, repeat tantrums of a toddler—worse, the pain of seeing your child in pain—can sometimes dim the light of hope in your day-to-day.

When you haven’t had time to invest in devotions or prayer, that burden can sometimes make Christ and his sacrifice for you feel like a distant dream.

These are the moments I turn to Revelations of Divine Love. Julian of Norwich’s God-given insights into the profound love Christ has for each one of us are uplifting and life-changing. Julian’s humble, joyful words make me feel closer to Christ and more attuned to the many ways he is present and loving me each and every day.

#2: The First Society: The Sacrament of Matrimony and the Restoration of the Social Order by Scott Hahn

Marriage is the foundation of the family—a little community so important we call it the “domestic church.” But the significance of marriage doesn’t end there.

In this book, Scott Hahn uses his well-learned yet down-to-earth style to illustrate the many ways in which marriage has been an underpinning of civilization as we know it. I particularly enjoyed the way he describes how the sacrament’s graces enable us to live well not just within our families, but among our neighbors.

In the busy routines of life, it can be dreadfully easy for a husband and wife to forget to invest in one another. This book reminded me just how important that investment is.

#3: A Prayer Journal by Flannery O’Connor

On stressful days filled with noise, I sometimes long for the quiet of single life. Plagued by guilt in those moments, I don’t doubt my vocation—but I do doubt whether I’m fulfilling it as well as I’d hoped.

Flannery O’Connor is an icon in literature, and for good reason. Her writing broke norms and pushed readers to contemplate important subjects that were rather controversial in her time.

She was also a devout Catholic and deeply spiritual woman. Reading her prayer journal gave me insight into how she lived her faith in the context of her vocation—and how even the most admirable, successful women are plagued by moments of self-doubt and “what if” thinking.

#4: One Beautiful Dream: The Rollicking Tale of Family Chaos, Personal Passions, and Saying Yes to Them Both by Jennifer Fulwiler

A well-known personality in Catholic media, Jennifer Fulwiler is funny, insightful, and relatable.

Adding to her very honest online presence, Jennifer shares, in One Beautiful Dream, the story of how she grew into her writing and speaking career not in spite of her vocation as a wife and mother, but in cooperation with it. Like all of us, she faced disappointments, but by engaging with her passions and serving (and being served by) her family, she found harmony for the many “categories” of her life.

Jennifer’s story taught me that the seemingly incompatible interests of person (myself) and place (my role in the family I’ve built) don’t have to conflict at all. When we stop pitting them against each other, we learn to see how complementary they can be.

#5: Unless You Become Like This Child by Hans Urs von Balthasar

I’ve spoken on this one before (specifically here and here), but I can’t emphasize enough how lovely this little book is for any Christian—especially mothers.

Covering scripture, theology, and tradition, Hans Urs von Balthasar writes about what Christ meant when he urged us to “become like children” (Matthew 18:3). His insights are powerful reflections on the beauty of childhood, the gifts and wholesomeness of divine grace, and the nature of faith.

The lessons I’ve learned from this book have given me an even greater appreciation for the devotion and innocence of my children, and inspire me to emulate them in my conversations with the Father.

#6: Who Am I to Judge?: Responding to Relativism with Logic and Love by Edward Sri

Also appearing in a previous post, this book by Edward Sri is a primer for Catholics who find themselves needing to defend their beliefs, their lifestyle choices, and their stance on the issues of the day.

So, basically all of us.

Edward Sri is an inspired mind of our time, and his insights on why the most prevalent nomenclature in today’s typical debate—for example: “That’s not the choice I’d make, but why would I limit someone else’s choices?”—are eye-opening. If you’ve ever felt backed into a corner by someone who insisted your moral framework just can’t be universal, this is the book for you.

#7: The Assembler of Parts by Raoul Wientzen

Full disclosure: this book is a doozy and should come with trigger warnings on loss and childhood illness.

That said, The Assembler of Parts made me cry incredibly cleansing tears. Though some of its philosophical nuances must be taken with a grain of salt (it is, after all, the only novel on this list), the story is profound and moving in ways that are important for humans in general, and mothers in particular.

The overarching themes I pulled from this novel echo the cardinal virtues that are so critical for every vocation: faith, hope, and love. Add in a good dose of trust in the divine will of God and steadfastness in the face of adversity (two qualities I have an especially tough time emulating), and it’s difficult to tug at my heart strings any harder.

 

Have you read any of these titles? If so, what did you think? And please let me know what must-reads that I’ve missed, either in the comments or on Facebook!

Am I Doing This Right? Thoughts on Prayer (Part 2)

Prayer is a skill with which we are all born, because each of us is naturally inclined to seek God. But, as with all things, practicing will help us engage in prayer more effectively—and help us better see the fruits of our prayer in our daily lives.

Think of developing your prayer life like learning a language—not a secondary language, but your very first one.

A child spends the first few years of her life absorbing the spoken word of those around her. She takes this in like a sponge, learning the sounds of the words, what they mean, and what changes they affect when uttered aloud. Then, as she gains confidence and the physical ability to do so, she begins testing the words out herself.

At first, only her parents may understand her unique combination of slurred syllables and physical gesturing. But, as time goes on, her language becomes clearer to others—she joins in the conversations of her community.

Prayer is much the same.

At first, we must immerse ourselves in the language: attend Mass, read the Scriptures, study the saints. We listen closely to what prayers and insights are uttered there, and watch for the effects and insights they have not just on us, but on the world around us.

Participating in the sacraments and this type of spiritual study is a prayer in itself. But as we learn more and feel our passion inflamed by these encounters, we begin to utter our own prayers. They may be messy, highly specific, disorganized—they may sound like “gibberish” to another student. But God understands them easily.

Finally, by engaging deeply and keeping our lines of communication with God always open, we can fully participate in the community of the Church. We can recite the prayers during Mass and truly mean them, because we’ve come to better understand their weight. We can receive the Eucharist and be more closely joined in fellowship with our neighbors, because we better grasp what it means to be a part of the body of Christ.

St. Thomas Aquinas on Righteous Prayer

According to St. Thomas Aquinas, all prayer should have five qualities: it must be confident, ordered, suitable, devout, and humble. (Check out a brief look at deeper insights from St. Thomas here.)

In short, this means our prayers must:

  • Be said with sureness that God will deliver us, that Christ will advocate for us, and that the Holy Spirit will bring us grace. We know that God hears us, even if we don’t understand or even recognize the ways in which He answers our prayers.
  • Include only petitions that are good for us. When we ask God for something, we should genuinely believe that this thing will help us to grow physically, emotionally, or spiritually, in a way that will ultimately make us more holy sons and daughters of God.
  • Express moral and upright desires. In prayer, as in life, we must “seek first the kingdom of God and His justice” (Matthew 6:33).
  • Display genuine, heartfelt piety. As devoted members of the Church, our prayers to God must acknowledge His glory and arise from our love for Him above all else.
  • Acknowledge our weakness and our need for God’s mercy. We are imperfect people, and when we pray, we should understand our lowliness and thank God for His desire to be united to us in spite of it.

Insights from the Catechism

So: confident, ordered, suitable, devout, and humble. Great, but what do we say (or not say)?

Let’s look at the Catechism of the Catholic Church. You can read some of what is has to say about prayer online here (and use the arrows at the bottom of the page to thumb through the broader section on prayer, if you’re interested—it’s great reading), but the short of it is that there are five main forms of prayer for the faithful:

  1. Blessings and Adoration. Blessings are “an encounter between God and man.” It is time spent in the presence of God, in which His grace descends upon us and our acknowledgement and reception of that gift ascend to him. Adoration, meanwhile, is our recognition that we are a creation of God—our exalting of His greatness and expression of our love for Him.
  2. Prayer of petition. These are any prayers in which we ask God directly for something—whether that’s meeting a physical need we have, seeking His forgiveness, or praying for His kingdom on earth and our cooperation in its coming.
  3. Prayer of intercession. This is how we participate in the communion of saints. Prayers for intercession are made on behalf of others, including not just our friends and neighbors, but strangers, enemies, and those who reject the Faith.
  4. Prayer of thanksgiving. Not limited to thanking God for good fortune, prayers of thanksgiving help us show gratitude for all of the ways God works in our life. According to the catechism, “every event and need can become an offering of thanksgiving.”
  5. Prayer of praise. Finally, a genuine prayer of praise “lauds God for His own sake and gives Him glory, quite beyond what He does, but simply because HE IS.” In these prayers, we express our wonder at the marvels of Christ, the power of God, and the actions of the Holy Spirit.

The Wrong Way to Pray

Though we all pray differently, using our unique voices, it’s important to know one thing: there is a wrong way to pray.

The catechism states that “humility is the foundation of prayer.” It goes on: “Only when we humbly acknowledge that ‘we do not know how to pray as we ought’ (Romans 8:26), are we ready to receive freely the gift of prayer” (CCC ¶ 2559).

This is what I meant when I said in a previous post that prayer is a mystery. But while we may not know the perfect way to pray, we can certainly recognize the wrong way to pray: selfishly.

Prayer is not like writing a letter to Santa and asking for our favorite things. We know this because Jesus himself taught us the ideal form of prayer in the Lord’s Prayer:

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.

Here we acknowledge the personhood of God, our relationship with Him, and His holiness.

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

Next, we submit ourselves and our world to God’s will for us, because we know it is what’s right.

Give us this day our daily bread.

We ask for the necessities of life—the things that will make us healthier people, which will help us do His will.

And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.

Then, we ask for His mercy—it is what saves us. We also vow to have mercy on others, as an expression of our love for His children and our desire to follow Christ’s commandment.

And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

Finally, we seek His grace to follow a righteous path in life, to fulfill our vocation without backsliding into sin, and to keep us safe on this journey.

These are very high-level analyses, but the different components of the Our Father reveal profound insights on what prayer should be.

Above all, prayer cannot be selfish. To seek only our own gain in prayer is to not pray at all.

How do you keep your prayers focused on God and His glory? What tricks do you have for developing your prayer life and praying without ceasing? Let me know in the comments or on Facebook—I’d love to learn from you!

Am I Doing This Right? Thoughts on Prayer (Part 1)

My son recently broke his leg—what they call a “toddler fracture.”

As we shuttled him back and forth from doctors’ offices and the ER, we were trying to explain to his big sister why he needed so much help.

We like to be accurate with our kids when we can, rather than dumbing down facts for them. So we told her: “Sweetie, your brother fell in a bad way and broke a bone in his leg. We have to take him to the doctor so they can give him the bandages he needs to keep it steady and help it heal. That way, after a while, it won’t hurt anymore.”

A three-year-old doesn’t understand that beneath our skin are layers of fat and muscle, and beneath those is a bone that makes our limb sturdy but can be broken under certain circumstances. She looked at her brother’s leg and, like the rest of us, saw no bruising or swelling or blood. This was not like any “owie” she had seen before.

But toddlers are smart, and they can be excellent with context clues. She heard “hurt,” “broken,” “doctor,” and “heal” and knew what those things meant. She could see that his leg was causing him pain despite having no visible wound.

She looked at me, nodded gravely, and said “My brother’s gonna be okay, right?”

I assured her he would.

Then she promptly ran to the kitchen to get him a frozen toy—something she knew helped with hurting teeth, which likewise could not be seen but were painful nonetheless—and brought it over to him to put on his leg. In his frustration he slapped it away and she, undeterred, rubbed his back and said, “It’s gonna be okay, Byron. I’m sorry it hurts.”

And that was all she needed to know. Though she could not understand the science of his injury, she could see that he was hurting and that he needed tending. That was that.

When I think about the concept of prayer, I think about how my daughter must feel in confusing moments like this. When it comes to prayer, I’m the child—I’m the one trying to grasp a topic too deep to understand.

Prayer is Beyond Us

I heard something at a recent retreat that, intellectually, was incredibly dense: “Prayer is a conversation with God, in which we get to know Him, He gets to know us, and we get to know ourselves.”

How can prayer be like talking with God when I’m doing all the actual, verbal talking? How can I get to know Him when He doesn’t literally answer my questions or tell me about Himself? How can I get to know myself by trying to grasp what He has to say to me?

Instead of becoming discouraged by my unknowing, I wanted to dig deeper. I wanted to be like my toddler: to pick apart what concepts were familiar to me and try and pull some understanding from how they all worked together in that statement. I wanted this lesson to make me better at prayer.

The truth is that, like many components of the Faith, prayer is a mystery. We aren’t able to fully understand it because we only see one small piece of the puzzle: what we experience as the Church Militant. Someday, we’ll know it deeply when we really can talk to God face-to-face and ask Him. But until then, we need to accept the unknown.

That doesn’t mean we must languish, though. There is so much fruit to be born from even the limited knowledge God has blessed us with in this life.

Try This as You Pray

During the retreat, Father Eric Sternberg of St. Cecelia Parish in Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin went on to talk about how the nature of prayer frightens us. It could be easy to simply ask God for the things we want, but to go further than that—to use prayer as an opportunity to examine our faith and ourselves—can be intimidating.

We don’t like to admit to, let alone study, our flaws. But, Father Sternberg said, prayer is the safest and most fruitful place to do that.

What do you pray for most often? Which seemingly unanswered prayers most disappoint you? Do you pray mostly for yourself? For your family? For strangers?

How much of your prayer life is dominated by thanksgiving? What about praise? Is prayer time your self-care, or is it a time in which you can glorify and adore your Father—or is it both?

Which saints do you invoke in prayer? What unbidden thoughts tend to come to you while you’re reciting a rosary or chaplet? What topics do you shy away from when speaking to God, and where do you think your shame comes from?

These are all beautiful questions—but they are challenging. They’re challenging to keep in mind during your prayer routines, and the answers to them may challenge your perspective on yourself.

If you have a prayer journal, write down whichever of these questions speak to you—and whichever others you come up with on your own—and revisit them immediately after concluding a prayerful moment each day. Record your answers and give yourself the grace to recognize their meaning. Uncover what’s beautiful about you. Uncover what needs work.

Then, go right back to praying and ask God for His grace to help you do that work.

Check out part two of this series for further reflections on prayer and how we can do it better!

Is Dwelling on My Sins a Sin?

I find Lent to be a difficult season, both practically and spiritually. I know it’s supposed to be challenging—it’s supposed to push us closer to Christ and his sacrificial love for us. But my appetite for fasting is weak and my endurance for “going the extra mile” is a little bit pathetic, if I’m being honest.

Aside from the (admittedly immature) struggle of selecting a sacrifice and sticking to it for 40 days, I also find Lent to be a time of unique temptation. That temptation is toward scrupulosity, and it’s sometimes enough to distract and discourage me from the healing, strength-building journey Lent is meant to be.

What is Scrupulosity?

Scrupulosity is an obsession with sin, real or imagined. A scrupulous person suffers excessive anxiety over the thought of their own sinfulness: they may be convinced they’ve committed a sin when they have not, confuse venial sins for mortal sins, or be unconvinced of God’s forgiveness for their transgressions.

Naturally, this is an exhausting and depressing affliction. A healthy sense of Catholic guilt is one thing, but scrupulosity goes beyond a well-formed conscience. It convinces us we’re doomed, or unworthy of God’s love, or failing at following Christ.

It’s a minor thing, in some ways—I’m not hurting anyone else by being scrupulous. But it is major in a significant way: scrupulosity is, at its heart, a pride-fueled rejection of God’s grace.

How is that? How can it be that a condition of borderline (or over-the-line) self-loathing is actually a condition of pride?

The truth is that scrupulosity is the Enemy’s way of convincing us that our opinion of ourselves is more powerful than God’s opinion of us. To be excessively scrupulous is to tell oneself that God’s promises of love and salvation simply aren’t strong enough to apply to the likes of us.

But that’s impossible. We are children of God, made in His image. There’s no such thing as a soul that is “not good enough.” God would never make it so. God’s love for us is far and away more powerful than our own shame—whether we let ourselves feel His grace or not.

Lent Doesn’t Lead to Our Perfection

So, how does scrupulosity come into play during Lent? For me, it goes something like this:

Step 1: Set a lofty goal of sacrifice and growth for Lent with the intention of achieving spiritual awakening and/or profound holiness.

Step 2: Promptly fail at performing the necessary steps to achieve that goal. (“Oops, I just ate meat!” or “Ugh, I forgot to say my rosary.”)

Step 3: Mentally flagellate oneself for said failure by running over the memory of that bacon and how much I enjoyed it at least 77 times.

Step 4: Ask God for forgiveness and the grace to be better from now on.

Step 5: Repeat Step 3.

Step 6: Do slightly better at performing the necessary steps to achieve the goal.

Step 7: Repeat Steps 2-5, with the addition of an extra layer of guilt that sounds something like this: “For goodness sake, I was doing so well! I just had to go and screw it up again, didn’t I?”

Step 8: Repeat Step 7 with slowly declining frequency for the next 35 days.

Step 9: Make it to Easter. Praise God and congratulate oneself for sort of hitting the right targets. Feel “spiritually grown,” if not “spiritually awoken,” and vow that next year will be better. Be inordinately relieved that my chosen sacrifices are no longer mandated as Easter is celebrated.

Step 10: Forget to ever go back to those sacrifices once Easter feasting is over.

And then repeat it all next year.

If this sounds familiar, I feel your pain as you’re going through it all again this year. I really do.

One thing I realized last year during Lent was that, by focusing on my trip-ups more than my growth, I was making Lent about me and not about Christ. I can’t honor him, meditate on his sacrifice, or give him more of my love if I’m too busy nitpicking my every behavior. To obsessively police myself on the pretense of loving him makes little sense.

The prayers I utter at every failure are less sincere if I’m busy berating myself for needing to utter them. And even in the moments I successfully resist temptation, I shouldn’t be more relieved or proud than I am thankful for the opportunity to turn my eyes to God.

The fact is, God doesn’t want our perfection—He knows us well enough to know that we simply can’t give it in our fallen state. What He does want is our attention, our sacrifice, and our generosity (that is, generosity of spirit as well as material goods).

Lent is focused on three spiritual habits: fasting, abstinence, and almsgiving. All of these are expressions of sacrifice. All of them are meant to take our attention away from ourselves and put it onto our neighbors and our God.

Lenten fasting isn’t simply about saying “no” to food. It’s about saying “yes” when God asks, “Is your relationship with Me more important than your physical comfort?”

Lenten abstinence isn’t about saying “no” to luxury. It’s about saying “yes” when God asks, “Is your ability to resist temptation in My name stronger than your desire for worldly indulgence?”

Lenten almsgiving—all almsgiving, really—isn’t about saying “no” to hoarding our wealth or possessions. It’s about saying “yes” when God asks, “Is your love for My family more significant than your love for material goods?”

Love God, Love the Church, Love Yourself

The Gospel is so full of evidence that Christ wants us to love ourselves as deeply as he loves us. We are told to “love others as you love yourself.” We are reminded of the many ways in which we can—and should—make a gift of ourselves to others. We are referred to as brothers and sisters, and told stories of forgiveness and salvation.

All of this implies that we are deeply, inherently good. That’s what God made us to be. And this life is about working to remain true to that goodness, so that we may live it out more fully in the next life.

So be obedient to God’s commandments, be true to your promises, and be good to yourself.

If you’ve stumbled during this Lenten season, confess, pray, and move forward. You can draw closer to Christ, but not on your own—and not if you’re constantly wounding yourself in your attempts to grow. Accept your imperfection and offer it up. God wants all of you, and He will help you do all the things you were meant to do.

“Cast yourself into the arms of God and be very sure that if He wants anything for you, He will fit you for the work and give you strength.” – St Philip Neri

Have You Seen God’s Face?

Did you know that “face” and “presence” share the same word in the Hebrew of the Old Testament? A priest—Father Eric Sternberg of St. Cecelia Parish in Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin—shared this fact with some young moms on a recent retreat I attended. In speaking to us about prayer and seeking the Lord, he emphasized that, to meet God, we must approach Him face to face.

That happens in prayer, but, truly and physically, we are given an earth-shattering encounter with Christ in the Eucharist during every Mass and hour of Adoration we attend.

The Eucharist is not iconographic of Christ—it is Christ. His face looks out at us from the hands of the priest at the consecration during each liturgy. Do you see it?

Real talk: sometimes I don’t. And it’s my own fault.

The Mass and My Mess of Distractions

It’s not that I don’t believe in the Real Presence of the Eucharist. Although this truth is the deepest of mysteries, I have faith that it is the truth nonetheless. I believe it with all my heart. How could I not, when our Savior told us this explicitly?

But sometimes, I forget.

I forget that Jesus is standing before me, showing me all his love all over again, week after week during Mass.

How is that possible?

Turns out it’s easier than I ever realized.

My children are beautiful. They are perfect blessings and I’m thankful for them every day. But if toddlers can be considered specialists at anything, it’s attracting all of the attention in a room to themselves. They are tiny, sticky attention magnets.

We moms are good at multitasking. We’re good at wrangling the two-year-old before he destroys a hymnal while whisper-screaming at the three-year-old who keeps trying to leave the pew. We’re good at opening a desperately needed snack for the kids (with minimal crinkling noises) while picking up the coats they’ve knocked to the floor. We’re good at managing distractions before they become too bothersome to the people around us.

This is a noble and holy effort—this shepherding of tiny humans so that they can be part of the Communion of the Church. This is something parents are made to do, difficult as it may be.

That said, work is work. It is a cross that we bear in our vocation—yet another way we give less to ourselves so that we can give more to our children and their participation in the world.

It is not easy to be a parent of small children at Mass. And yet our work doesn’t end with the distractions while we’re there, does it? We are called to be present despite them.

Am I Seeking God’s Presence?

This is not to say that our struggle to draw spiritual nourishment each week is something we can simply set aside. It is most certainly not easy to fully participate in Mass—it’s not easy for anyone. Everyone carries their cross to the liturgy. That’s the way it’s supposed to be: Christ asks us to lay down our crosses at the altar and rest in Him.

But we aren’t so good at that. We resent our crosses and, as we carry them begrudgingly to church on Sundays, we are tempted to let them distract us. It’s all too easy to feel pestered by my children during Mass and let my mind focus on that inconvenience instead of what’s happening right in front of me.

Jesus told us that his “yoke would be easy and his burden light,” in part, not because it really is easy to live as a Christian in a fallen world, but because it becomes a lot easier if we truly believe he carries the load with us. When we focus too deeply on what’s difficult, we fall into the trap of lamenting that difficulty. We turn our faces downward to focus on our own effort and away from God.

And it isn’t just the kids, right? Given a structured hour each week to spend in quiet, following ancient rituals over which we have no control and deprived of our chosen distractions (our smart phones, a book, whatever), our unchosen distractions become louder.

Left unchecked, our minds fill with complaints (“Why isn’t my husband holding this kid right now?”), questions (“What is on my calendar for tomorrow?”), and random thoughts (“I hope I switched the laundry before we left this morning…”) and suddenly, that hour is over. Jesus is back in the tabernacle, the motions have been gone through, and we return to “normal” life.

But that’s not was Mass should be. We all know that, in our heart of hearts. It just takes discipline to keep our faces turned to God throughout that encounter—to seek His face and show Him ours in return.

When we do look up at Him—to give thanks for His love, to give glory to His might, and yes, to ask for His aid—the load really does become lighter.

Give It Up

Okay, you might be thinking, this is all well and good. I feel sufficiently guilty for not seeing Christ’s face in every second of the Mass each Sunday. But what am I supposed to do about it?

The first thing is, don’t feel guilty—we all do it. God knows it. He loves us anyway.

The second has to do with a phrase that is, admittedly, infuriatingly vague: we have to “offer it up.”

What does that even mean?

To be honest, I’m not sure if it means the same thing for me as it would for you. But here’s where I’ve landed with it.

Suffering—even small, seemingly petty suffering, as torture by toddler may sometimes feel—is not inherently bad. It is painful, yes. It is frustrating. It can be infuriating and heartbreaking. But it invites us to grow—to see beyond ourselves and our own pain and understand, on some infinitesimal level, the pain the Christ endured to save our souls and bring us home to the Father’s house.

Each moment of distraction during Mass or pain in daily life is an opportunity.

It is an opportunity we can use to our detriment, by focusing on our own hurt and drawing our attention downward to the harsh reality of this life.

It is also an opportunity we can use to our benefit, by checking our negative feelings and pausing to recognize that, yes, those feelings are valid—but Christ endured worse at no fault of his own. He humbled himself exclusively to suffer the greatest pain, just so he could bring us joy and fulfillment in the Kingdom.

So when I struggle to lift myself out of the noisy, irritating messiness of managing young children at Mass, I am going to try very hard to physically turn my face toward God. If only for a fleeting second before I have to reach out and grab one or both children, I am going to gaze at the face of Our Lord and say thank you before I turn back to the work of this world. Because in truth, I know that this work, especially, will be so fruitful. I am going to catch myself turning down toward distraction and negativity, and shift the direction of those thoughts upward—to prayer, to opening my ears to the homily in whatever snippets I can catch it, to resting in the silence of a beautiful moment in God’s house.

I am raising future saints. And, for at least an hour out of every week, I get to do that in the presence of Jesus himself. What better help is there than that? Even if I hardly hear the homily and stumble through the Gloria because I’m expending most of my brain power monitoring two toddlers, I am seeing God’s face and He is seeing mine. I am bringing Christ under my roof and he is holding me tight.

Treated respectfully and pondered thoughtfully, that’s more than enough fuel to last even the most exhausted mom a few days or a week, isn’t it?

3 Ways to Be a More Childlike Parent

Following my post on why parents should strive to be more childlike in their faith and in their families, let’s take it a step further: just how are we supposed to do it? In what ways should we really be more like our children?

“Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 19:14

(I’m still digging into Unless You Become Like This Child by Hans Urs von Balthasar with this post. Please pick up a copy to explore if you want to go deeper.)

Emulating the Mind of a Child

Of course, I know on an intellectual level that there are many qualities to be admired in children. Their innocence, for one; their delight; their unquestioning devotion. And yet, it seems to me that so many of these qualities are either unattainable (I am a sinner beyond the age of reason; innocence is not my strong suit) or paired with not-so-desirable features (it’s easy to be delighted when the world revolves around you, but how can I savor the small things when there is so much else to worry about?).

Without doubt, there is something inexplicably beautiful about childhood. Children are a wonder to behold and their intellectual landscape is both fascinating and inspiring. But, having grown into adulthood and “[given] up childish ways” (1 Cor 13:11), how could I have any hope of reclaiming that youthful wonder for my own sake?

Reading von Balthasar’s little book opened my eyes to the many ways in which our souls are made for that childlike nature. As it turns out, becoming like a child when it comes to faith is an even holier pursuit than I imagined.

Among much fruitful insight into what “Christian childlikeness” means, von Balthasar points out a few lovely examples of the youthful qualities all followers of Christ should pursue and embrace:

1. Practice easy, virtuous giving and receiving.

On page 22 of the book, von Balthasar says:

For the child it is natural to receive good gifts, and so docility, obedience, trust, and sweet surrender are not for him virtues to be expressly achieved, but the most unreflectedly natural things in the world. This is so to such an extent that the child adopts the mother’s giving attitude unquestioningly as the right one, and he gives spontaneously when he has something to give. He shows his little treasures without hiding any of them; he wants to share because he has experienced sharing as a form of goodness.

All parents can spot this sweetness in their children. When your toddler finds something delightful or fascinating—a stone, a stick, a bug—isn’t her first instinct to share it with you? To show it to you? To give it to you (even if she expects you’ll immediately give it back)?

This is a beautiful statement on why Christians are called to be like children: we are surrounded by such profound Love that we should be in such a place, intellectually, that we can’t help but emulate it. We should always remember that “sharing is a form of goodness,” and that we can bring that goodness to the world so easily.

Of course, this also means being thankful for what we receive. Gratitude—in prayer, for others, to oneself—can be improved with maturity. We should give without pause like small children do, and give thanks without ceasing like the saints do.

2. Have unfailing trust in our Parent.

Throughout this work, von Balthasar uses examples from the Holy Family to talk about what it means to “become like this child.” In many cases, he highlights the familial relationship between Jesus and the Father as one we can, in some very important ways, recognize and emulate in our own families—and in ways we should emulate in our relationship with God.

For instance, from page 31: “In the Son, the Spirit keeps alive the unshakable trust that the Father’s every ordinance … will always be an ordinance of love, which the Son, now that he is a man, must reciprocate with human obedience.”

This is a message we hear from Christ throughout the New Testament. One of my favorite examples is Matthew 6:25-26, where Jesus says: “‘Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?’”

For children raised in a happy home, as God designed it to be, there is simply no reason for them to doubt they will be kept safe, comfortable, and healthy under their parents’ care. They don’t fret over tomorrow or the next meal or the weather. They simply go about their day and, even in difficult or hungry or scary moments, they never hesitate to cling to their parents and wait for them to make things better—and they never, at this childlike stage, lose faith that things will be better.

How beautiful life would be if we could retain for ourselves that unshakable trust in our heavenly Father—that simple confidence that, no matter what, He will care for us and everything will be okay. If only we were as eager to please and as easy to comfort as the children we once were.

3. Adopt a playful, unworried sense of time.

One further example. In the fifth chapter of the book, von Balthasar says:

The child has time to take time as it comes, one day at a time, calmly, without advance planning or greedy hoarding of time. He knows nothing of appointment books in which every moment has already been sold in advance. … Play is possible only within time so conceived. … And only with time of this quality can the Christian find God in all things, just as Christ found the Father in all things. Pressured man on the run is always postponing his encounter with God to a ‘free moment’ or a ‘time of prayer’ that must constantly be rescheduled. … God defines himself as ‘I am who I am,’ which also means: ‘My being is such that I shall always be present in every moment of being.’

I’m not sure what’s harder to achieve in my life today: that absolute trust in God’s will, or this utterly unstructured treatment of time.

Certainly it’s impossible to completely de-compartmentalize our time as adults. Anyone who works full time, goes to school, has household responsibilities, pursues personal hobbies, or otherwise goes about an independent life understands that. To some extent, we can’t regain that childlike abandon. Our schedules are a necessity of modern, grown-up living.

But how do you spend your moments? Do you find yourself becoming pulled constantly in different directions by distractions, or waiting for the next appointment on your schedule such that you don’t accomplish what you meant to right now, or dreading the end of your “free” time, or putzing around with your phone when you should be focused on the memories unfolding in front of you?

I know I do.

And do you always open yourself up to prayer throughout the day, no matter what persona you have to put on in a given moment, so that your conversations with God can be free-flowing and constant rather than confined to a Sunday morning and a bedtime routine?

Too often, I don’t.

A child is only ever himself in any given moment of any given day. He moves from experience to experience—sometimes easily, sometimes not—always with his full self invested in it. I want that authenticity and the rewards that come with it, too.

Go Home and Love Your Family

It’s not easy to follow Christ’s commands, and the call to become more childlike in a world that strips even our children of their youth far too soon is no exception.

But I think the important thing to remember is that it’s not about recapturing lost innocence or ignorance. It’s not about closing our eyes to the larger world and spending all our time at play. It’s about devotion, openness to growth, learning, and leaning. I think it’s pretty easy to see that, with the possible exception of their worst days, my children are much better than me at all of those things.

I want to grow with them just as they demand to grow with me.

This Lent, I’m Going to Fail. That’s Okay.

Lent 2019 begins next Wednesday, March 6. Are you ready?

To me, it’s important to give up this or that comfort, pleasure, or luxury during Lent. I think that’s true because physical sacrifice—large or small—is a tangible way in which we live our spiritual lives with both our bodies and our souls.

We are, after all, not mere souls trapped in earthly bodies. Each of us is a child of God, and we are created physically and spiritually in His image. Naturally, the entirety of our spirituality can’t be contained to our interior. We must live it out in an exterior way, too. We must engage all of our senses (the best way to do this is to go to Mass, of course—next time you go, see if you can count all the ways in which the Church appeals to each of your senses, as well as your interior self).

But Lent isn’t just about breaking bad habits or getting on the wagon with something we’ve been “meaning to try” for weeks or months. Lent isn’t an excuse to be good or a fortuitous opportunity to establish new habits. Lent is when we plant seeds of goodness in our souls and begin to watch them grow.

Self-reflection > Self-denial

In a recent homily, the pastor in our parish had a lot to say about mortification. He wasn’t suggesting we all literally flagellate ourselves, but rather, that we learn to practice self-denial as a spiritual exercise and not just an annual Lenten ritual or a “quick fix” for bad habits. His point was that, when we learn to deny ourselves in even very small ways—taking the corner piece of pizza when we prefer the middle, or leaving the heat off in our car on a quick drive to the grocery store in the winter, for example—and use those small denials as an opportunity for prayer or sacrifice to God, we are learning what little importance these things have in comparison to our ultimate goal in life: to achieve sainthood.

Practicing self-denial teaches us how small our worldly comfort is in comparison to the great Comfort of God’s love for us. It also teaches us that we don’t need to be comfortable to be happy, fulfilled, or on a path to salvation.

But this is only true if we use those moments as brief but thoughtful opportunities to pause and examine ourselves, to enter into conversation with God, and, when applicable, to adjust our behavior moving forward. Self-denial means very little if it isn’t accompanied by self-reflection and, above all, moving above and beyond the self so that the greater glory is given to God.

So Now What?

Pondering all of this, I’m doing something uncomfortable for Lent this year with the full knowledge that I won’t get it right. (I need to learn that imperfection is okay, anyway. A friend recently mentioned that this is part of his approach to doing the Exodus 90 leading up to Easter this year; I just love that mentality and wanted to take it on as well. That’s something I’ll talk about more in a future post.)

The basic sacrifices I’ll make this year are similar to what I did as a schedule for last year:

  • Week 1 (3/6-3/12)
    • Fast: meat
    • Intention: families suffering from infertility and loss
  • Week 2 (3/13-3/19)
    • Fast: condiments
    • Intention: the United States of America
  • Week 3 (3/20-3/26)
    • Fast: coffee and pop
    • Intention: the poor
  • Week 4 (3/27-4/2)
    • Fast: bread
    • Intention: the unborn
  • Week 5 (4/3-4/9)
    • Fast: TV (other than kids’ shows, because #momlife)
    • Intention: my family
  • Week 6 (4/10-4/17)
    • Fast: chocolate
    • Intention: the faithful departed
  • Paschal Triduum (4/18-4/20)
    • Fast: social media
    • Focus: glorifying God

Having a schedule like this was beneficial for me because, unlike a single material sacrifice for all of Lent (with which I tend to get familiar and less thoughtful toward the end of the season), the changing sacrifices helped me continually choose to resist temptation—thus creating more opportunities for that self-reflection.

Plus, having a specific prayer intention for each week meant that I was more mindful about what these sacrifices were for, and how even my infinitesimally minor “suffering” in giving up these things could be joined to Christ’s ultimate sacrifice for us. It was an intentional effort to express my love, in a small way, for God and my neighbors.

The downside of this regimented scheduled was that, though I vaguely thought about implementing a version of it throughout the liturgical year, its immediacy vanished after Lent. I’m terrible at holding myself accountable for this kind of thing, and without a specific season in mind, inaction took over.

So, in addition to recreating the schedule for this year and renewing my resolution to continue it in some way after Lent is over, I wanted to add in something that will have a lasting impact on my interior life for this year’s observance.

I can’t believe I’m about to say this, because again, I know I won’t do it perfectly, but here goes nothing.

I’m giving up complaining for Lent this year.

It’s the Thought that Counts

If you know me, you probably know that I complain a lot. I’m a pretty positive person, but if asked how I’m doing by someone I know well enough and in the right context, I’m rarely the type to lie by saying “Everything’s fine!”

I complain to make jokes. I complain to express solidarity with others. I complain because my patience is worn thin and I just can’t not. I complain because I’m feeling selfish. I complain to provide a good reason for asking for help from loved ones. Above all, I think, I complain as a way to vent frustration and indignation with circumstances that are out of my control.

Some of these things are okay, I guess. For example, it’s not inherently bad to answer a fellow mom’s unhappy observations by letting her know she’s not alone in her suffering: “Ugh, I’m right there with you!”

But if I’m being honest, I have to admit that complaining takes up a lot of my interior thinking. For every complaint I make out loud, there are at least three kept under wraps.

Grumbling is a knee-jerk reaction for many people, I assume, and I’m one of them. But when it comes to our thought processes, just because it comes naturally doesn’t mean it’s healthy.

In lieu of complaining when I’m tempted to do so, I resolve to utter a prayer—Jesus, I trust in You or Come Holy Spirit—to help lift me up out of that negative mindset and put my eyes on God instead.

Quick caveat: I’m not giving up self-care or asking for help during Lent (those would be futile exercises in helping me grow). I’m not giving up negative emotions or my own sense of need. But I am setting aside lamentation over not getting my way or having things easy. I want to “turn the other cheek” to my own sense of entitlement, which I think will help me be more aware of it and less likely to justify a negative attitude because of it.

So, although I’m saying this as “I’m giving up complaining for Lent this year,” I expect the result will simply be a greater self-awareness of my tendency to complain. More importantly, I want to be more intentionally selfless and put greater trust in God and His will for my life.

Recognizing my own imperfection in this effort will be part of the point: my will can never be enough, but God’s love is more than enough to fill the gaps with grace.

I confess I’m scared of this commitment. I’m frightened of what might come up to tempt me into complaining—justified or not—beginning March 6. But that’s kind of the point, too. Trust.

I hope your Lent is fruitful and your soul grows closer to the Lord this year, and always. God be with you.

Why Parents Should Be More Like Their Children

Some time ago, I discovered a little book that spoke very deeply to me.

Unless You Become Like This Child by Hans Urs von Balthasar is a theological reflection on what it means to be childlike in faith, and how embracing that state of mind draws us closer to Christ and helps us to be better disciples, neighbors, and people.

I have read it twice now, and referred back to it more often than that, and I know I will continue to do so for years to come.

Why?

“Truly I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 18:3-4

Those are Christ’s words to his disciples. But what do they mean?

In a couple of posts, I’d like to examine that with you. Let’s begin with the basics: why is becoming like a child a worthwhile pursuit for a Christian parent? (Check out my second post on this book here.)

Like My Children?

My three-year-old has recently developed a charming habit. She demands that both my husband and I go through a specific litany of bedtime well-wishes before she permits us to close her bedroom door and go about our hour or two of freedom before we’re too tired to stay awake ourselves.

After weeks of this, I still haven’t nailed down the precise order in which we need to blow a kiss, say “I love you,” “sleep good,” and “goodnight,” and wait for her to do the same before we can close the door without hearing her screech in protest.

And my 20-month-old son likes to play a fun game of his own. It’s called “Can you guess what this noncommittal gesture means before I scream my head off over your total ignorance of my needs?” and I’ve literally never won.

Naturally, I’m not generally inclined to believe children are unequivocally the admirable, obedient souls I picture the greatest saints to be.

So does Jesus literally want me to be childlike? Is he absolutely certain that that’s my way not just to heaven, but to “greatness” in heaven?

The Holy Love of Parent and Child

Though children may lack the reason (and reasonableness) we strive for as adults, they are, indeed, chock full of wonderful qualities we should be striving for, too. To begin with, perhaps the most touching lesson from von Balthasar’s work here is how the nature of human, motherly, parental love emulates the profound love that exists between God and his children.

In many ways, it’s the way children think that we should admire—maybe not so much the way they behave. We should be mindful of how they understand us, their parents, as we examine how we understand God.

Consider this example: On page 12, von Balthasar notes that “at first the child cannot yet distinguish between parental and divine love.”

How staggering is that? Our children can’t distinguish between the love we have for them and the love God Himself has for them. They can only know that they are deeply loved and cared for.

There is a reason the family is called the domestic Church. We emulate the Holy Family, the love in the Trinity, and the greater communities in which we grow and help others grow.

Your child looks up at you and sees the adoring face of God. This makes sense in many ways—you, after all, participated in his creation and have the charge of teaching him about the Faith and the God who loves him. Still, it’s a doozy to consider, isn’t it?

Similarly, I bet you look down upon your sleeping babe and see the face of God in him, too. No creation is more awe-inspiring than the human soul, and you have the profound gift of bringing one of those souls into the world and raising him up to be good.

This is an immense responsibility. We are everything to our children, and at times, that can be a heavy burden to bear. This vocation is no joke.

The Ultimate Support System for Parents Everywhere

Though this weight is heavy, it isn’t ours alone to carry. After all, at the same time as we are parents and leaders, we are children ourselves—children of the Most High, whom nothing can escape or overwhelm.

“To be a child means to owe one’s existence to another, and even in our adult life we never quite reach the point where we no longer have to give thanks for being the person we are,” von Balthasar says on page 49. How true that is.

We are only strong enough to nurture and keep safe our children’s love and trust for us because our God is, at this very minute, nurturing and keeping safe the love and trust we have for Him—whether we’re thanking Him for it or not.

In the final chapter, on page 69, von Balthasar meditates on Mary’s Fiat: “Mary thus learns that the Most High has ever borne a Son in his bosom, and that this Son has now chosen her bosom as a dwelling-place. If she were to reflect on her own possibilities aided by an ordinary ‘adult’ understanding, the result of her meditation would simply be: ‘impossible.’ … However, being a perfect child of God, she does not reflect upon herself but places herself at the disposal of God’s every action.”

Imagine what God can do in our lives if only we adore Him as a girl adores her Papa. What are some areas of life in which you struggle to give God your unconditional “yes,” and how can you work toward healing that struggle—toward becoming more childlike in your devotion to our Father?

No Greater Privilege

Finally, I want to close this first post with a quote (found on page 70) that sums up this book’s special relevance for moms. By emulating Mary in this journey, we can be true children of God and wonderful mothers. This is how we can ensure our humble vocations are truly integral in God’s plan for the world:

“She [Mary] will have to do both things at once: introduce her Child into the business of being human (and this does not merely mean teaching him how to walk and speak, but also introducing him to the religion of his fathers) and learn steadily more from her Child how one behaves as a child of God.”

May we all let our children teach us as much as they learn from us. For parents, there is no greater privilege than to walk this journey with our sweet babies, to guide them on their path—and be humble enough to let them guide us on ours.

Why I Hate/Like/Love NFP after Miscarriage

I’ve said before that my husband and I practice natural family planning (NFP) and it brings us closer together. Boy has that perspective turned upside down (and back again) over the last 12 months.

Before & After

It wasn’t always hard. For a long time, it was just plain easy.

In the early years of our marriage, NFP gave me the tools to understand my body. It empowered me to embrace my natural functioning and to admire the efficiency and the beauty of the female body. And it helped my husband and me respect that nature very deeply—to work with it instead of fighting against it. It made us value one another more.

When we wanted to start trying for a baby, the knowledge we had from using NFP for so long made it blessedly easy. And after we had our first child, it helped me see how my body recovered and how my fertility affected so many other components of my daily feelings and physiological experiences. We successfully used NFP to space our pregnancies. The postpartum period isn’t easy for so many reasons, and the complexity of managing NFP during that time is one of them—but we came out just fine.

It was after my son was born that things got trickier. The postpartum hormones hit me hard that time, and I found it difficult to connect with my husband—I felt so much more like a mother and less like a wife. Between those feelings and some other circumstances, NFP was a point of frustration between us. We fought against it and wished we could control it. But, of course, we couldn’t. That’s not how it works.

Even then, NFP did provide structure where we needed it. It gave us accountability and guidelines that helped us improve and do better for one another. And it took off some of the pressure we were putting on ourselves, on things that we gave too much or too little importance.

But, like many aspects of my life, my perspective on NFP was divided into a Before and an After by our miscarriages.

Before we lost our babies, NFP was a sometimes challenging, but overall very rewarding pursuit.

After we lost our babies, if only for a while, NFP was a difficult reality I struggled not to resent.

When the Mind and the Body Disagree

It was painful to hear my OBGYN try to tell me that my pregnancy tests might’ve been “false positives” when I had my first loss. NFP made it painful because I knew, very intimately, how my body worked and that I’d conceived that cycle.

It was painful to watch my body go right back to normal after that experience, as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. (Although it was also a bit of a relief, not living in limbo.)

The next time we conceived, it was painful to see 8 weeks of healthy pregnancy go down the drain when the first warning signs appeared. And it crushed us to say goodbye to those babies, too.

Years of charting and researching fertility burdened me with the knowledge that there was, very likely, something wrong with me that led to our losses. And when I sent my charts to my NFP instructor, she confirmed that something was off. Something I missed. Something I felt I should’ve seen as a warning. Something that told me I failed to protect my babies.

Then, months of charting and seeing no improvement made me resentful of my body and NFP. There were days I wished for blissful ignorance, but at the same time, I was petrified of doing something wrong and putting more babies—not to mention my husband and myself—at risk of another miscarriage. Practicing NFP was excruciating, but the alternative—throwing caution to the wind—was unthinkable. It was an incredibly stressful place to be.

After I saw a NaproTechnology doctor—someone specially trained in natural, life-affirming treatments for infertility and miscarriage, and familiar with the Creighton method of fertility charting—and started supplementing, my cycles did improve. I was happy to see it—happy to see our odds of a healthy pregnancy becoming stronger again. But it was also a painful reminder that my body wasn’t doing it right on its own anymore.

Choosing Beauty

Now that the grief isn’t so fresh and we’re making strides toward healthier fertility, it’s easier to see the positive aspects of NFP again. I know that I’m fortunate to have had this knowledge and these resources, so that we could be empowered to spot a problem and work to resolve it rather than keep trying and failing on our own.

Empowerment isn’t easy. It’s not a hand-out and it isn’t a magic wand that makes taking the reins on life simple. Ignorance is easy—but it’s also empty. Empowerment is what gives us the energy and the skills to do what is right, effective, and good. But that’s a lot of responsibility, and sometimes the weight of it can be so very heavy.

For now, my husband and I are trying to see NFP like we’re trying to see life these days: as a gift that can’t be taken for granted, that must be enjoyed moment by moment, that is out of our control but within our capacity to manage together.

If you’ve experienced a loss, please don’t lose hope. Please hang on, with every last bit of strength you have, to the promise of renewal and understanding and recovery. Have faith, do your best, and love your family. Everything else will follow.

Relativism and the Erosion of Truth

We are creatures of need.

At our most basic level, we must eat, drink, seek shelter, stay warm. A little higher up on this hierarchy of needs, we must feel safe from violence and secure in our pursuits. Above that there’s the need for social belonging. Next is respect: we crave the recognition of others and, more importantly, positive self-esteem. Finally, there’s self-actualization: the point at which we realize our full potential.*

Most of us would recognize these needs as simple truths, and it’s obvious that the higher you climb on this pyramid, the more difficult it is to meet each need. Achieving each is dependent on securing the previous, and so life becomes an arduous endeavor for fulfillment.

In our lifetimes, we develop tactics for meeting those needs as best we can. Sometimes we do things right: we prioritize properly to set and achieve positive goals. Other times, we choose shortcuts: bad habits that provide quick satisfaction in lieu of putting in the work to reach big-picture fulfillment.

Relativism—the view that there is no objective right or wrong, and that each of us can decide the truth for ourselves—is our culture’s shortcut. It’s how we bridge the gap between what we should do and what we want to do, without facing the challenges inherent to the disconnect that sometimes exists there. In fact, it’s how we convince ourselves that there is, in fact, no disconnect. Because how can you claim that anyone should do anything when there’s no Absolute Truth at all?

*Abraham Maslow, the American psychologist who developed this framework, later went on to say that “self-transcendence”—in which we pursue some higher, altruistic, spiritual goal, outside of ourselves—is the actual penultimate dimension of need. Ironically, Maslow was an atheist. But doesn’t this theory establish the importance of faith? What better way to explain, in secular terms, why the pursuit of God’s will is the natural end to which our everyday behaviors must be the means?

Cognitive Dissonance

To dig into this further, we need to understand that our minds are averse to what we call cognitive dissonance. In a way, this means that we want our beliefs and behaviors always to be in harmony.

For example, say you believe that “people with anxiety are weak.” But then your sister—who has overcome some immense obstacles, including raising a child with extensive medical needs—confesses to you that she’s been seeing a therapist and has a prescription for Xanax after a recent, debilitating bout of panic attacks. Deep down, your reactive behavior is to judge her: Wow, and here I thought she seemed so together.

On some level, though, there’s a disconnect here that would bother you: How can I judge my sister as weak when I know her to be strong? How can someone so strong struggle with a condition that afflicts only the weak? Your mind would want to correct it, likely via one of three tactics:

  • #1: Fundamentally changing one or more of your relevant beliefs (e.g., accepting that anxiety affects even very strong people, or that your sister is actually a weak person);
  • #2: Gathering new information that reduces the dissonance by outweighing, or objectively disproving, your original belief (e.g., discovering scientific research showing that, in fact, even very successful and otherwise happy caregivers are commonly afflicted with anxiety disorders); or
  • #3: Reducing the importance of your original belief (e.g., realizing that you shouldn’t care at all about how weak a person with anxiety may seem—it’s not your business anyway).

Arguably the most difficult of these methods is the first one. To change your belief that anxiety is for the weak, you’d have to abandon your own paradigms and cease the automatic way in which you judge a man who is too nervous to drive a car (Can’t he just suck it up and run his own errands?). To change your belief that your sister is strong, you’d have to somehow ignore the years of first-hand interactions with her that have made her resilience obvious.

It’s not easy to completely overturn our fundamental beliefs or habitual behaviors. It’s one thing to convince yourself that perhaps you didn’t know enough about a subject (tactic #2) or placed too much importance on it (tactic #3); it’s quite another to admit that you’ve been outright wrong all along.

Of course, in this example, the mental exercise of correcting dissonance can have a positive outcome: it can help us overcome negative stereotypes and become more understanding of the people around us. But this instinct for mental harmony can also become a crutch that helps us subvert our core belief systems.

Dissonance Between Friends

Now, let’s look at a conversation which commonly ends in some pervasive, relativistic platitude like “that wouldn’t be right for me, but it’s not my place to tell you what to do.”

Say Timothy and Vince are good friends. They’ve known each other since high school, and are now in their late forties with good careers and healthy families. Both attended church together as teens, and they were married in that same church just a couple of years apart. Timothy comes from divorced parents who fought viciously during their separation; his relationship with his father, who virtually disappeared from his life after the legal battle, has never been the same. Vince comes from a traditional family and his parents, who have both died, were together for 40 years.

Vince invites Timothy out to catch up; it’s been a while since they watched a game together. During a commercial break, Vince surprises Timothy with a confession.

Vince: “So Jane and I have decided to see other people.”

Timothy: “Oh, wow, man. I’m sorry to hear that. Have you decided who’s going to keep the house?”

Vince: “No, no, it’s not like that. We’re going to stay together because she’s not working and can’t afford to move anywhere on her own, plus keep the kids. We’ve just sort of lost interest in each other, and this seems like the simplest solution.”

Timothy: “Huh—I see. How did all of this come about? How did you guys even start that conversation?”

Vince: “Well, it’s an old story, I guess. There’s this new attorney at work and she made me feel like a hound again, you know? I haven’t felt like that in ages. It wasn’t long before things between us were getting heavy, and Jane found some text messages on my phone. I came clean right away; told her I’ve just been feeling like things between us weren’t really working anymore. I asked her, ‘Why waste time feeling unhappy when we could try something new? Life is short.’ It’s not like we’d even touched each other in months. There was just nothing there. She was real quiet but didn’t put up a fight. She didn’t want to figure out how to go back to work, and I didn’t want to miss out on the kids, so I told her we should just stick around but do our own things.”

Timothy: “Jeez. And she was okay with all of that?”

Vince: “Yeah. I mean, she hasn’t said no yet. So far neither of us has voiced any complaints. The kids don’t have to find out. And this way Jane doesn’t have to worry about me anymore. We can just take charge of our own lives and keep living together like we always have. We’ve basically been like roommates for a while anyway. Why not make it official?”

Timothy: “Wow. Well, I could never do that, but I hope it works out for you, man.”

What thought process might Timothy be trying to cycle through here? Let’s break it down.

Timothy has always seen Vince as someone who was committed to his family; his kids go to private schools and have big college funds, he was never an excessive workaholic, and his wife always seemed happy that she could stay home and spend time with the kids instead of having to work full time like Maggie, Timothy’s wife, does, to help make ends meet. Vince went on and on at his bachelor party about how much he loved his bride, and he didn’t do anything sketchy there and hasn’t since (until now). Plus, according to Vince, Jane was fine with it. She was going along with the arrangement “without any complaints.” And maybe it was better for the kids that their parents would still appear together, and not fight in court for the next several years.

Still, things aren’t really in harmony here. Timothy believes that parents who leave marriages tend to miss out on the closest possible relationships with their children (like his own dad did). He also believes that marriage is precious, and that it shouldn’t be entered into—or set aside—lightly (especially after seeing his mom suffer through her divorce from his dad). Finally, he believes that Vince is a good provider for his children, and that he genuinely appreciates his family. But he’s not seeing these beliefs line up, given Vince’s choices.

Timothy can try to respond to this dissonance in a few ways:

  • He can acknowledge that Vince’s behavior doesn’t match up with Timothy’s belief in him as a good family man, thus making a new judgment that Vince’s moral framework no longer matches his own (the consequences of which could involve losing Vince as a friend, or confronting Vince about his actions);
  • He can tell himself that his understanding of marriage and why it’s important for a family’s foundation is too narrow, and can be broadened to include the co-parenting and co-habitating arrangement that Vince is describing (after all, it seems to be working for Vince so far, and Vince has more exposure to healthy marriage than Timothy does, given their parents’ situations); or
  • He can reduce the importance of his opinions altogether (because aren’t they just that—opinions?), and choose to believe Vince when he says he isn’t harming anyone and should be able to make his own decisions.

Which of those options sounds like it involves the least mental and social gymnastics?

Who Am I to Judge?

Relativism so quickly takes root in us precisely because that last option is easiest.

It’s incredibly difficult to confront—or, worse, lose—a friend over a personal and tender subject like this. It’s difficult to change our own beliefs across the board, based on the possibly sketchy experiences of another person. But it’s not that hard to think ‘It’s none of my business,’ and simply ignore some potential red flags, because we’d rather trust our friends and maintain the status quo.

Taking that one step further, it almost seems like the better way to operate, doesn’t it? Relativism seems like a perfect way to “live and let live.” We don’t get in other people’s business, and they don’t get in ours—we simply coexist. Why shouldn’t we accept our differences of opinion, and choose to live and work beside our neighbors without deigning to think our choices are more valid than theirs?

In truth, though, taking a relativistic stance is not an act of love. It’s an act of cowardice.

Edward Sri, in his book Who Am I to Judge? Responding to Relativism with Logic and Love, summarizes this truth well: “Relativism … divides us. It trains us to focus on ourselves and ignore the people around us—what they’re going through, how they’re living, and ways they might need our help.”

relativisim quote 1

Thus, relativism becomes a philosophy of self-centeredness. Sri goes on: “In many ways, relativism paralyzes us. So we sit back and do nothing, and let our friends and relatives damage their lives.”

The neglect goes both ways. Don’t we all believe that the people we love help make us better? But how can they if we demand their apathetic, unconditional acceptance of even our worst behaviors?

A New Normal

Sri’s book discusses how relativism dominates our current culture, why it came to be that way, and how we can confront it. The short of it is that we’ve traded the classical moral code for a new one—one that can be summarized as “minding your own business.” Because, Sri notes, despite a common refrain to the contrary, relativism does call us to project an ethical framework onto others:

At first glance, [relativism] seems like a good way to promote tolerance of diverse views. But we must understand very clearly that relativism, in fact, is not value neutral. Relativism itself is a certain way of looking at the world. And this view—that there is no right or wrong—is being imposed on us. In other words, the belief that there is no moral truth is itself a point of view. And those who do not agree with this relativistic perspective are being forced to play by its rules or risk being labeled as judgmental if they uphold traditional moral values. (emphasis original)

Joseph Ratzinger—also known as Pope Benedict XVI—also talked about this trend in Without Roots: “The more relativism becomes the generally accepted way of thinking, the more it tends toward intolerance, thereby becoming a new dogmatism. … It prescribes itself as the only way to think and speak—if, that is, one wishes to stay in fashion. Being faithful to traditional values and to the knowledge that upholds them is labeled intolerance.” Ultimately, he concludes, “I think it is vital that we oppose this imposition … which threatens freedom of thought as well as freedom of religion.”

As Catholics, we live tenets of faith that are often unpopular at best, and ridiculed at worst. We believe in the utmost respect for life at all stages, despite circumstances that may make this position inconvenient or painful. We believe in sexual ethics as the truest expression of love and fulfillment of God’s design for men and women. We believe in the True Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. We believe in doing good for our neighbors. We believe in setting aside materialism. We believe in our obligation to pursue, respect, and submit to the sacraments in many facets of life, remaining loyal to the Mass, to marriage, to confession, to religious life.

All of this means that we believe in a moral framework that cannot be boxed in as a relative truth. It is universal. And it is our responsibility to live and defend it at every opportunity, with kindness and firmness, within our Church and outside of it.

This is, sometimes, an intensely difficult responsibility. Some of us are better at it than others. (I’ve always been the “live by example” type myself, often choosing the easier route of simply living by this moral framework in the hopes that I will influence others subtly—and deftly avoiding direct confrontation at all costs. Not the bravest form of evangelization, I admit.) But no matter how we do it, it rarely makes us popular.

There are few more efficient avenues to the erosion of truth than the relativism that dominates popular thinking in our communities. By trying hard to swim up that stream and resist its pull, we are not pushing away our neighbors—on the contrary, we’re trying to bring them home. And we are not lifting ourselves up as “better” people—just hoping for a better world in which our own children can grow well.