Catholic Living

Top Five Reasons Marital Sex is the Only Sex You Need

Pop culture makes casual sex look easy and expected. When you’re watching a romantic comedy, the turning point in a couple’s budding relationship is usually their first sexual encounter. It isn’t them getting to know each other, learning what they have in common, or just plain deciding to “go steady.” It’s getting into bed—as if that proves something.

But sex was designed to be something meaningful and productive between a close, committed husband and wife. It was designed to be at least as much about giving as it is about receiving; as much about pleasing as it is about being pleased; and much more about love than it is about lust.

Instead of recognizing the true beauty of it, we’ve decided, as a society, to focus on its primal side. The thing is, lust and animalism don’t make us human. Love does.

You are more than a hook-up—more than “that girl” or “that guy” from college, the bar, or spring break. You are the girl or the guy your future spouse is looking for. And you deserve real, one-of-a-kind, wouldn’t-trade-it intimacy with that person who will love you more than anything else in the world.

So here are my top five (though, of course, there are many more) reasons for keeping sex in marriage.

5. Security trumps safety every time.

Safety: The condition of being protected from danger or injury.

Security: The state of being free from danger or threat.

One of those is reactive, and the other is proactive. Safety means shielding oneself from danger; security means never encountering danger in the first place.

Marriage is all about security, and marital sex is no different. A man and woman who are fully committed to one another and practice the virtues of true marriage will not put each other in any kind of sexual danger. If both spouses have been faithful all along, STDs become a moot point. Because they share the height of trust, they learn each other’s likes and dislikes, and would never be hurtful. Pregnancy—which can be easily delayed, if they choose—is not a scare in a healthy marriage; it’s a blessing. There will be no heartbreak or loneliness because neither spouse can break the union. There is no fear of judgment.

In short, sex in a healthy, happy marriage is free from risk. It is secure in every way.

4. We all deserve to be someone’s other half—not just one of any number of “partners.”

Neither men nor women are toys to be played with and forgotten, or vessels to be filled and emptied. We are all worthy of finding and clinging to someone who values us as a life partner. You are worth much more than someone else’s pleasure. You are worth devotion, commitment, fidelity, and years and years of happiness.

Even long-term relationships are subject to that “-term.” That’s not permanence or forever. That’s “for now.” Even if it adds up to many years of your life, some part of you—and the people around you—questions when it might end. I don’t mean to say those years aren’t valuable—they can be some of the most meaningful of your life. The eight years my husband and I were together before marriage were wonderful. The difference is that those were years of my life. These are years of our life. Our wedding day started a new forever for us.

If you take marriage seriously and practice it accordingly, there is nothing comparable to the union of husband and wife. Marriage is more than a new chapter: it is a change in your identity. It is a full gift of self and a full reception of your spouse. The years you spent together beforehand were temporary. The years afterward are forever.

3. Your body is a temple. And you both know it.

Sex is pleasurable for a reason. There’s nothing sinful about that. It is meant to be that way. The beautiful thing about marital sex is that you already know the unrelenting love is there; you both give and receive it all the time, day and night. When you know that to be true, sex is natural, easygoing, and unashamed.

There is this awful assumption that sex in marriage must be boring. How sad for those couples, and for the people who think it’s going to be that way and so waste their time sleeping around.

Sharing this part of you with just one person means constant respect and continuous learning. There is infinite opportunity to try new things, understand each other’s preferences, and make it all feel easy. You never need to feel self-conscious or ashamed, and neither does your spouse. There’s nothing dull about that.

2. It isn’t everything.

Some days you want to wear sweats and not wash your hair. Sometimes you put off doing the laundry for too long, and you’ve got nothing left but your ugly underwear. Sometimes you’re just not in the mood. We all have busy, off, stressful, or uncomfortable days.

No matter the reason, a comfortable, loving marriage means neither of you feels obligated to perform, impress, or make yourself available. You have your whole lives to enjoy each other. So when sex isn’t on the menu, a good cuddle, a game, or a meaningful conversation will do the trick, too.

1. It is everything.

Marital sex is a full giving of self, a full receiving of your spouse, a chance to let go, a chance to act, a reason to relax, a reason to excite. It’s not about impressing someone, seeking satisfaction, making a good story for your friends, proving your love, or hoping the object of your desire will return your affection. It isn’t about winning, it’s never a loss, and it’s always shared equally.

There aren’t words to express what two people share through sex. Marriage makes that a wonderful thing; not a risky, confusing, or potentially regrettable one. Marital sex never becomes a wedge that drives you apart, or breaks your heart. It makes your relationship stronger, not weirder, and brings you closer.

Above all, we define marriage as a sacred and sacramental union, and marital sex is the closest we can get to physically understanding what that means.

 

You deserve to be loved and respected in the most meaningful way, because you are worthy of that recognition and dedication. When people say, “If they love you, they’ll wait,” it’s true. They mean it. Because sex isn’t just for fun, it’s not everything, and it won’t get you the respect or attention you deserve on its own.

It is a gift of self that can’t be taken back, and it will be the most precious gift you can give to your future spouse—your soulmate. You are a unique gift all your own, and the recipient of another. Stay true to that. Don’t give yourself up.

Wedding Rings II

Defending Chastity (and the Feminine Genius)

I recently read an article vilifying the virtue of pre-marital virginity. The writer claimed that girls—and the families of those girls—who make a promise not to have sex before marriage are afraid of female sexuality, devalue girls and women who aren’t virgins, and perpetuate patriarchy.

I disagree on all counts. And so does the Church.

Catholic teachings on pre-marital sex are both misunderstood as patriarchal and misconstrued as outdated. To begin with, the Church’s teachings on sexuality apply to both men and women. In the eyes of the Faith, men are not held to any different standards, nor is their worth greater than that of their female counterparts. Any suggestion to the contrary comes from a skewed cultural perspective—not from the catechism. No one can dispute that pop culture glorifies men for sexual experience and mocks women for it, but that doesn’t make it right, and it certainly doesn’t make it the position of the Catholic faith.

In truth, the Catholic Church holds the feminine genius in incredibly high esteem. During his papacy, Saint John Paul II was outspoken and passionate about the unique character and contributions of women in the Church, and in society at large. I’d encourage you to read his writings in his Letter to Women and Mulieris Dignitatem, which discuss the feminine genius—and the many and splendid roles of women in the Church—at length.

Moreover, the Church is, herself, personified as the bride of Christ. She is an essential partner in the salvation of humanity, and is both devoted to Christ and loved by him. If you truly reflect on that imagery—which was established centuries ago, at the foundation of the Church’s beginning—and it still doesn’t convince you of Catholicism’s love for femininity, I don’t know what will.

While it may seem easy to quote historically significant theologians who touted anti-feminist teachings, it’s essential to remember one thing: no person since Christ and Mary themselves has been without sin, and no one but God is always right. Because many of even our greatest theological minds may been tainted by perspectives built by the societal hierarchies of their times, it’s critical to remember that the words and teachings of no Catholic—whether saint, sinner, pastor, or nun—are taken without question. We all must recognize that, humanly speaking, wisdom is selective, conditional, and not without influence.

One of the many beautiful things about Catholicism is that the Church, as the bride of Christ, is perfect—even if her members are not. Such is the structure that has kept her faithful for 2,000 years.

In addition to her teachings against patriarchy, the Church’s teachings say nothing to reject the worthiness of women—or men—who’ve lost their virginity before marriage. Is any one of us made less valuable by sin? Less loved by God? Less capable of being forgiven? Of course not. After all, our Church knows of only two individuals who spent their entire lives without bending to the temptation of sin: Christ himself, and Mary, his mother. No person, obviously, could ever match the perfection of God. But we haven’t even managed to emulate the devotion of Mary—a fellow human, through and through.

Without exception, “Human persons are willed by God; they are imprinted with God’s image. Their dignity does not come from the work they do, but from the persons they are” (Centesimus annus, #11).

Finally, the Church isn’t fearful of female sexuality—or sexuality in general, for that matter. A thorough, end-to-end education on Catholic teachings regarding sex can be found in the Church’s theology of the body, as well as the catechism. Neither resource refers to human sexuality alone as wrong, evil, frightening, or disgusting—or, in fact, any negative quality at all. In truth, the Church regards sexuality as one of God’s most precious gifts to mankind: it is a surreal, unique opportunity to express and strengthen the bond between a married couple. More importantly, it blesses us with the opportunity to take part in God’s greatest act: creation. There’s nothing dirty or unbecoming about an honest, truly committed, selfless, and open-to-life expression of sexuality by a man or a woman.

So what, then, does the Church say is wrong about pre-marital sex?

To understand that, it is essential to understand Catholic teachings on marriage. Please check out this post for a holistic discussion on that, but here’s an abridged version:

  • Catholic marriage is a sacrament—which counts it among the seven holiest experiences anyone in the Church could ever experience.
  • Among other reasons, marriage is treated as a sacrament because:
    • It was ordained by God Himself, who joined Adam and Eve together at the very beginning of everything humanity has ever known.
    • It is the relationship in which we take on an extremely blessed and sacred role in God’s creation: that of participants in the creation of new life, which is the formation of everything out of nothing.
  • The marital bond is permanent and unyielding. As a relationship of choice—the only permanent relationship we choose to experience with a specific person, as opposed to being born into a family of blood relatives—it requires the most profound commitment there is, and therefore cannot be revoked or undone. Thus, husband and wife “become one flesh,” and cannot be separated.
  • Because that permanent, unique union joined by God cannot be fully comprehended by our limited human understanding, the Church teaches that sex is a tangible, experiential way for us to begin to grasp its profundity, in that it is inherently bonding and there is no other experience like it.
  • The relationship between husband and wife is central to the family, and thus plays an essential and unmatched role in the Church.

So chastity outside of marriage is taught by the Church neither as the selfish command of an overprotective parent, nor the devaluation of sexually active single people, nor the rejection of female empowerment. It is a holistic approach to valuing oneself for all that we are worth, because a true spirit of chastity is about more than just withholding from sex. It is taught to be a simple, selfless decision to choose love over pleasure, permanence over brevity, giving over receiving, and life over egoism.

Purity

Why Catholic Teachings on Sex and Marriage are Basically Perfect.

I want to provide a better definition of the Catholic marriage, and how it relates to human sexuality. There are many more (and better, and more reliable) definitions in the catechism, papal encyclicals, and innumerable other resources composed by the Church herself—so I’d encourage you to check those out. In the meantime, here’s what I’ve learned.

The first thing to note is that the Catholic ceremony of marriage is a sacrament. It is on par with the most meaningful experiences a person can undergo as a Catholic, including Reconciliation (the reception of complete forgiveness conditional only on our ability to say I’m sorry and mean it); Baptism (a cleansing of all past sins, and one’s introduction to the Faith); Confirmation (a full and official welcoming into the community, including a special blessing of the Holy Spirit); Holy Orders (the initiation of a lifelong commitment to religious life); Anointing of the Sick (the special blessing for profound illness, and often a person’s last interaction with the Church on earth before passing into eternity); and, most wonderful of all, the Eucharist, which is the single most profound, humble way we can bring Christ into ourselves, body and soul.

Marriage is a sacrament among those holiest of religious experiences. It is so immense a blessing that it stands alongside God’s most meaningful, impactful gifts to His people.

That is why the Church’s teachings on marriage are both rigid and essential. As children of God, we are blessed with a select and precious few moments in life in which we can assuredly know that God is present in our experience, fully endorsing of it, and entirely giving of His grace. It is neither our place nor our capability to change the way those moments are encountered. Who are we to place God—and, to a greater point, His approval—at our beck and call?

According to the Church, marriage is given such profound standing in our day-to-day life for a few reasons. Chief among them is that God Himself instituted it. When He created man and woman to be entirely complementary to one another physically as well as spiritually, He created humanity to feature different but unopposing partners who could, together, “be fruitful and multiply” as participants in the creation of life itself. Coming from an omniscient Creator who, at that moment, must have been fully aware of our eventual fall and betrayal of His unconditional love, that is a surreal gift. It emphasizes that love for us, as well as His desire to make us free-willed, intelligent sons and daughters for our own sake, to heighten the genuineness of our love for Him and for each other.

In those first acts of creation, God establishes the nature of the family: that man will leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife, as she will to him. To quote Saint John Paul II, this tells us that “man and woman were created for unity…that precisely this unity, through which they become ‘one flesh,’ has right from the beginning a character of choice.” The act of choosing to commit oneself to a unique, lifelong partner in everyday living, love, and procreation creates a bond unmatched by any other interpersonal relationship we experience. Even blood relatives are given to us—they are not chosen. We are born to our parents, our siblings are born beside us, and our children are born to us. Those relationships are also deeply emotional and profound, to be sure, but by actively choosing the person with whom we will spend the majority of our lives elevates the marital bond all the more.

Naturally, the intangible, ethereal truth—and greater spiritual significance—of the marriage bond is difficult for our limited human awareness to fully comprehend. In addition to its role as a procreative act, sexuality in marriage is the tangible, experiential near-equivalent to that truth. By giving us this opportunity to make a complete and loving gift of our self to our spouse—and, in turn, receive that gift in response—God has provided us some small insight into the intensity of the emotional connections inherent to true marriage.

Even more affecting than that insight, though, is our ability to take part in the creation of new life. Sex makes us participants in the creation of a new human being—it is the miracle of life and, for many of us, the most meaningful experience in an entire lifetime. To take that love which joins us, permanently, in marriage and see a child born of its expression is an incredibly special blessing. It is true that—biologically—not every sexual act will produce a child, and, of course, that’s okay. So long as husband and wife treat it as a healthy expression of love and are open to its life-giving nature, marital sex is inherently good. The Church teaches us that, at its core, marriage—and, consequentially, sex between a husband and wife—is at the heart of family. So, whether it results in the conception of a child or simply binds a husband and wife more closely to each other, sex helps perpetuate love.

Knowing that, I hope it is clear why the Church refuses to allow her members to treat sex as a vehicle for something as basic as a few minutes of physical pleasure. Sex was not meant to be treated as simplistically as a satiation of some physical hunger.

To be blunt, if you can eat a piece of cheesecake or a big steak and groan “This is better than sex” and almost—even a little bit—mean it, you’re doing it wrong.

Sex had for simple pleasure is inherently selfish and objectifying for both people. When purely based on lust, sex is abused as a way of taking another person’s body for the sake of one’s own physical satisfaction. It treats the other as an object of temporary excitement and pleasure, and allows each participant to view the other as a means to an end instead of as a human being. People are not toys to be played with and then cast aside. We are meant to be true partners—in the purest sense of the word—who live and work together in a permanent trek toward a good and honest life.

Basically, when you think of sex as the ultimate expression of love; the unequivocal bonding of a husband and wife who will truly, deeply need one another for the rest of their lives; the act of participating in the creation of new life, which forms everything where there was once nothing; and a completely unique and purposeful gift from God—it’s easy to see why twisting it into a means to the satisfaction of hunger, like a cheeseburger or a slice of pizza, is completely unjustifiable.

So what about pre-marital sex between people who love each other?

As I mentioned above, the Church values the marriage bond as one of the seven most sacred experiences available to Catholics. Marriage is a vocation—a calling to fulfill one’s mission in life—and is beyond our generalized ideas of commitment in today’s culture. True marriage doesn’t mean, “Let’s live together until I get tired of you,” or “I mean ‘til death do us part’ now, but I might fall out of love with you later.” It doesn’t accept “Hey, what can you do? We gave it all we’ve got,” or even “There are some things I can’t forgive you for.” It means two people are one flesh that is impossible to separate because God Himself has joined them together. It means two partners who will live and create life and be a family together, because that’s how humanity maintains its growth and penchant for love. It is like a chemical reaction as opposed to a physical change in matter—it cannot be reversed, undone, or taken back.

A man and a woman who share that kind of bond deserve to give and receive each other completely. We cannot take back the pieces of ourselves we give away during sex. So, by having sex with someone before making the permanent commitment and bonding only true marriage—formed through the sacrament—can impart, we rob ourselves of the ability to make that full gift of self, and we rob our spouses of their right to have all of us as a completion of the marital unit.

The Church takes marriage that seriously. It is the end-all of I and me, and the be-all of us and we.
Because it is unconditional and, above all, because it is designed, witnessed, and blessed by God, there is no other relationship like it—and, therefore, there should be no other experience like sex with the person you’ll love forever, without a shadow of a doubt.

Wedding Rings

How and why Catholics are devoted to the saints.

Catholicism is unique for a myriad of reasons, but one of my favorites is our devotion to the saints.

I know that’s sometimes a misunderstood quality of my faith, and that breaks my heart. The most common misconceptions, in addition to being inaccurate, truly miss the point at the heart of this devotion.

Saintly devotion, for Catholics, is not equivalent to the worship of the Trinity (or any of its persons). Let’s make that clear right off the bat. Catholics define three types of worship. The highest form is latria, and is reserved for God and God alone. Latria is adoration, which can only be given to God—given to anyone else, it is idolatry and, therefore, a grave sin.

The Church describes adoration in a few ways, but here are some of my favorite for this context:

  • “Adoration is the acknowledgement of God as God, creator and savior, the Lord and master of everything that exists as infinite and merciful love.” CCC 2096
  • “Adoration is homage of the spirit to the King of glory, respectful silence in the presence of the ever greater God.” CCC 2628
  • “True adoration involves a docile heart, an assent to God’s sovereignty over our lives, a constant posture of humility before Him, and gifts of love offered in homage.” CCC 2111
  • Adoration is “the highest reverence to be offered only to God, our creator, redeemer, and sanctifier, who alone should be worshiped and glorified.” Concise Dictionary of Theology

This worship can be given, inherently, only to God. It is one of the four ends of prayer (comprised also of atonement, supplication, and thanksgiving), and captures our respect, love, and subjection for the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The two other forms of worship—hyperdulia and dulia—are directed toward Mary and the rest of the saints, respectively.  Both are defined by reverence, as opposed to the adoration involved in latria. Catholics are not called to pay homage to the saints, nor are we praying for them to perform any kind of miracle on their own.

Here’s the thing about saints: we ask them for their intercession, not their intervention. The saints intercede for us by praying for us to God. They are credited with miracles not because of their own power or ability, but because God responded to their devotion by sharing His gifts with and through them. In fact, many saints objected to being credited with miracles because they insisted their actions were performed by God’s hands alone.

Though it sounds complicated, sainthood comes down to a simple principle: it means we’re confident—based on their actions and devotion to a life lived for God—a person is truly in heaven. That’s why people aren’t made saints until after they die; it’s why it takes a long time for the Church to canonize anyone, since some investigation is required to make this statement confidently; and it’s why we have All Saints Day, which recognizes and shares love with the saints whose names we don’t know.

The short of it is that everyone in Heaven is a saint and, because they’re in Heaven, they’re closer to God than we can ever be whilst here on earth. Since we know they are close to God, we ask for their intercession because we know their prayers on our behalf will be heard. We all have a penchant for making mistakes and breaking promises, so we can use all the help we can get. Prayers of intercession from souls who may literally be sharing a table with God at this very moment certainly couldn’t hurt our hopes of staying on the righteous paths we are made to walk.

In their incredibly helpful roles as prayerful supporters, the saints aid our efforts to seek forgiveness, of course, but also to be stronger, to improve ourselves as people, and to be closer to God. They do this by praying for and with us, as well as by serving as examples of holy living here on earth. What I mean is that saints are brothers and sisters whom we can look up to, both literally and figuratively. There is no better role model than a person who’s won the true battle and made it to the ultimate realm of happiness, love, and spiritual “success.”

While we’re admiring the saints, we’re also invited to identify with them. They struggled and misstepped and tripped just as we do; they know our suffering. Fortunately for us, they—and their real compassion and wisdom—are always there to help.

Thank you, Supreme Court.

In one of the year’s most-watched cases, the Supreme Court ruled this week that for-profit companies can opt out of the Affordable Care Act’s birth control mandate on the grounds of religious beliefs.

Believe me when I tell you I did a little dance for joy at work when I read that headline. I think my heart actually skipped a beat.

I—like many of my like-minded peers—have been waiting on baited breath for that ruling for months. As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t believe in artificial birth control for a multitude of reasons. Building on those beliefs (and scientific facts), I believe this week’s decision could mean lives saved—young as they may be—and certainly means consciences cleared.

But beyond what I’ve already said about my thoughts on birth control, I truly believe this ruling is a victory for religious freedom in this country. For months, it has baffled me how people in this debate have argued, in essence, over the autonomy of a corporation—offering no thought at all for the people who run those corporations.

Of course companies don’t hold religious beliefs of their own. For me, that was never the argument. The fact is that the people who build, maintain, own, and fund those companies do. For business owners who hold steadfast to their beliefs, there can be no separation of “professional” and “spiritual” behavior. Both of those realms are a part of their identity, and must be kept in harmony with one another.

So, here’s my question: who are we to force faithful business owners, on the heels of the incredibly hard work they’ve poured into building their companies, to ignore their souls once they’ve made it? Is the cold, detached “spirit” of a corporation worth more than the religious freedom of a real person? The answer should be a resounding no—and I’m extremely grateful the Supreme Court agreed. Frankly, I’m not sure how a culture with increasing discomfort regarding an unquestioning adherence to capitalism can even suggest otherwise.

It’s important to note that the ruling specified that it should affect only the birth control mandate of the healthcare law. The judges did not intend to suggest or support any idea that such objections could be justified for things like blood transfusions and vaccinations. Plenty of uninformed and/or misguided critics call that discriminatory against other faiths that object to various medical treatments and procedures. But the difference here should be obvious: whereas a blood transfusion or a vaccination are intended—and often medically necessary—to save lives, birth control is not. As a contraceptive, it is not essential for women’s health, but rather an optional method for preventing pregnancy. There are innumerable other ways to do that.

Of course all of us have the right to choose if and when we will have children. But we don’t have the right to demand that our employers pay for prescription-based methods when there are other, drug-free options that require just a little more discipline and self-control.

Do you think my insurance company paid for my training and materials for NFP? They sure didn’t—despite the fact that NFP delays pregnancy with similar efficacy without risking the complications that may accompany the artificial hormones in those little pills, patches, shots, and IUDs.

Business owners are people, too. The profits of those businesses rightfully belong to those owners, and no one—from evangelical entrepreneurs to Catholic moms and pops—should be forced to fund behaviors that go against their deeply held religious beliefs.

This country has always been founded on the assumption that freedom comes first. Why wouldn’t we keep it that way?

 

Supreme Court

Stay humble, be merciful, and keep family first.

The other day my husband told me that we’re “at that stage in our lives where every decision we make is the biggest decision we’ve ever made.” In our early/mid-twenties, newly married, with a home, changing families and friends, and fresh careers, he’s definitely right.

At the moment, we’re in a pretty stable place. But that could change quickly because, as young adults, we just never know what might come up. He’s waiting for the next step in his career to become available, and I’m settling into new and changing opportunities in my job. We’re trying to maintain friendships that are evolving as our lives are diverted, maintain close family ties while our traditions must change, prepare for the fact that our own little bundles are probably on the not-too-distant horizon, and doing what we can to start our married life the right way.

It still takes just a little perspective to make prioritize everything as they deserve to be.

My grandfather-in-law suffered from dementia and Alzheimer’s for almost a decade. His wife met his every need unfailingly. When he lost the ability to hold a conversation, she never stopped telling him how much she loved him. When he lost the ability to speak at all, she spoke for him. When he couldn’t care for himself anymore, she barely blinked. She became not just his wife, but his nurse, his caregiver, and his lifeline. And she didn’t once complain.

Recently, his health took a serious turn for the worse. Bedridden, unable to eat, drink, or move, he was surrounded by his family within days. All three of their children—from opposite corners of the country—rushed to his side. My grandmother-in-law held his hand and kept him comfortable and told him stories.

He’d been suffering a long time. We all knew he was ready to go Home. And though the last five years, at least, had been far more work than she’d ever expected in her marriage, his wife still wept to see him on his way out. She still ached to keep him with her longer—to stay at his bedside.

As she told him stories, she laughed about the hard times they’d had as a young couple. She joked about the time she fled to her mother’s after an argument, convinced she couldn’t forgive him. The rest of us thought that sounded pretty serious, but she couldn’t even remember what the fight had been about. She giggled over the antics that had once driven her crazy. And in the quiet moments, when the somber mood overtook her, she explained how she could barely remember the bad times.

“They just don’t matter,” she said. “All I know now is how good it was.”

Half asleep and painfully exhausted, she alternated between staying by his side and fluttering around the house caring for her children and grandchildren. She rarely stopped smiling. And though you could see the hurt in her teary eyes, she told him it was okay to sleep. To rest. To go to Him. He did and, though she misses him dearly, she’s doing her very best to cope and know that he’s in a better place, waiting for her.

That’s what marriage is about: sharing the burden of strength in life’s darkest moments. Knowing your place as a servant to your spouse—no more and no less.

So, in the long run, career adjustments don’t mean much, do they? Neither do day-to-day arguments, annoying routines, or undone chores. We shouldn’t make them bigger than they are. We can only make the choices that are best for our family. There are bigger things in this life and the next. Stay humble, be merciful, and keep your family first. That’s all any of us can do.

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Lent 2014: Giving up, Taking up, Lifting Up

I guess it’s ironic to say “Happy Lent!” when it’s meant to be a season of solemn reflection, but I hope you understand my sentiment.

For Catholics, this is an important liturgical season that invites us to better ourselves and recognize our blessings. In the forty days before Easter, we prepare to receive Christ’s most profound gift to us in three ways: prayers, fasting, and almsgiving. Through these habits, we seek to become more Christ-like, which makes us more ready to accept and appreciate God’s unending mercy and forgiveness, as well as Christ’s death and resurrection.

In asking us to consciously alter our behavior in these ways, the Church calls for us to both identify with and emulate Christ. Though our sacrifices of candy and caffeine are microscopic compared to his suffering, we have the opportunity to deny ourselves those small pleasures and understand what it means to give something up for an unselfish purpose. Additionally, if we choose a vice to give up for the full stretch of Lent, we often find ourselves breaking bad habits and bettering ourselves for the change. None of us is perfect, but purposefully disrupting a habitual cycle of negative behavior—for example, excessive shopping followed by buyer’s remorse—makes us stronger, healthier, and that much more Christ-like in our actions. We are the body of Christ, after all, so taking better care of ourselves means taking better care of our faith and each other.

Acts of charity, of course, also make us more Christ-like in our behavior. For example, I have a tendency to hoard spare change for no real reason (e.g., “Maybe I’ll take it to the bank for cashing eventually, even though it sits on my dresser untouched for months at a time…?”). For me, the simple act of acknowledging that excess and placing it in an Operation Rice Bowl or other charitable vehicle is a moment of reflection and personal improvement. Almsgiving also means sharing food and other necessities with our neighbors in need, so donating to a food pantry or picking up a couple of gift cards for the homeless people you walk by on your commute are easy ways to answer that call, too.

Simple as these things it may be, they’re something—and something always beats nothing.

Prayer, of course, is the way we internalize those changes in behavior and what they can really mean. By following through on those commitments and speaking openly and often about them with God, we are able to reflect on His presence in our life, our mission to serve Him, and the influence that love and faith have on our day-to-day behavior.

If you’re looking for some appropriate Bible study to support that Lenten reflection, I’d suggest starting with Psalm 103. It’s a beautiful psalm focused on the love and forgiveness of God, and how His care for us is vast and without question. Check it out for a kickstarter to your Lenten reflection, if you’re interested.

I’d also encourage you to check out Pope Francis’s Lenten message for this year, which you can find here. You can also see a devotional calendar based on his message here.

The funny thing is that we are called to engage in all three of those practices all year long. But, because we are human and imperfect and we know it (and because the time before Easter is the most critical time for us to understand all that we’ve been given), Lent is a period of accountability and renewed commitment. Think of it in the same spirit as setting deadlines for yourself to accomplish personal goals—though you aim to get it done regardless of the timing, you know you may not follow through if you don’t have something holding you to it.

The short of it is that Lent is a period of purposeful, spiritual reflection and engagement with the Church. We use these forty days to recognize our shortcomings and try to fix them; to better understand and share in Christ’s selfless love for us; and help each other in any way we can. It is an opportunity for us all to act in true Christian form so we may both give and receive all the forgiveness that love has to offer.

And when it’s over, we reach a few pretty awesome perks: loads of sweets, time with family, the ultimate love of Christ, and, hopefully, an improved way of living our lives.

At least until next year, when we’re blessed with a chance to try again.

Lenten Message