Tag Archives: Agape

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.

Love That Chooses Hurt

Last weekend while I was praying, I was thinking about the story of the prodigal son. The kid wronged his father, and left. The father was more than ready to forgive his son when he came back, acknowledged his fault and apologized. I’m realizing now just how painful the waiting and the hoping must have been for the father. The story is a metaphor for God’s mercy, but the primary focus is on the actions and decisions of the son. Not much time is spent on the interior feelings or actions of the father.

Last week I had to write a letter to someone I love because she has been being abusive to other family members. I told her that I still love her, and I really do, but unless she changes her behavior, I can’t have a relationship with her. It kills me because if she was willing to change and asked for my forgiveness, I would grant it. I hate tough love, meaning I hate having to do it. The father in the story of the prodigal son wanted to forgive his kid. He wanted to love him.

Recently, I talked to my parish priest about being overly scrupulous. Scrupulosity has been described as “Catholic guilt on steroids.” I tend to be afraid of my own human weakness, I often think things are sinful when they’re not, and sometimes if I commit a venial sin, I think it’s much worse than it is. I’ve been told on multiple occasions to let God love me. He wants to love, and he wants to forgive. Often, we just don’t let him. I think I better understand, at least to some extent, what that feels like.

I watched a talk about when Jesus was teaching about the Eucharist in John 6. Literally thousands of people left Him because of that teaching. He knows what it feels like to lose friends. He also knows what it’s like to offer love that people won’t accept. This is what sin does. I imagine love is like a ball that gets passed back and forth between two people playing catch. Each person “offers” it, and each person “receives” it. Sin is like a barrier that gets set between them. Love can still be offered, but it can’t, or in many cases, simply won’t be received. Letting God love us is often about admitting our faults and letting Him forgive us.

I’m realizing as I work through this that admitting our fault has to be preceded by accepting our fault. I already intuitively knew this, but I haven’t been able to articulate it until now. I know this person whom I love, and I don’t think she’ll accept that she’s at fault. I can’t claim that I don’t feel angry with her, but I wish her no ill will. That’s what hurts. She’s put up the barrier that’s broken up our game, and I’m left holding the ball. It’s not a perfect analogy because you can’t throw the same ball to more than one person. Every relationship has a different ball.

There was a definitive breaking point, and since then I’ve been praying for her. Often, prayer can feel like a desperate monologue. On occasion though, either by reading Scripture or sincerely listening with my heart as best I can, I get a clear answer. I know that Jesus suffers. He chose to be with us, and He chooses to continue to suffer with us even though He doesn’t have to. Jesus suffered a lot in His own lifetime here on earth. Last weekend I asked Him, “Lord, why do you choose to suffer this with me? You shouldn’t have to suffer.” He said, “I don’t want you to suffer alone.”

That’s what real love is. The person whom I love has hurt a lot of people. I could have told those people to keep it to themselves, or between them and a priest or a therapist, or God. That wouldn’t be real love, though. Real love doesn’t abandon ship when the seas get rough. Real love is love that sticks around to help clean up after the earthquake. Real love is love that chooses to suffer for the good of the other. Real love is willing to share the hurt.

I’ll Stick Around To Remind You

I’ve been on a bit of a blogging hiatus. I’ve been busy loving a teenage boy from where, I don’t know, praying, working on my book, and working on music in the studio. I just finished up the second song, “Heart Of Love.” I don’t know where it’ll be on the album, but I’m just overjoyed at how good it sounds. A lot of love went into this song, on my end, for sure, but I’m convinced, from heaven as well. Ken and I pray before every session, and both of us have been convinced that we’ve had very little to do with this song. Even when the work was barely started, we couldn’t stop ourselves from laughing at how good it sounded.

Last week we finished “Heart Of Love” and started work on a song called “Sunset Sparrow,” which is partly dedicated to my new friend, but also to anyone who is suffering from loneliness or any kind of mental health issue. The first verse ends with a question: “Sunset Sparrow, can you see the city lights, and in the sky beyond, can you see the stars?” The Chorus goes like this: “If your answer’s ‘no,’ I’ll stick around to remind you, the night can’t last forever, and the morning’ll break through.”

A couple of weeks ago, my friend and I decided to watch “The Hunger Games.” There’s an interesting conversation in the first movie between President Snow and the guy who designed the game/arena. President Snow questions, “You like an underdog?” The guy responds by saying, “Everyone likes an underdog,” to which the president responds, “I don’t.” My friend reflected, “People don’t actually like underdogs. People like underdog stories.” Truthfully I haven’t thought about it a whole lot, but at the time, she seemed to be right, and I think she probably is.

I have also heard over and over that we live in a cut-throat, survival-of-the-fittest society. Though I have seen beautiful exceptions, I think, for the most part, this is overwhelmingly true, too. This leaves people afraid to reach out to one another in kindness because it leaves them vulnerable. Any show of weakness could mean defeat. I am reminded of the “Good Samaritan” story. Two of the three people who pass the wounded man–the underdog–pass him by. They are more interested in their own survival; the task at hand.

Jesus uses that story in a particular context as a teaching device, but I wonder what the wounded man–the underdog–would have been thinking. I had a very strange conversation with my new friend just a couple of days after we made contact. I asked him how his weekend had gone. His response was not a positive one. I spent two hours trying to convince him that he was lovable, that he was loved, that I don’t abandon my friends, and that I wasn’t going to abandon him. He countered by saying that he was very good at pushing people away, and that we couldn’t possibly really be friends because we had only known each other for two days, and then, it was only over the internet.

I spent the whole two hours inwardly hoping he wouldn’t ask me why I loved him because if he asked me, I don’t think I could have explained. The fact of the matter is, though, that, though I only really know his name and his age and the bare minimum of his personality, I love this kid, even if I can’t articulate a reason. Pope Benedict XVI said, “Only when God accepts me, and I become convinced of this, do I know definitively, it is good that I exist.” Saint Paul said that we can know God loves us because, and I am not quoting directly, “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” I’ve recently come up with a prayer that I find exceedingly helpful when, in a sense, I have to remind myself of what I believe. “Lord, I’m a mess, but I’m your mess.”

For too long I tried to figure out why God loves me. Of course I know that God is Love, so I can infer that, in some sense, he has to love me. He kind of can’t help it. At the same time, I personally don’t have to exist. He wanted me with all my quirks and talents, and preferences, and what not, to exist. He created me knowing I’d be a mess, but he loves me too much not to have made me. Accepting my own messiness has not been easy. It probably never will be. By messiness, I don’t only mean sinfulness. I’m talking about other things, too, like the leftover insecurity that still occasionally tries to rear its head from when I was a teenager, or even my medical weirdness.

Acknowledging the mess is important, but if anyone only looks at their mess, they’re left with not much more than a bad mood. That’s why the second part of the prayer is important. By saying that I’m His mess, I am reminding myself that I belong to Him. It’s my pledge of loyalty, but also a way to say, “I know you love me, and I love you, too.” In a world where we’re convinced we have to do everything on our own, it’s easy to make the mistake of either not asking for help when we need it, or ignoring those who do need our help.

From talking with my new friend, I’ve discovered a new sense of the idea of tough love: “I’m going to love you whether you like it or not because you need it.” Sometimes unconditional love is uncomfortable. It can sometimes seem entirely idealistic and unrealistic, when, in fact, the opposite is true. The God of the universe who can literally do anything, and never changes, loves each person literally no matter what, even if our actions or words are sometimes not to His liking.

Last night I reflected on the fact that, while praying, I usually call God, “Lord.” That should be no surprise, except that, when Jesus instructed his disciples (i.e. us) to pray, he told us to address God as “Father.” That’s the whole point. God is the most perfect Father we could ever have. Even when we’re being “the actual worst,” He loves us. Sometimes when our loved ones are going through something particularly hard, or they do something particularly detrimental to themselves, another person, or our relationship, it’s tempting to decide, “I can’t deal with you right now,” and then “right now” lasts a long time. God, on the other hand, doesn’t think like that. Unlike humans, God can handle any mess, no matter how big, and nothing we do, and no matter how we feel, we are unconditionally loved.

I wrote “Sunset Sparrow” initially as a promise to my friend from my personal perspective. However, on further reflection, I’ve realized two things. The first is that I have never encountered the kind of deep darkness I’m finding in his soul. Maybe he’s being an overly dramatic teenager, but I’d like to give him the benefit of the doubt. Secondly, though, I think the chorus of the song can be addressed to anyone. “I’ll stick around to remind you. The night can’t last forever, and the morning’ll break through.”

My upcoming album is a worship album, but I wanted the songs on it to be a bit less conventional than the usual fare of worship songs. The fact of the matter is, after a while, truth can only be said the same way so many times before it starts sounding like white noise. I hadn’t intended to write a song to reflect God’s faithfulness directly. On the other hand, I have asked Him to give me some words from His perspective that He wanted me to address to someone in particular, or the world in general. I had hoped He would give me something new to say, but no spectacular divine revelation came. Instead, He gave me new words to convey an ancient message: “I am faithful;” in other words, “I’ll stick around to remind you. The night can’t last forever, and the morning’ll break through.”

Agape

Earlier today a question occurred to me. Why, or how do humans love? What is love, anyway? I thought of this question because I keep coming back to the question of why God loves us. Ultimately, that’s an insanely difficult question to answer, so I decided to try and dumb it down for myself. The obvious next step was to “Google” this because I wanted to know what experts, whether they be spiritual or scientific, had to say. First I got scientific answers that really didn’t seem very helpful. They only really touched on romantic love, which wasn’t what I had in mind.

Then I rephrased my question and got the answer I somehow knew I was looking for all along. There are four different types of love according to Greek philosophy: Eros, or a love that is deeply related to the body and the senses; Phileo, or affection towards people and sometimes things; Storge, which is a loyal love, generally towards one’s family, friends, a cause one believes in, one’s country, etc; Agape, or an active, sacrificial love that is chosen simply for the good of others for no reason. Agape love cannot be understood in a passive sense. Agape is always a verb. Agape is to will the good of the other.

Agape is perfect love, and it is the kind of love that God showed us when he died for us on the cross. God is love. This is why he is a Trinity. He is a lover, beloved, and loving. The Father and the Son love each other, and the Holy Spirit is the love that they share. A human relationship is shared between two people, but if there is no love between them, there is no relationship. People need other people because we need to experience love, and we can’t fill our need purely on our own. God doesn’t need, nor did he ever need humanity to exist because the Trinity was already experiencing perfect love.

God created us knowing that we would betray him. He saved us even though he didn’t have to, and even though it would mean experiencing the worst we had to offer. The crazy thing is that even though God doesn’t need us to love him, he wants us to. This is revealed over and over in the Scriptures, and also through the writings of the saints. In fact, Jesus says that the greatest commandment is simply to love God. Loving God means a great number of things, and can be anything from enjoying and appreciating nature, to imitating Jesus and doing good for others, to stopping to pray or participate in some form of worship.

Jesus said that to find one’s life, one had to lose it. He also said there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. To lose one’s life does not need to be understood in a literal sense. It is meant that one is to give one’s self away freely, and in doing so, one finds out who they really are. Similarly, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends means to sacrifice for people without expecting anything in return. To make sacrifices for God’s Kingdom is Agape love. It is the kind of love that God wants from us.