Dress Code

Earlier today I listened to an episode of a podcast that was about how to dress appropriately for Mass. Whenever this comes up it really gets on my nerves. This is partly because, from my perspective, it’s largely a matter of opinion. Obviously there are things that are distasteful or inappropriate for such an occasion, but I’m not talking about that. It bugs me when people are criticized for wearing “casual attire.”

I take issue with this for a few reasons. The Lord said, “Come as you are.” I dislike getting dressed up, so my thinking is that if I had to do so far Mass, I’m not actually presenting myself to the Lord “as I am.” It’s not part of my personality to worry about what I’m wearing. It would be like presenting a version of myself that isn’t the true one. That’s important because a huge part of the Mass is about communion, both with each other, and with Christ.

Some would argue that one gets “dressed up” out of respect for the other. In many circumstances, this is the case because it’s culturally expected. I got more dressed up for my Godson’s baptism than I otherwise would. One has to keep in mind the center of attention. We had Mass before his baptism, and at Mass, Jesus is the center of attention, but the focus shifted a bit afterwards. At the baptism, the focus was still on the Lord, yes, but it was also largely on Max, his parents, and my brother and me (his Godparents). In that instance, to some degree, I was the center of attention.

As I said, in many circumstances, it’s culturally expected to get “dressed up” out of respect for the other. I don’t for Mass, however, partly because the Lord is beyond cultural expectations, and my thinking is that He already knows I respect Him. I don’t have to prove it to Him, and I shouldn’t have to prove it to anyone else. Furthermore, the Mass itself isn’t like a wedding or a baptism, or any secular event. While baptism and marriage are sacraments, and miracles do happen in those circumstances, human attention tends to focus on the humans involved.

An “ordinary” Mass (for lack of a better word) is different because the focus is (ideally) entirely on Jesus. He alone is the center of attention. Because of this, part of my thinking is that I shouldn’t do anything out of the ordinary in terms of my outfit because from a strictly human perspective, what is happening at Mass has almost nothing to do with me as an individual. Mass is about communion. In other words, it’s about sharing of one’s self with other members of the Church and with God, and about the Church sharing of Herself as a collective with God. This means presenting one’s self honestly.

It’s also important to remember that at literally every Mass a miracle is happening. I sometimes have a realization at the Consecration of the gifts that translates in my mind to, “This is literally the weirdest, coolest, most amazing thing ever.” The word “weird” tends to have a negative connotation, but what I mean is that it is the most out-of-the-ordinary thing. It’s always new. If it becomes routine, then I would argue that appreciation for what is really happening has been lost. It’s something that has to be taken on faith, and it’s a huge act of trust and vulnerability to receive the Eucharist.

Personally, I don’t think there needs to be a dress code for that.

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The Hard Choices

I’ve written a few things lately that I’d like to explain more deeply. Recently I wrote a post on why Catholics go to confession with a priest. I’ll summarize by saying that it’s also called the sacrament of Reconciliation, and essentially a person is speaking to Christ Himself in the sacrament, but we also speak to the priest who represents the Church, who we also need to be reconciled with.

My last post was a reflection on my journey back to the Catholic Church after being agnostic for quite some time. I mentioned two important points that I want to go deeper into. The first is that I didn’t know for a long time what sin is. The second is that I didn’t understand that the Eucharist literally is the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ.

Further, I explained recently what an examination of conscience is; that being an honest look at one’s self through the lens of the Ten Commandments. Through these commandments, as well as the beatitudes, and Jesus’ teaching in general, God, who is Truth, and Goodness itself, has revealed His will, which is by nature, always good, and always perfect. We can’t always know God’s will perfectly. Because of our own nature we are limited, but we do know what is generally good, and what is not. Sin is essentially saying, “God, I know what you want. What I want right now isn’t what You want, but I’m gonna do it anyway.” If we consciously make this choice, we are taking ourselves out of communion with God and the Church, which is why we go to confession.

When we receive the Eucharist at Mass, we call it communion. Because, as Catholics, we believe the Eucharist is literally Christ Himself, we must be in a state of Grace. In other words, we must not be in a state of mortal sin. Having any sin at all on us is obviously not good, but some sins are worse than others. For example, lying under oath in court is obviously worse than telling a “white lie” to surprise someone on their birthday. This is the difference between venial or “small” sins and mortal or “deadly” sins.

It used to be the case that confessions were much more readily available. Today it’s often the case that the only time to go is right before Mass. That doesn’t change anything about the sacrament itself, but it somewhat changes a dynamic of it. It used to be much easier and reasonable to go to confession if one knew of and felt guilty for venial sins. Now that isn’t so much the case. One can have their venial sins forgiven if he/she truly is sorry and admits their guilt directly and spiritually to God. Further, receiving the Eucharist “washes away” the guilt of venial sin. This cannot be taken for granted, and it is why we collectively acknowledge our sins at the beginning of Mass.

At this point, it should be noted that sins can only be forgiven if a person actually feels remorse for what they have done (or failed to do). Further, it must be pointed out that venial sins are not always entirely intentional, and are often the result of simple human weakness. Mortal sins are called such because three things must factor in. 1) It must be grave/serious matter, 2) it must be done with full knowledge and awareness, both of the thing being done, and the gravity of the action (decision, etc), and 3) it must be committed with deliberate and complete consent.

The ultimate point I want to make is that one should not receive communion if they know they are in a state of mortal sin. I bring this up because many choose to receive anyway. This is problematic for the Church in general for a few reasons. First, every Christian, is a member of the Church, which is the mystical Body of Christ, which means that when we sin, we’re hurting ourselves spiritually, and we’re offending our God, but we’re also hurting each other at least spiritually.

It’s also like saying “I love you” without actually meaning it. As Saint Paul says in his letter to the Corinthians, we really should correct our fellow Christians. This means pointing out sinful choices and actions. Obviously this should be done with kindness. In today’s culture, it is a daunting task, even if our purpose is to lead people back to Christ.

Our culture tells us two really dangerous things. First it tells us there is no objective good; there is no black and white; anything goes. Then it tells us that everything we do matters: where we work; what we do; whether we go, or have gone to college; what we wear; what we do for fun, where we go; what we say; and we have to do it all right. Unfortunately, this leaks into our spiritual life. Sometimes it can lead us to be not entirely honest with God, or even to avoid Him at times. It can also tempt one to “get in line” to receive communion, even when one is fully aware that he/she shouldn’t.

This only matters, however, if we really believe that the Eucharist is Christ Himself. Jesus’ teaching in John 6 expresses it perfectly. He says in verse 33, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty…” Then emphasizes it. He says:

48 I am the bread of life. 49 Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. 50 This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

52 The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” 53 So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; 55 for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. 56 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. 57 Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.”

Later, at the Last Supper, he says, “This is my body,” and “This is my blood.” He does not clarify to mean that the Eucharist is a symbol. He is speaking literally and emphatically.

Some take issue with the idea that the Mass is a sacrifice. It does not mean that Jesus is suffering again. It means we are being made present at His once-and-for-all sacrifice. The reason we receive the Eucharist again and again is that by this experience, Christ can offer us the Grace of His sacrifice again and again, making us spiritually stronger, and closer to Him.

He is also offering us His Love. Jesus died to redeem humanity, but He also died for each one of us individually; to save each one of us. He loves every person uniquely. Jesus is God, but He is also a man. From a perfectly human perspective, He knows what rejection feels like. We can understand this because presumably, everyone knows what rejection feels like on some level. When we choose sin, and even if we choose to receive the Eucharist indifferently, we are actually rejecting, or at least ignoring the One who deserves it least.

Back In Time

Not everyone, but a lot of people re-watch or re-read the same movies/stories again and again. I am one of those people. I wrote this story a long time ago, but I want to re-visit it. It’s a bit sensitive, so I won’t explain why. This is the story of my move away from, and back to my Catholic faith. When I wrote this story the first time, it wasn’t really focused specifically on the Catholic aspect of my faith. It was much more about how I simply didn’t think I needed Jesus, and how He proved me wrong. This will focus more specifically on why I believe the Catholic faith is the true faith. Without further adieu, I’ll start at the beginning.

I was born and baptized Catholic. I was raised loosely Catholic. I went to Catholic education classes once a week after school or on Sundays, depending on the year, and I received the Sacraments of initiation (Eucharist and Confirmation), but faith wasn’t emphasized in our family. We didn’t pray together, and even though we went to church, its significance was never really explained. My education was poor at best, so it felt like a tedious obligation that I didn’t understand.

For a long time I believed in God, and I believed in Heaven, but I didn’t know that I should or even could have a relationship with Him, I didn’t know that He loved me personally, and I didn’t really know what salvation was because I didn’t know what sin was. Despite all of that; despite not knowing who God was, at least when I was a child, I had a sense of what God was. I at least maintained the notion that God made the Universe and everything in it.

As I got older, this slowly faded away for a few different reasons. I went to public school, and because faith wasn’t emphasized at home, I never understood that faith and reason could coincide. I never understood that, for example, things like the “Big Bang” and evolution could be friends with Biblical Creation. I slowly began to reject Christian (though not specifically Catholic) ideas. I simply didn’t know what Catholic interpretations and doctrine were.

I have always been an eccentric person. I always had imaginary friends as a kid, and I have always loved stories. When I was especially young, I found the real world to be boring. I couldn’t run around like other kids, so I often projected things from my imagination into the real world. This, too, I think, led me to at least implicitly reject Christianity, so by the time I was in middle school–around the age of eleven–I was agnostic, though I didn’t have a word for it until later.

Middle school, naturally was terrible. It’s terrible for everyone, but it was more so for my friends and me for a few reasons. I was “off limits” because I was “the kid in the wheelchair,” but some of my friends were mercilessly picked on. Even though I did not know Him for several years, God made me with an empathetic heart, and this meant the bullies were chased by the kid in the four-hundred-pound wheelchair. If I caught them, I would park on their feet, and not move. Therefore, I was the recipient of less direct bullying. I was simply treated as if I did not exist.

It did not help my self-esteem that I was in the “special-education” program, even though this simply was not necessary. Through elementary and middle school, I had an “assistant” in the classroom with me even though, as I said, this was unnecessary. If I dropped a pencil, or what have you, I was fully capable of asking a fellow student for assistance. It was not until my freshman year of high school that I was taken out of the program after I personally wrote a letter explaining why their “assistance” was simply annoying.

This is an important part of the story because when we got to high school, one of my friends was getting more and more involved in sports, and therefore had less and less time to hang out, while another of my friends ended up going to a private high school. The first friend also ended up getting a girlfriend, and I realized that boys could be more than friends. I also realized almost immediately that, being “the kid in the wheelchair,” I had about zero chance of ever having a relationship beyond friendship.

My self-esteem was low, and my friends had less time for me. In middle school, we spent nearly every Friday night together. When high school began, that was not the case, and I spent many Fridays alone, and I cried a lot. I was lonely, though I didn’t want anyone to know, so I kept it in, which was obviously not healthy.

I didn’t make my Confirmation until my Junior year of high school, so I was going to Mass with my parents, but again, to me it was little more than a tedious obligation. After making my Confirmation, I still went, largely out of habit. I eventually learned the word “agnostic,” and I remember the moment when I acknowledged, in a sense, prayerfully, that I didn’t know if God existed or not, and I didn’t think there was a way to know. At the same time, I think there was a part of me that always hoped He did.

That year, I also started looking for colleges. I didn’t really want to go to college but that was just “what you did.” I had been playing guitar and writing (mostly terrible) songs for two years at that point, and although deep down I knew it was unrealistic, I wanted to be a touring artist. Luckily, the realistic part of me won, so I looked. I knew I’d have to commute, so I looked at places nearby. I immediately hated several of the places we visited. I can’t even explain why. Then we ended up at Gordon college.

Gordon was a Christian school, which made me a little nervous, but there were students there, and they all seemed weirdly happy. The faculty we met were also weirdly happy and weirdly nice. It was like they had something that I didn’t, and I didn’t know what it was, but I wanted it, so I applied. I got in, and because of my GPA, I got a scholarship.

Nothing about the “Christian-ness” of the school was off-putting, though I initially thought it was “weird.” We were required to go to “chapel” three times a week, which was fine, and eventually, I came to look forward to it. It was there that I discovered actually “good” Christian music. The only Christian music I had ever encountered was liturgical music, which was, at least at our parish, uninteresting and poorly “performed.” I eventually became a fan of a handful of Christian artists. I also learned to pray. My thinking rather quickly became, “If all these people believe, then maybe (eventually ‘probably’) God does exist.” My thinking also quickly became, “If God answers prayers, then I should pray for a boyfriend.”

That was my desperate prayer from August to mid-October. Despite this, I still didn’t actually know who God was. One night in October 2011, I was at a really desperate place. I was very lonely, and I was praying, as usual, that God would help me find love. It seemed like a prayer from me to Him because the words came very clearly, and seemingly from my own mind, but for the first time in prayer, the words “I love you” came to mind. I think, actually that He used my thoughts to say that to me because after that I felt a sense of peace that I had never felt before. That was the moment when I definitively became Christian.

That “I love you” was what I had been looking for all along. I was able to see clearly that I had empty spaces that only God’s love could fill, as cliche as it sounds. As I said, that was the definitive moment when I became Christian, but it took some time to decide what kind of Christian I was. I began “curiosity questing” on YouTube. I eventually came across a talk by Father Mike Schmitz entitled “The Hour That Will Change Your Life.”

That talk convinced me of two things: first, God quite literally loves the Hell out of me, and second, that the Eucharist quite literally is the body and blood of Christ, and if I receive the Eucharist, I am receiving God Himself into my very being. That meant I was definitely Catholic. It also meant I had a lot of learning to do, so I did more “questing,” and paid more attention at Mass. Our priest kept mentioning “Adoration,” and I eventually became too curious to resist, so I went one Thursday night, and was hooked. I had no idea what was happening, so I just sat there for an hour.

Confession was also available at the time, but I didn’t go for several weeks, or more likely, months. I still didn’t entirely understand what sin was, but I was beginning to learn what things were sinful, and I at least understood that sin was offensive to God. One night in Adoration, I was in a bad mood. I had learned at this point that Adoration was simply a time to sit and talk, or simply be with Jesus. I don’t remember why I was in a bad mood, but seemingly on an impulse, I asked, “Who am I to You?” His response came to me as a thought in my own head. He said, firmly but kindly, “My daughter.” If I remember correctly, I think that was the first time I went back to confession, and really the first time I had ever gone completely voluntarily. The relief I got from that was inexplicable. It was after that that I began to live my faith as my own person.

Looking back on this journey is strange because sometimes I feel like I’ve gone nowhere. When I look back, it’s relieving to see actually how much I’ve changed. In a song I wrote earlier this year I express this in the line: “I never thought I could fall this far.” I mean I never thought I could fall this far in love. In another song, a backing line expresses the idea that you have to fall to fly. I like Saint Therese’s “Little Way” because it’s largely about falling trustingly and letting God catch you.

Let It Go

“Your will, not mine be done.” That was what Jesus said to His Father the night before He died. I never fully appreciated what that meant until this afternoon. Being God, Jesus could have saved the world some other, less violent way. Nonetheless, He died for us; He died for me.

I’m going to briefly pause here to explain the difference between God’s perfect will, and God’s permissive will. God’s perfect will is exactly what He wants to happen, and when it applies to humans and our freedom, it’s when what we choose is what He wants. God’s permissive will is what He allows to happen. God does not want bad things to happen. Illness, wars, natural disasters, etc are not part of God’s perfect plan. However, He allows those things to happen because He can take something bad and turn it into a greater good. It was not the Father’s perfect will for Jesus to die on the Cross. He allowed it to happen, however, because He can take the worst thing humanly possible (we killed God), and turn it into the best thing possible (God saves us).

On Monday I had a bit of a tantrum. I had asked for assistance with something (a thing I can’t physically do), and my dad somewhat sarcastically told me to wait. For the record, sarcasm is practically my family’s native language. The issue was ultimately that I would have done it myself had I been able to. My parents, of course, tried to talk me down from crazy, but it didn’t help, so I bolted to my room, and prayed. It was a bit nonsensical for a bit, but finally I got to, “I’m not angry at them (my parents), and I’m not angry at You. I’m just angry at… bad luck, I guess, and I don’t really know what to do with that.”

I sat there with Him for a bit, and neither of us said anything, but after a few minutes (I don’t actually know how long), He gently reminded me of two things. He wasn’t able to carry the Cross Himself; He needed Simon to help Him. He allowed Himself to be needy, and the help wasn’t totally willing. Then He reminded me of His time in the Garden. His friends were willing to help, but were unable to. I have always had willing and able help.

An approach the Catholic Church takes to suffering is to “offer it up.” I can hand over certain sufferings to God for Him to use for His glory and for my good and/or the good of others. How this works, I don’t fully understand, but I can attest that it makes things more bearable. As I said, I’ve been struggling with “dependence” for a while. I simply don’t like it. I tried several times to simply hand it over all at once, but I couldn’t.

I prayed about this most of the day on Monday, and Jesus helped me devise a plan of how to deal with it. He inspired me to write a list of things that piss me off because I can’t do them, and write a list of things I can do. The “I Can’t Do That” list was longer, but what I realized was that the things on the “I Can Do That” list were much more significant. Then we made a deal. I couldn’t hand everything over all at once under the umbrella of “dependence,” so I made a sort of spiritual “Let It Go” box. I made it pretty and put a lock on it, then I handed over the key to the Lord. Yesterday I looked at the “I Can’t Do That” list, and started putting things in the box.

This afternoon, I was finally able to put the last things in the box because I realized something. While I was praying today, Jesus brought me to the moment when He said, “Your will, not mine be done.” Neither Jesus nor His Father wanted things to happen the way they did, but both the Father and the Son allowed the worst possible thing to happen to bring about the best result. God doesn’t want me to have epilepsy or muscular dystrophy, but He’s allowed it to happen. What I didn’t realize is that I have a choice in the matter.

I can choose to be continuously pissed off about it, or I can choose to accept it and do what I can to glorify the God who made me and loves me. When I say “Your will, not mine be done,” what I’m really saying is, “Okay, this happened. Neither of us like it. Moving on.” I know myself well enough to know that if I were “able-bodied” I would have played hockey, I would have been, and still would be into skateboarding, and I’d be a drummer, not a singer.

I also am inclined to think that I wouldn’t know the Lord. That means three things: 1) I wouldn’t have much hope of getting to Heaven, 2) my peeps would have less of a chance of knowing Him, and 3) I would be unhappy. What must be understood is that generally speaking, I am happy. I’m not always in a state of euphoria, but most of the things in my life do bring me joy. What also must be understood is that my faith is what gives me the most joy.

Your will, not mine be done.

The Dance Of Sorrow

The Dance of Sorrow

I find you
in that place we like to go,
where there’s no one else;
just us and nothing else.

I see your silhouette
there in the dark;
in the silence and the dark,
and you move
in the silence of the dark.

You say my name;
Your voice is music.
In the silence
and the dark
your beauty sings.

You are the light
in the silence and the dark,
and somehow I’m empty.

You ask me to stay
in the silence and the dark,
and I whisper;
I scream out your name.

I see you move;
you dance
in the dance of sorrow,
and you whisper.

“Will you look?”
You say
“Will you look and see
my heart that hurts;
that loves so much
and is so little loved?”

I see your beauty;
your dance:
the dance of sorrow.

It’s Not Really That Complicated

This morning I did what’s called an “examination of conscience.” It’s basically a self-assessment based on the ten commandments, and it’s ideally done relatively often. My family and I came back from vacation this past Sunday. I hadn’t done much of anything other than sleep, eat, and read Lord of the Rings over the course of two weeks. It was honestly a little boring, and that is my kind of vacation. Because I did nearly nothing, I began to question where I was at, spiritually.

As best I can remember, I have done an examination of conscience twice before. I’m afraid of doing it, not because I’m afraid of God’s justice, but because I don’t like looking at my sins. Before I did it this morning, I took a pen and a piece of paper, and I prayed. At the top of the paper, I wrote “I am good. I am beautiful. I belong to Jesus.” I wrote that because I thought I’d be writing a laundry list of ugly things. Then I asked Saint Faustina, who was the catalyst for the Divine Mercy devotion, to pray for me, I asked my guardian angel to be with me, and I asked the Blessed Mother to walk me through it. I also asked the Lord to be gentle with me, because He is gentle.

If you’re not Catholic, those first prayers might seem a bit weird. As Catholics we believe that we are connected to the entire Church, even after death. That means we can talk to, and even be friends with the saints in Heaven, and the righteous souls still working toward perfection in Purgatory. I won’t get into Purgatory here, partly because there’s plenty about it on the internet, and partly because it’s not the point of the post. The point is, I can ask Saint Faustina, who knows so much about God’s Mercy to pray for me, as a friend on earth might pray for me. I can ask my guardian angel to do whatever he needs to in this situation, because I don’t know exactly what that is. I can ask Mary, Jesus’ mom, and by extension, my spiritual mom (again, there’s a ton about this online) to just walk with me through it, before I even start.

A self-assessment is difficult, especially when it comes to the spiritual life. It means I have to look at what I don’t really want to see. I remember realizing for the first time that what I wanted most was to become a saint. To be a saint means attaining perfection. Part of that means looking at what I don’t want to, asking for God’s forgiveness, and letting Him help me. It means figuring out what I can do to change where I can, and mostly it means letting Him work on me, whatever that might look like. It’s hard for me to deal with the fact that He does most of the work. It’s hard to let go of control.

Recently, I realized that God’s Mercy doesn’t always look like what one might expect. I realized that often, His Mercy looks like making sure there’s a time and place for me to go to confession when I need to. I didn’t find a four-page laundry list of sins. I found four things. It’s one thing to be able to make the self-assessment and be honest with myself; it’s another to actually go to confession and state how I’ve gone wrong out loud. I know that I’m really going to Jesus, and I know that I will receive His Mercy. I just don’t like having to verbally admit that I’m not perfect.

The Lord knows that I’m as jumpy as a rabbit, but He also knows that I will go because if I’ve sinned, it means I’ve hurt my most intimate friend.  He’s been kind enough to make sure the priest I go to is gentle. Nonetheless, going to confession makes me anxious. I’m not alone in this. The last thing the priest says is “Go in peace.” The feeling after confession is amazing because sin is heavy, and it quite literally feels like that load has been taken away.

This is why not forgiving someone is such a huge problem. When we pray the “Our Father,” we ask the Lord to “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Our forgiveness and mercy is meant to be exactly like His–infinite. It doesn’t mean it has to be immediate because forgiveness is sometimes hard (when you’re not God), but it has to come around eventually. God wants to forgive, but we do have to ask for it because that’s part of a genuine relationship.

I should acknowledge that there are two different kinds of sins. Small (venial) sins can be forgiven simply if we pray for forgiveness, and if we really are sorry. More serious (mortal/deadly) sins are what we have to go to confession for, but sometimes it’s helpful to go to confession even for smaller stuff. An inevitable question is, “Why do Catholics have to go to confession at all?” The Church is the Body of Christ and we’re all spiritually connected. That means that stuff I do, even if it doesn’t obviously affect anyone, does have a spiritual effect on the whole Church, myself included, and because we are connected, it hurts the Lord, too.

As a member himself, the priest is, in this context, a representative of the Church, as well as a representative of Christ, through whom Jesus administers the sacraments. That means when I go to confession, I can acknowledge that I’ve hurt the Church, I’ve hurt myself spiritually, and I’ve hurt Jesus, and because God is Mercy, He can take the load from me. I still have to do some sort of penance, though, because I did make a mess in the first place. An analogy might be a brother and sister playing together get into an argument, so the sister breaks the brother’s toy. The sister then feels bad and says she’s sorry. The brother forgives her, but the toy is still broken, so the parents decide that the money to pay for a new one has to come from her allowance.

None of that is to say that I’m still guilty after confession. Penance should be natural if I really am sorry because out of love, I should make amends for causing hurt. Because we are God’s adopted children, we are all brothers and sisters in Christ. We’re a massive, crazy, dysfunctional family, which is seriously awesome. I have written a post before about “agape” love. It’s love that simply wills the good of the other. It’s the kind of love that, by nature, looks outward. We should be attentive to our inner spiritual lives in order to most effectively maintain this agape love.

The Problem Of “Them”

My dad and I have been re-watching the Marvel movies leading up to “End Game” and the new Spider Man movie. We found a list that goes through them in an actual timeline that starts in the 1940’s with the first Captain America movie, and ends in the present day. I love super hero movies. In fact, I pretty much like any story that involves an obvious battle between good and evil. I like to see the “good guys” win.

It’s a really simple, but enjoyable story premise. We’re presented with it over and over, starting when we’re as young as five years old. At face value, that’s fine, and even good to an extent. Good and evil do exist; they are real things. The problem is when the lines between good and evil get blurred. The problem is when this story premise gets translated into “us” and “them” in our daily lives.

As I’ve mentioned before, Last fall I joined the Carmelite community in Danvers MA as an aspirant. It means I’m a newbie. For months, when talking about things we do, I would say “they” do X, Y, or Z. I’ve consciously had to train myself to say “us” and “we.” Our other members have been fabulous in making me feel welcome, and that I am part of the community, even though, as an aspirant, I’m not yet officially a member.

Last week my family got a letter from Social Security. It was vague at best, and said  they had detected something that might affect my disability stipend. It said if we had any questions to call the number they provided. We gave them a call, and no one answered. We gave them another call today because the letter said if they didn’t hear from us, they would call us today at 10:30, but they didn’t. Finally someone answered, and said that they would call us back before 3:30, but they didn’t. I mentioned in my last post that I am prideful, and don’t like to be helped. I particularly don’t like getting a disability payment. My mom took care of the phone calls today. It’s a good thing she did because if it had been me, things would have got ugly. I don’t normally have a foul mouth, but I told my mom to “tell them to cut the shit… Gimme the phone.” She didn’t.

So I went to the next option. I posted on Facebook, “Our government is run by idiots.” A minute later, I deleted it. I realized that I fell into the problem of “us” and “them.” I used to think I wasn’t allowed to be angry when I pray. That mentality, luckily, is long gone. After deleting my post I said, “Sorry, Lord, I’m just pissed off and looking for someone to blame.” I was looking for “the bad guy.” The real problem is in the system itself. It’s a system that fosters apathy, and it’s no one’s fault in particular. On the same token, though, it’s a system that fosters the “us” vs “them” mentality. I, and I imagine many others on disability have a tendency to see those working for the social security system as “the enemy,” while those same workers see us as, in a sense, “enemies” because we’re at best, inconvenient.

No individual within this messed up system is my “enemy.” What is it that I really want? I want to be left alone. What do the people in the office likely want? Me out of their hair. I recently went to confession because I was having trouble forgiving. I know that, in confession, I’m meant to talk with the priest as if I’m talking directly to Jesus, so I said, “I’m not sure I totally get forgiveness. I feel like I can forgive, but it’s more than a feeling, right?” He said, through the priest, “Yeah, it’s about letting it go. If you feel like you can do that, you can leave it in this room.” It seemed simple, and in that moment, I was able to leave it behind. The trouble is that it’s just as easy to pick it back up. It’s easy to pick it up because blame can evolve and mutate, and it’s easy to pick someone out as “the bad guy.”

The “us” vs “them” mentality; the idea of good vs evil is built into human nature. It’s a survival instinct. We weren’t always at the top of the food chain. That’s fine. God created us to be like Him, though. He built us with a consciousness that can understand right and wrong. He knew that we would eventually get to the top of the food chain, and on a human-to-human level, we’re not supposed to have enemies. The spiritual always trumps the natural, but our survival instinct is still there, and it causes us to be jealous of colleagues or friends; it causes us to categorize people where we shouldn’t; it causes us to see people who support certain political positions, religious beliefs, or whatever else, as “the bad guy.” It can cause us to see ourselves as “outsiders,” even when this is completely irrational, only because we’re new to a community, club, group, school, job, or even family.

Normally I don’t try to write my posts really as “advice” because mostly I just think too much. I think I do have actual advice this time, though. 1) Try to use “us” and “we” more than “They” when referring to a group of people you’re involved in, whether it’s your church, your workplace, your school, or another community. 2) Figure out who you haven’t forgiven, or who you see as an “enemy,” and figure out how to “let it go.” It can help to find a place to leave it, but it’s not necessary. It can be super helpful, though not always necessary, to leave it in confession (if you’re Catholic). 3) Pray for those perceived “enemies.” It can be a bit difficult to get started, but it can eventually feel really relieving.

As Simple And As Difficult

One of my most recent songs was entitled “Just An Honest Prayer.” I struggle a lot with the story Jesus tells of when the King will separate the sheep and the goats–those who helped “the little guy,” and those who did not. I struggle with this because I want to do more to help people than I physically or financially am able to. It sometimes leads me to thinking that what I do, or even what I am, is not enough.

On Saturday I went to the monthly meeting of our Carmelite community. My epilepsy happened to be acting up that morning. I don’t have violent seizures, but I “space out,” and I can’t process language, or communicate easily. A few of our members noticed, and were able to calmly help me out until it was under control. At some point during the meeting, I noticed a picture I hadn’t ever noticed before. It was a black and white image, like a photograph, of the wounded face of Christ. Through that image I felt like He was saying to me, “I’m here. I’m with you.” The members of my community who were able to help me through my “brain fuzz” were great, but more than anything, what Jesus silently said to me was extremely moving and calming.

I’ve been listening to the podcast “Catholic Stuff You Should Know” for a long time now. Their most recent episode was, in a sense, about hospitality. An idea they presented was that hospitality is about receiving well, as much as it is about being a good host. I realized that I am not good at receiving. I don’t like being helped, especially if I need help. I realize that this is a symptom of pride. I’ve asked the Lord more than once to take my “brain fuzz” away. His answer has been, “No,” and I think I know why. To make me into who I’m meant to be, He needs me to need help. Also, if I didn’t have unpredictable fuzz, I’d be able to do more than I’m able to do now, and because of that, I likely wouldn’t be making the music I am, and I wouldn’t be able to offer my suffering to God with Jesus’ suffering.

Saturday ended up being a fabulous day. Dad got me a “Romantic” sandwich (broccoli, cheddar cheese, avocado, garlic, and spices) from Life Alive in Salem, and we headed to Maine. I went to Mass with my dad and Godfather that afternoon, got my favorite chicken sandwich at my favorite restaurant in Bridgton Maine for dinner, and that night, I saw the most beautiful sky I’ve ever seen. Our house up there faces south, looking down a hill at some trees, and the river beyond. The sky was bright because the moon was nearly full. The clouds were long and streaked, running north to south, and the sky looked striped. There were also smaller, thicker clouds that were dark, but bright on the edges. My dad was the first to notice it because I had been looking at the fire we had started in our yard. He pointed it out to me, and I was absolutely captivated. I didn’t want to look away. I realized that this sky was a gift to my family. Not everybody would look up.

Finally, when I went to bed that night, I started praying the Divine Mercy Chaplet. This is something I try to do every day. As I started praying, though, God spoke in my heart and asked me, “Do you really believe in the power of My mercy?” I said, “Yeah, I do. Help me to believe it more.” I have a habit of praying for everybody but myself. That’s not a good thing. I need His mercy and His help as much as anyone else. As I said, I’m not good at receiving help, and I’m especially bad at asking for it. That night, I prayed for myself, though, and He showed me something.

Often when I pray, I say something that ultimately translates to: “What do you want/need me to do?” I ask partly out of gratitude for everything He’s done for me, but part of it is that I frequently fall into the false belief that I have to “earn” all of it. Saturday night, He didn’t let me ask the question. In a sense, He let me see myself through His eyes, and I was surprised at what I saw. I didn’t see the mess I thought I would. I just saw me. I was even more surprised to see Him. I shouldn’t have been surprised at that. I had taken communion just a few hours earlier. I saw very clearly that, yeah, I’m a sinner, but I also saw very clearly, that He took the blame for my sins, and accused me of nothing. He looked at me as my Savior, and saw the one He saves.

Last night I went to Adoration. I don’t go as often as I would like, but I’m going to try and go more regularly, because I often find myself going with tears in my eyes, and leaving with a smile on my face. At the front of the church I went to–I didn’t go to my home parish–the Eucharist was on the altar, as it always is at Adoration, the Crucifix was on the wall behind it, as it always is, but the Divine Mercy Image was very prominently in view on the wall just to the left. I know that when I look at the Eucharist, or an image of Jesus, or what have you, I’m looking at Love. Last night, I realized more deeply that I was staring at Mercy.

In my song “Just An Honest Prayer,” the third verse and chorus go as follows:

I know I need a Savior
‘Cause I can’t do this, my Lord
And I know I am broken
‘Cause trusting You isn’t easy
But I’m ready to be honest
I so want to believe
I want to be with You in Heaven
So Help my unbelief

(Chorus)
You know the world is broken
When saying “I love you” is hard
Even when you want to
And even when it’s true

Trusting the Lord should be the easiest thing. He is Love itself. We don’t find it easy because our world is broken, and we are broken. I once read something along the lines of: Mercy is where love meets need. I am spiritually weak, and I’m not very nice to myself sometimes. Saint Paul says in his letter to the Corinthians that he is content in his weakness because the Lord revealed to him that His power is made perfect in human weakness. In other words, He can, and often does use our weaknesses for our own good and His glory.

As I said earlier in my post, I often want to help “the little guy” where I can’t. Jesus says that “blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” I remember once I was at an open mic. I don’t remember what song I had been intending to play, but the guy who played before me got on stage and said, “This song is about how basically life is terrible.” I was up next and I said, “I wasn’t actually planning on playing this song, but the song I’m about to play is called, ‘Good In Things,’ and it’s about how everything is inherently good because God is good, and He made it.” My dad said he saw a woman at a table nearby with a look on her face like I had just “saved” her with that song. I don’t really know what he meant by that, but it made me happy to know I had made someone else happy.

It feels good to help people. Praying for people and making music that people can relate to and find joy and comfort in is about the extent of what I can do. At least that was what I thought until I heard the episode of “Catholic Stuff” on hospitality. I think part of being merciful actually means allowing people to help, and being grateful and humble about it. Everybody needs help in some way, at some point. Not everyone can do everything all the time. Maybe part of being merciful is allowing yourself to be “the little guy.”

A few days ago, I actually got some great advice. Someone who knew I was a musician told me that Mother Teresa of Calcutta said, “do something beautiful for God.” They said if I wanted to glorify God, I should sing only for Him. God isn’t expecting of me what I can’t do. I can make songs that give people hope; I can be grateful when I need help, and in that, I can give someone else the joy of being helpful; I can take the time to pray that many others can’t because I don’t have a “conventional” job; I can offer God my suffering with Jesus’ suffering because I have a cross to carry that many others don’t. I can do all that.

Yesterday I realized that there’s something else I can do, and so can everyone else. It felt like God dropped a love bomb on me on Saturday, so I wrote a short post about it on Facebook. Then I realized I could do more than that. I wrote in my song, “You know the world is broken when saying ‘I love you’ is hard.” In another song I wrote, “We are fighting a war You’ve already won.” Both of these are true. Jesus saved the world, yes, but He’s still in the process of saving it, too. We’re meant to be a part of that. Saying “I love you,” or giving an honest compliment, or what have you, can be weird or awkward, so we don’t, even when we want to, and even when it’s true.

It’s easy to say to ourselves, “They already know, so I don’t need to say it.” I realized that, actually, yeah, we still need to say it. Even if we already know it, we need to be reminded. We’re really good at finding the flaws in ourselves, and when we find those flaws, it’s relatively easy to start thinking “I’m not lovable.” So yesterday, I started dropping love bombs. I looked through my contacts and decided on the three people I thought most needed a reminder. I did the same thing today, and I ended up having pretty nice conversations with a couple of people I haven’t talked to in a while. I just started with “Hey! Happy Thursday! I love you!” It was a little awkward, but it turned into something beautiful. The world is broken, but we can be a part of fixing it, and it’s as simple and as difficult as saying “I love you.”

What A Dumb Bird Has Taught Me

If you asked me what my most prized possession is, I would probably tell you it’s my bird. Seamus proved to me that love-at-first-sight actually can happen. We got him from a bird breeder in New Hampshire. on the way there, my mom reminded me that we might not be getting a bird that day. We didn’t know if their birds were healthy, or friendly. When we arrived, one of the breeders said they had three birds available for adoption. They had a green-cheeked conure, and two sun conures. They brought out the green-cheeked conure first, and handed him to me. He immediately scurried up my chest and nestled under my ear. He was exceedingly small, and his feathers were, for the most part, an unremarkable dark green.

The breeders said that conures didn’t usually take to strangers very quickly, and that this was not normal behavior. I loved this bird immediately, but I agreed to see the other two. The two sun conures wanted nothing to do with me. They were bigger than the green-cheek, and were bright yellow and orange, but I asked to see the little guy again. A second time, he climbed up and hid under my ear. I didn’t care that he was small and not very colorful. He liked me, and he was cuddly, and that was what mattered.

We bought him a cage, and food, and a few toys, and brought him home. The breeders had said that we should leave him in his cage for a little while and let him get used to our house, but he wanted nothing to do with that. He wanted to be with and on us. The next day, or maybe the day after, we took him to the vet to make sure he was healthy, and to get a blood test. The only way to know a conure’s gender is by their DNA, and apparently female’s can sometimes lay eggs, and we didn’t really want to deal with that. Luckily, it turned out our little guy was, indeed, a guy, so we named him Seamus, after the poet Seamus Heaney.

I love Seamus for the same reasons anyone would love their pet: he’s funny, he’s soft and, he’s cuddly. I love him, too, though simply because he’s mine, and because he loves me; actually, I really do think Seamus loved me first, and I really do think he’s taught me some things about God. He’s a bird, ergo, Seamus is stupid; he’s also badly behaved, and annoying at times. He does things that normal birds definitely don’t do. He’ll come into my room in the morning, and if I lift up the blanket, he’ll crawl under, and snuggle in the “happy hole.” He likes to go spelunking in silverware drawers, and “dumpster dive” in our trash. He tries to steal food like french fries, or even chicken, and he’s probably more stubborn than any human I’ve encountered. He will attack any human outside my immediate family because they’re not part of his flock, but he will fall asleep in my dad’s hand. He does many other weird, ridiculous things that you simply would not expect a normal bird to do.

I call him my co-pilot because he likes to sit on my head or under my ear when I’m praying or working, or playing video games with my dad. I find that I’m often reminding him, “Seamus, you’re a disaster, and I adore you.” I imagine that’s how God must feel about us sometimes. Of course we don’t start so messy. Bad things happen around or to us, or we hurt our own hearts when we sin. Sometimes Seamus gets bored and tries to steal the keys from my keyboard while I’m writing. He’s annoying, but I’ll grab him while he’s doing it, pick him up, and kiss him. Sometimes while we’re playing video games, he’ll get bored, and fly upstairs. It just makes me want him back. I imagine this is how God feels about us. I can’t get angry at a dumb bird, especially my dumb bird, and I don’t think our omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient God can really get angry at us limited humans, especially since we’re His limited humans.

Seamus can annoy the heck out of me, or even hurt me if he bites, but I’d never give him up. I call him “Precious” for a reason, and not just because I’m a Lord of the Rings fan. Likewise, we really can hurt God, but He’ll never give us up, He’ll never abandon us, and He’ll never give up on us.

The Eternal Question

About a week ago, I was in the car. I do a lot of praying in the car because the car is boring, and I don’t drive, so I don’t have to pay attention to the road. At the time I had been thinking about the difficulty of balancing work and prayer. The Lord reminded me of the time he spent with Martha and Mary. Martha had been working to make everything perfect for the Lord, while Mary just sat with Him. Martha got annoyed with her sister, and Jesus said, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

At the time, I had been thinking about spending too much time producing art or music, even if it is for God’s glory, and not actually spending enough time with Him. Earlier today, I was worried about a deeper, spiritual problem I’ve been facing, so I went to my room and prayed, but I did something that was definitely out of the ordinary. I said, “Can you just tell me a story?” I don’t really know how I did it, but I sort of let Him take control of my creativity, and this is the story He told me.

There was once a little girl who lived in a house with her mom and dad. They were loved by their friends and neighbors and they lived a very normal life. On an ordinary day, the little girl came home from school and sat on the floor to play. All of a sudden everything disappeared except for the square of floor she was sitting on. Above her there was nothing. Below her there was nothing. Behind her there was nothing, and in front of her there was nothing. To her left and her right, and in every direction besides, there was nothing. Everything she had ever known was gone. She was there, and the square she sat on was there and that was it. She was sad because everything she knew was gone, and as the square started to disappear, she became scared. She was worried because if the square was gone, she might fall into nothing forever. As the square disappeared, she reached out for Me, and I caught her, and brought her to myself and kept her there.

Then he asked me a question.

Is that okay?

I thought it was a weird story, but the strangest thing was that when everything disappeared, I felt this sense of peace. His question really seamed to be: “If literally everything else was gone except Me, would you be happy with that?” I’m realizing as I write this how weighty a question that is. That is literally a life or death question. When we die, we literally lose everything this world has to offer: everything we own; the place where we live; all the money we may have; even the identity this world gave us. When we die, we’ll face that question. Our answer determines where we spend eternity. I didn’t fully realize that when He initially asked the question, but I didn’t have to think about it. My answer was, and still is absolutely “Yes.”

I mentioned in my previous post that I deal with scrupulosity. It kind of means I have spiritual OCD. I get caught up in the “rules” while trying to be perfect, and I lose sight of the actual point of my faith, which is to have a loving relationship with the Lord. For a while now, I think it’s been like when Peter walked on water. He had faith enough to try something that absurd. For a moment, he was able to do it, but he saw that the water was getting rough and the wind was picking up. He lost sight of Jesus for just a moment, and he started sinking, but all he had to do was ask for help, and Jesus caught him. I’ve been so busy trying to be perfect, that I lost sight of the Person I’m trying to be perfect for. With His weird little story Jesus reminded me that He will catch me when I fall.