This is a little weird for me; usually when I write a post for this (which is oh so rare these days), it’s EITHER sharing a poem I’ve written OR sharing ramblings or musings on something I’ve been reflecting on. But this is a bit of both.
We all have aches, wounds. We all have a story, a life that no one earthly person knows in its entirety except ourselves, and in each of our stories, there are gaps, hurts, cuts, bruises, gashes, major traumas that color our very vision, tiny but persistent aches that form undercurrents to the music of our lives. We have joys, too; moments of light, seconds or days or months or years long, intense and immediate or subtle and hidden, sprung on us out of nowhere or persistently present, all of them precious.
But it’s so, so easy to retreat from the wounds into the joys. It’s probably a little redundant; it’s not like we seek out wounds. But we come to them nevertheless. We carry them. Spaces crying out with voices we don’t want to hear. Longings we wish would go away. Tears we wish we didn’t have to cry. It’s hard. It really is.
But there’s something about the ache that needs to be seen.
I recently was uprooted, thrown into a place of turmoil. Leaving behind a career, leaving behind friends and a place of relative happiness and peace, familiar yet new places, familiar yet new people, and above all, loneliness. That’s always been my big ache. I think deep down that’s everyone’s big ache. Finding oneself at the end of the day, with just yourself, who you are, where you are, and that’s just…it. And you have a choice: face yourself, everything you want and need, everything you hope for and regret, everything that hurts…or run. Distract. Keep moving and keep thinking of anything, anything else, until you fall asleep, wake up, and start over again. And no matter how often you might choose the second option, eventually even that isn’t an option anymore.
So it’s just me. And until rather recently, more recently than I’d care to admit, it seemed my only option then was to wallow in it. To think of others. People I’d left behind. People I just wanted to hold and tell them how much I cared about them. People I wanted to be with so bad it hurt, knowing that I never could, which hurt even more. People I knew now who seemed destined to fall into that same category. To sit alone, in my ache, and just…ache.
So…it’s been rather a new thing for me to look back and realize that these spaces of aching and realize that…well, that I’m glad they’ve happened.
Don’t get me wrong. This ache sucks.
But seeing myself and who I am and where I am now, I don’t think I’d trade them away.
The thing is…it’s in these aches that I found God. Or maybe more accurately, that He found me. Maybe even more accurately, that He finally got through to me. That part in St. Augustine’s Confessions where he talks about the Lord calling and shouting, breaking through my deafness? I feel like those aches are where the Lord broke through. It’s in that ache that I first asked Him to see me, know me, love me, and He told me He already did. It’s in that ache that I begged Him to change me and take away what I hated about myself, and instead, He told me how much He loved me as I am. It’s in that ache that I yelled out at Him that I was fighting for Him, and with nothing but patience and love, He told me that He was fighting for me too.
It’s in the ache that I first discovered what it means to be God’s beloved.
So would I rather not have this ache? Well, yes…but also no. Because as Jean Vanier puts it so perfectly, “The wound in all of us, and which we are all trying to flee, can become the place of meeting with God and with brothers and sisters; it can become the place of ecstasy and of the eternal wedding feast. The loneliness and feelings of inferiority which we are running away from become the place of liberation and salvation.”
So when I come to that ache again (and I will, countless times before this pilgrimage is done), I’m going to try, and I hope you will too, to invite Christ into that space with me. To ask Him to just sit with me there. To be close to Him. To love Him, and to know better His love for me.
And from my heart to all those who have ever had a place there, here’s the poem that came out of this reflection. It’s potentially the most vulnerable thing I’ve ever written…I hope that it helps someone out there to reflect on how God has worked in their own wounds, and maybe assures all those who don’t already know it just how much He loves them.
I ache to tell you that you matter,
to echo in my fragile frame
the terpsichorean tremors
that murmured you into being:
It is good that you exist.
the song of Adam rises from my fragile frame,
Bone of my bones!
Flesh of my flesh!
it falls into fragments
and rests unevenly in my soul.
So great the heap of these broken songs,
they rot away at secret structures,
plans barely begun,
that I thought mattered.
to believe that the death of my infant dreams
kills with it all that I hold dear.
So easy to believe that nothing matters.
But it matters.
that when I am parched,
the sapphire pools in your eyes
make me thirst for the Living Water.
that when I sit in darkness,
the light of your smile
illuminates my wounds for my Healer to see.
that when time unfairly rips you from me
(you who were never mine to keep),
when the halls of my heart must make their final farewell,
when I am broken open,
I will stretch and tear all the wider
for the One Who cannot be contained.
Loving you wounds me.
Sharp is the spear
that tears open my heart
when you look at me
and somehow love me.
Loving you heals me.
Tender is the touch
of the words you fumble to find
to tell me I matter.
Remorseless, my lately love, am I
in choosing you
over safety and solitude.
Regretless, my lately love, am I
in making a place for you
at the hearth of my heart.
I choose you.
I choose the pain,
the caress of the cross
which you carry
in your own fragile frame.
I choose this lesser way,
this greater way,
this rocky road to Calvary.
I choose to see
in every step,
the great gradual romance
of the One Who first loved me.
I choose to say,
with every word,
spoken and unspoken,
Amidst everything, God is still our Father, Christ is still our brother, Lord, and savior, the Holy Spirit is still our Comforter and advocate, and Mary is still our Mother. Mary, mother of the Church, lady of sorrows, queen of victory, spouse of the spirit, mother of mercy, most blessed and humble virgin, conceived without sin, pray for us.
A blessed feast of the Assumption to you all, fam.
24 years old. Two score, two dozen, almost two and a half decades. It almost makes me feel a little foolish to see that it’s taken me this long to learn something so fundamental.
I am not God.
Now let’s be clear, I haven’t been fashioning golden idols in my own image and singing hymns about my grandeur and majesty while sacrificing a hegdehog. Well, there was that one time…(I kid, I kid! Deep breaths! Not trying to start my own cult here. Although that would be fun, in a weird, twisted sort of way.) In any case, what I mean is not that I haven’t recognized that the Triune God and Sean Michael Gregory Coyle are separate entities. But not until recently have I begun to get a glimpse of what it really means to say to the Lord, “You are God, and I am not.”
Here’s the thing, guys. I want so bad to make everything right. To fix all the problems and heal all the wounds I see in myself. To make my loved ones know the love I have for them, to be the one that makes them happy. To advance the causes I care about and keep the things I love alive. In short, I suppose, I want my will to be done.
But that’s just it; guys, no matter how much I try to attune my will to God’s, if at the end of the day I still want things done my way on my time according to my comfort level, even if those things are the things God ultimately wants too, I’m still doing my will, not His.
Living the Christian life as an adult has been more challenging than I anticipated. I grew up expecting the difficulties to come from the outside, from people who would antagonize my faith, from a world that tries to drown God out, from the lies of the tempter. I never really anticipated having to grapple with the antagonizing voice of my own doubts. I never expected it would be my own desires and frustrations trying to drown God out. I never knew how easy it was to buy into the lies I tell myself.
For the first time, in this past year, I’ve known what it’s like to come up against questions about my faith and my God and my life that I just can’t find a satisfying logical answer to. I’ve hit a limit where no matter how hard the mind tries to reason, the heart isn’t swayed. I’ve discovered boundaries to my physical ability, my mental energy, my emotional stability, and my spiritual depth. I’ve reached a place where simple answers do nothing to calm the noise, where my mind and my heart are at war with my life as the battleground, where I’m faced with just how weak I am.
The only answer, the only thing, the only person that makes all of this stop, is Jesus in the Eucharist.
I’m not saying this in a preachy “Oh, look how holy I am, I always refer back to Christ!” sort of way. I’m honestly just telling you guys that Christ is the only One who makes sense of the life that I live. I come to him as a wanderer lost in a cave would approach a familiar pinprick of light. It’s by drawing near to Him that the apparent nonsense of my life is illuminated. It’s precisely by admitting to Him that I don’t understand at all that I begin to understand anything. It’s by sitting or kneeling before what appears to all my senses to be just a wafer that I meet the God Who made me, Who sees me, Who knows me, Who loves me.
It’s precisely when I come to him and say that I have no clue what’s going on anymore, that I can’t make heads or tails of this path that I’m on, that I’m reassured by the fact that God doesn’t need my understanding to work in my life, that He doesn’t need my comprehension to love me, that He doesn’t need my clarity to order my path according to the plans He has for me, plans to prosper me, for my good, for a hope and a future, for a day without death, for a life of purpose. God doesn’t need me, or anything from me, or anything about me. YET HE WANTS ME.
Thank God I’m not God. Because He’s doing a much better job of it than me.
Light fell like roses
through her glassy sapphire frame
on my tear-stained face.
And a haiku for day 4. Guys. Poetry writing is harder than I remember.
These crystal eyes brush by your sleek, elegant stroll
with a stammer,
and my body shakes
and sheds fearful tears in profusion.
Your purring laugh
rolls across my drooping ears
and churns my insides
outside my panicking chest.
and you lock your leopardine eyes on my soul.
The touch of a million moonbeams rests on my fragile heart.
For a moment,
all is still,
all is lost,
all is found.
But the touch of a million moonbeams still rests on my fragile heart.
Day 3 down, 3 to go.
In shadows few would dare to breach he makes a second home,
a villa of veracity upon a catacomb,
with ghosts in every lonely hall and angels in the dome.
He dusts the stair with tender care and draws the curtains back
to let the light sit for a spell, then sends it charging back
before it has a chance to see the scars upon his back.
Oh that he’d see, ‘twixt him and me, no self-defense will stand;
a crack is all required to see within that weary land.
Oh give me strength to give my heart as I stretch out my hand.
Who knew keeping up with a poem a day would be so tough? (Not that having actual adult responsibilities has anything to do with that or anything…) Time to play catch up! Day 2 down, four more poems to go.
Unveiling the morning, awaking the dawn,
an eternal anthem in glory goes on
and on and on ever, and ever, ’til time
may no longer carry the weight of the rhyme.
Proclaiming the noon-tide, upholding the day,
a single song swells and will never decay,
for decay is defeated, and death has no sting,
for the Lamb Who was slain mounts his throne now as king.
Exhorting the evening, declaring day’s end,
no longer will man ‘neath the weight of sin bend;
nay, now sings the song of the dead that shall rise
with the King of the Crucifix into the skies.
Invading the darkness, destroying the night,
e’en still sings the song of the Heavenly light,
of the promise of Christ which debilitates Hell:
Death can’t stop the story your life’s meant to tell.
Unveiling the morning, awaking the dawn,
the great Hallelujah of Easter rings on
and on and on ever on your lips and mine.
To Father, Son, Spirit, all glory be thine!
A freaking blessed Easter to all of you, brothers and sisters in Christ! He is Risen indeedn, Hallelujah! And a happy NaPoWriMo, fellow poets! A poem a day for a month? Bring it on! I’ll try to keep haiku’s to one a week tops. 😀
Let’s start right out of the gate with an unpopular, eyebrow-raising opinion, shall we? I hate, hate, WITH THE PASSION OF A THOUSAND SUNS HATE, manhood/masculinity talks.
If anyone’s unclear what I’m talking about here, I’m talking about those famous Catholic speakers or even just your local go-to guy for giving talks who either gives a talk specifically directed at men from the beginning or brings the men at some conference or retreat into some separate room to talk to them while someone else talks to the women, and then launches into one or a combination of two basic talks.
The first is straightforward enough: “You’re a guy, you’ve probably lusted, you’ve probably masturbated, you’ve probably seen porn, and basically, you’re awful for doing so, so just stop.” This is usually interjected with poorly and non-contextualized quoting of Theology of the Body and frequent repetitions of, “That’s someone’s sister, that’s someone’s daughter, etc., etc., etc.”, and a few choruses of “BE A MAN!”
The second is a little more subtle about its banality: It attempts to actually talk about what it means to be a true man, a man of God, according to this formula: Stereotypical/Secular Masculinity + A Handful of Pre-Selected Virtues Slapped Over the Top = Being a Man of God. Also usually interjected with some poorly and non-contextualized quoting of Theology of the Body and endless, mind-numbingly repetitious reminders that men’s brains are like waffles and women’s brains are like spaghetti (and please don’t ask me to explain because I just may vomit).
Now granted, I may be generalizing just a tad. Maybe. And it’s not like purity isn’t important. But basically, bottom-line, masculinity talks in the Catholic Church tend to work from a societally stereotypical view of masculinity and build a “Christian” vision of manhood from there.
So let me ask a fairly obvious question which apparently never crossed these people’s minds: WHAT IF NOT EVERY MAN FITS THE STEREOTYPE TO BEGIN WITH? WHAT IF THAT STEREOTYPE IS FLAWED?
Not that I have personal experience in that area or anything. OH, WAIT.
Here’s a few easily recognizable traits of the stereotype I’m referencing: loud, unruly, into sports above all, actually proud of being rude, lewd, crude, etc., outgoing, adventurous/reckless, and shies away from anything considered stereotypically effeminate.
Here’s a few easily recognizable traits of yours truly: quiet, unassuming, into music/art/reading above all, actually proud of being caring, respectful, classy, etc., shy, introverted/anxious, and shies away from anything considered stereotypically masculine.
And yet, last I checked, I’m a man.
Here’s my true beef with masculinity/manhood talks: it’s precisely those men who fit that stereotype who wounded me, who led me to believe for years that somehow I was less of a man, that made me feel small, weak, broken, and alone. It was these men that I simultaneously loathed and longed to have approval from. It was these men who, for a time, were the fuel for my hatred of men. And I know for a fact I’m not the only one out there who has experienced this. It’s all too common, and it simultaneously further wounds those already wounded and confirms such men in their continuation of their wounding under the guise that somehow they’re being “true men” according to the Christian vision.
Now let me set the record straight here: I’m not advocating for all men to be men on my terms. If all men were like me, this world would fall apart fast. Men who are strong in the stereotypical sense, who have a love for physical activity, who are loud and outgoing and passionate, who have zeal and adventure in their hearts, they are good men; some of the best men I know can be described this way. Some, though, are quiet and reflective, artistic and sensitive, strong within rather than without, and express their zeal in subtler ways. And this is where the question has to be asked, what is it that defines true manhood, that really makes one a man? What should these speakers really be talking about? How does one actually grow in masculinity?
A few years back, I was asked to give a brief talk at a men’s night for my parish (cue heart attack), so I went to prayer, started reading Scripture, trying to figure out both what I wanted to say and what it actually meant to be a man. I came to Psalm 84, one of my favorites, and one of the passages jumped out at me like never before:
Blessed are the men whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the pathways to Zion. As they go through the valley of Baca they make it a place of springs; the early rain also covers it with pools. They go from strength to strength, the God of gods will be seen in Zion. –Psalm 84:5-7
And basically, the talk flowed from there. This, I think, sums up what it means to be a man. There’s so much to this passage, the implicit humility it takes to allow my strength to come from God and not myself, the priority of making “the pathways to Zion” in my own heart, being a source of life and comfort in the desert valleys of the lives of others and the world which so desperately needs it, the love it takes to do so, the continued growth “from strength to strength” not of ourselves but by growth in that humility before and surrender to “the God of gods” who “will be seen in Zion”. And there’s so much more you could sit with here, but look at all that. Nowhere does it talk about any stereotypical traits. Nowhere is athletic ability, recklessness, general volume, or anything of the kind mentioned. It doesn’t preclude them, but it’s nowhere laid out as the baseline for masculinity.
The baseline for masculinity is, I think, right here in this passage, and from there, it grows not in a single direction but branches out in a myriad of expressions. The one and only masculinity talk that didn’t make me die inside was a talk given by a seminarian one of the summers I did Totus Tuus as a teacher; instead of launching into one or both of the usual formulas, he picked four saints whose lives represented one of the four main vocations (priesthood, religious life, marriage, and single life), and simply told their stories as examples of manhood.
THE BASELINE IS SANCTITY.
THE EXPRESSION TAKES ITS FORM IN VOCATION.
THE ANSWER IS STARING US IN THE FACE, AND HIS NAME IS JESUS CHRIST.
We men need to stop shying away from holding ourselves to the standard of authentic holiness, hiding behind our own peculiar weaknesses. Instead, we need to recognize them, and let those weaknesses become the places where Christ becomes our strength. We need to pave in our hearts “the pathways to Zion” by allowing the Holy Spirit to work in us precisely where there are potholes or even gaping canyons. We need to allow Christ not to simply sit over the top of our broken humanity but to truly infiltrate and heal it by filling it with Himself.
If we want to raise true men and grow ourselves in our own God-given masculinity, we need to imitate Christ. If we want to imitate Christ, we have to know, love, and serve Him. That’s all. That’s it. That’s the baseline for manhood, from which we become the men we were made to be.
Have you ever stopped to let yourself feel the weight of all that’s been lost?
At least for me, it’s terrifyingly easy. For example, just today I was listening to the Original Cast Recording of the recent Broadway adaptation of Anastasia (which I highly highly highly recommend, by the way), and what struck me most was the sense of something lost that the revised story and additional musical numbers highlighted. A lot of the more fanciful elements are gone, so it really hones in on the mournful, post-revolution ethos of Russia, looking back longingly at the time of royalty, nobility, high culture, beautiful music, a sense of pride and solidarity. Long story short, it’s heartbreaking. And it made me think of other ages, societies, cultures, ideas, and the like, that have been lost. It’s honestly kind of depressing once you start going. The ages when monarchs were recognized not as tyrants or holdovers from the past but a present and promising face of servant-leadership, the senses of words and ideas that held closer to the truth than current adaptations or even aberrations, the years when there was music created simply to be beautiful–not popular, or political, or agendized, just beautiful. I even got to thinking about losses in my own life, friends I’ve said goodbye to, childhood innocence, dreams and goals that turned sour.
And then, at work, I got a phone call from Janice.
I’ve never met this woman and I know next to nothing about her except that she’s somewhat elderly and lives somewhere mountainous in the middle of nowhere, “God’s country” in her own words. I’m in the middle of placing an order for her when she starts telling me her favorite jokes, and then telling me stories about what it’s like living where she does, about how she looks out from her back porch and only sees two rooftops, about all the elk she’s seen and the deer her family feeds. I swear, it was like being snapped awake, like being pulled out of the fog, and my day was suddenly turned from brooding and depressed to grounded and full of light.
It’s strange, but go with me on this: I think that’s the difference between a purely human perspective and a divine one. When we got locked into a human perspective, and what matters above all is humanity’s importance, then the loss of humanity’s golden ages is not just sad and tragic; it’s devastating and worthy of despair. It’s easy to look out at the world and see its brokenness, its seeming devolution into madness and lethargy and cacophony, especially in comparison with other ages of apparent glory (even taking into account their own flaws). But this wouldn’t be the first time the world has looked like this, and may not be the last; and the great difference between a perspective of hope and a perspective of despair is realizing it was never humanity’s job to aggrandize and glorify itself anyway. As good as humanity can do, we just can’t do it perfectly, or keep it perfectly together forever. And that’s actually for the best.
I think Chesterton puts it best in The Everlasting Man when he talks about Calvary:
All the great groups that stood about the Cross represent in one way or another the great historical truth of the time; that the world could not save itself. Man could do no more. Rome and Jerusalem and Athens and everything else were going down like a sea turned into a slow cataract. Externally indeed the ancient world was still at its strongest; it is always at that moment that the inmost weakness begins. But in order to understand that weakness we must repeat what has been said more than once; that it was not the weakness of a thing originally weak. It was emphatically the strength of the world that was turned to weakness and the wisdom of the world that was turned to folly.
The world is always entering, passing through, and leaving golden ages. The best the world has ever been only lasted for awhile. You can tell yourself the lies of progress all you want, that we’re constantly moving to bigger and better things, but this planet is only so big, and the human mind and heart is only capable of so much, and technology can only extend our reach so far. A day will come–maybe it’s almost here–when all those avenues will be searched out, emptied of their riches, dried up. If time doesn’t do it, nature or the pratfalls of fellow humans will stop them up.
But there is another perspective to take, one which sees humanity as a mind-boggling and beautiful paradox with a story that sends sabers of light to pierce through the darkness that hovers over a merely human life. It’s God’s own perspective, which sees and knows the humanity he has created for what it is: mere creatures made to be sons and daughters of God, mortals made to be immortal, natural beings made to be supernaturalized.
When Chesterton talks about the Incarnation, he pretty much blows my mind:
It is quite unlike anything else. It is a thing final like the trump of doom, though it is also a piece of good news; or news that seems too good to be true. It is nothing less than the loud assertion that this mysterious maker of the world has visited his world in person. It declares that really and even recently, or right in the middle of historic times, there did walk into the world this original invisible being; about whom the thinkers make theories and the mythologists hand down myths; the Man Who Made the World…I have not minimized the scale of the miracle, as some of our milder theologians think it wise to do. Rather have I deliberately dwelt on that incredible interruption, as a blow that broke the very backbone of history.
Man will always have periods of enormous light and periods of enormous darkness. Our history has truly glorious moments, but it’s easy to use those as stepping stones to our own aggrandizement, building a backbone to our self-made image to rise against even God, even as it collapses under its own weakness. When God became man, the backbone was snapped; the framework and foundation upon which the glory of humanity tried precariously to rise was broken. But with that collapse, the whole world was righted from its topsy-turveydom. Mankind was buying into the idea that life and history was a shroud of darkness with pinpricks of light. Christ Our Light came to show us that that darkness within time and space was surrounded by the pure light of eternity.
And that light continues to pervade the world. There have been times when that light pervaded culture, music, seemingly the very air of the world, and there have been times like our own when it’s all we can do to tear our eyes from the surrounding darkness. But the light lives. Christ continues to be present in every single tabernacle, punching through time and space and darkness just to continue to be with us and make the light ever-present. The Holy Spirit continues to breath life and hope into Christ’s very mystical body, the power of the Lord coursing through the veins of the warrior-queen that is our Mother Church, and the Blessed Mother and all the saints, citizens of the New Jerusalem, are continuing to call to us and pray for us, cheering and urging us forward like the moon and stars in the dead of night. Our God is a mighty warrior and the very source of light and life, and he heralds and ushers and carries us on to a life where all we’ll see is light.
And sometimes, all it takes to see that is for another human being to snap you out of your own reveries, handing you a ray of the light, reminding you of the One in Whom all that is lost will be found.
This is gonna be dark for the next few paragraphs. Bear with me, I promise it’s for a good reason and has a lighter ending.
I don’t think I even need to explain why the title of this post has relevance or significance today; you can hardly take in a breath without hearing another joke about millenials, about “kids these days”, about how we’re ruining society because we *insert whatever you particularly feel like today here*. And ultimately, most people draw the conclusion that we just don’t understand how the world works, that we’ve been brought up wrong, that we took a wrong turn, that we should just “do the right thing” and get back on the glorious track society used to be running on.
I could write an entire post on how screwed up was the direction society was heading in, or how previous generations had a hand in how we’ve gotten to where we are today, or how we suck less in some ways, or a myriad of other defenses of why we really aren’t as horrible as we’re made out to be. But there’s enough of that out there, and frankly, I don’t have the time, resources, or patience to get into all that. What I want to talk about is what I think is the fundamental reason why millenials just don’t seem to care when older generations start to yell at us for wrecking everything.
It’s because we let ourselves realize that we’re all going to die.
Like I said, dark. Now obviously, everyone knows this. The thing is, much of modern society which millenials go against is built around busying ourselves and bettering ourselves at such a dizzying pace with such stringent ideals that we don’t have time to think about our deaths until they’re just around the corner. Millenials are so different from recent generations because we’ve gotten tired of the mad dash, stopped to ask why, and realized that it’s all been a huge distraction from what everyone knows is coming. If you think I’m making this up, ask yourself why you care so much about climbing the corporate ladder, or doing something meaningful with your life, or that whitewashed image of a suburban house with 2.5 kids. Why do you try so hard?
Because you want to be happy? And why do you have to continually try to be happy, here, now? Why do you grasp so hard at what seems to constitute your happiness and meaning?
Because one day, you won’t have breath in your lungs to support your grasp at happiness and meaning, so the sooner and more aggressive, the better.
See, here’s the thing: the vast majority of people have bought into the lie that our story ends when our life ends. The structure of modern and postmodern society hinges on the lie that we have a limited number of years to find our own happiness and make our lives meaningful, and then we’re gone, and then we’re not happy or meaningful or anything at all, really. And if that’s the case, what does anything matter, anyway? Albert Camus’s main character in The Stranger gives us the cry that lies at the root of the millenial upheaval:
“Nothing, nothing mattered, and I knew why…Throughout the whole absurd life I’d lived, a dark wind had been rising toward me from somewhere deep in my future, across years that were still to come, and as it passed, this wind leveled whatever was offered to me at the time, in years no more real than the ones I was living.” (pg. 121 in my copy…sorry, too many college papers)
If our story ends when our life ends, then every demand that we “do the right thing” rings hollow. Traditions become nothing more than centuries of attempts to create our own meaning, and let’s be honest, bucking it all and finding our happiness our own way is easier than sticking to a system that just seems to wear you down.
Still think I’m making this up? Look back at the Garden of Eden in Genesis. What is it that’s the tipping point for Adam and Eve? Believing that God is withholding something from them, the one thing for which they were made: to be like Him. What is the one and only threat that God can impose in an attempt to convince them of His love in forbidding them to eat that fruit? Death, an end to their story, a loss of their purpose, a separation forever from the one something, or rather the one Someone, that could constitute our true happiness.
See, here’s the thing: we were born, we were made, we were lovingly fashioned by God, to be with God. That’s why Christ came and died and rose from the dead: to take away death’s power to end our story, to cease our chance at happiness that comes in resting forever with God, in sharing His divine life. Any real hope the true Christian has in this life is precisely hope because it doesn’t rest in this life.
If it seems like millenials are going recklessly astray, it’s because for several generations, the world has operated on the idea that there is no life after death, no God Who intimately loves us, and so the world has been desperately trying to establish some other vehicle for us to find happiness, to create our own meaning and purpose. Like Adam and Eve, we’ve been grasping at happiness ourselves, thinking it’s up to us to take it for ourselves. Millenials are just figuring out less stressful, more fun ways to do that.
Want us to get back on “the straight and narrow” again? Shift the end of that road from the suburban house to our Heavenly Home. Want us to not go to Hell? Remind us that Heaven is real and worth getting to. Want us to “do the right thing”? Give us a better reason than “because it’s the right thing to do”.
Tell us the only two things that really matter: that God is real, and that He cares where we end up after we die. Tell us how everything He asks of us is precisely because He wants us to spend eternity with Him, precisely because that is what constitutes our true happiness. Tell us that God loves us so much that He sent His Son to die for us just so we could spend eternity with Him.Tell us that God loves us so much that He meets us where we are, and too much to leave us there. Tell us that He has adopted us by dwelling in us, and that as long as we are “mourning and weeping in this valley of tears”, He comes to be with us, and to strengthen us, to empower us, until our last day comes. Tell us that on that day, even as we die, we are born, born to eternal life, born to the happiness we were always seeking and don’t need to seek after anymore. Tell us that on that day, we will see His face, and any doubts we ever had about His love for us, His faithfulness, His methods, His power, will melt away.
In other words, both older generations and fellow millenials, if you want to see change happen in this world, “Always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you.” (1 Peter 3:15) For “[b]y [God’s] great mercy we have been born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and to an inheritance which is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in Heaven for you, who by God’s power are guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.” (1 Peter 1:3-5)
A crimson leaf, high-hoped, leapt heavenward,
but autumn’s failing breath sustained it not;
with dew-teared face it kissed its dreams goodbye
and fell, and sank, to wither and to rot.
He watched the half-black skies that drowned the day,
his azure Eden hidden from his sight.
As crimson turned to earth, he whispered soft,
“Stay not long hidden, bringer of the light,”
’til just before the earth was tucked within
its blanket, resurrection to await,
with broken brethren he was gathered in,
a child’s exuberance to satiate.
First child, then leaf, leapt heavenward aglow,
and fell with breezy laughter back below.
If you’re a Catholic millennial, chances are you’ve heard the catchphrase “Love is more than sex” more times than you can remember. I’m pretty sure there are literally bumper stickers, pins, t-shirts, and the like that have that phrase in big, bold letters. And to be fair, in the world in which we live, that catchphrase ought to be a battle-cry, a rallying point around which the beauty of love can be defended against modernity. There are certainly people who need to hear that love doesn’t just begin and end with sexual experiences or attractions.
The thing is, people need to hear more than the battle-cry. When we move others to desert the camps of the enemy and join our ranks, we need to teach them the truth behind the battle-cry, the reality which we have encountered that lets us shout it not just from our lips but from the very depths of our hearts. And speaking as a Catholic millennial, oftentimes, as soon as we take the bumper sticker, we’re kind of left hanging, still questioning, still uncertain.
See, we get this. We know love is more than sex. In truth, even most people who have bought into modernity still realize that “love is more than sex”. To use a semi-crude example, there’s an episode of Friends (POTENTIAL SPOILER) where Phoebe says about Monica and Chandler, “I just thought you were doing it! I didn’t know you were in love!” *cue laugh track* Yeah, it’s totally eye-roll worthy, but take a second and look at what the implication is. There’s a distinction between “doing it” and “being in love”. There’s something more going on, something that brings more than pleasure; it brings a certain happiness, a good feeling of closeness that’s more than physical. So as long as they have that other part to it, the “being in love”, it’s all good, right?
Not so much; any good chastity speaker will tell you so. And that’s where the snag is. The thing is, I think this is where we miss the mark in particular when ministering to our brothers and sisters who struggle with same-sex attraction. Just telling them that “love is more than sex” isn’t enough, because chances are, they already know that. What they really mean when they say, “Why are you against love?” is really something closer to, “Why do you want me to be unhappy?” There are a lot of these people who aren’t really arguing so much for unrestrained sex as they are for their chance to be happy with another person, to have what those ideal married couples have, even if it doesn’t look the same.
If we want to be taken seriously in our defense both of chastity and real love, then we need to get the concept of intimacy right. Intimacy is that “something” that modernity sees as the difference between “doing it” and “being in love”. It’s closeness, it’s seeing and knowing the other person at their deepest levels, it’s being tied together on a spiritual level that manifests itself on the physical level. It’s present in any kind of real love there is–familial, friendly, romantic, you name it. And while romantic intimacy most obviously manifests itself as sexual, that’s only one piece of it. Holding hands, knowing each other’s intimate likes and dislikes, always sharing with one another, finding happiness in just being close to them and even more in knowing that you’re “with” them in a way no one else is–these are all facets of it, and I’m barely scratching the surface. And we all have an ache in our hearts for that. We all see the goodness in this deep interpersonal intimacy. So how do we tell a man who wants to be with another man that it would be wrong without robbing him of some of the deepest desires of his heart?
We have to show him that the desire for God runs deeper.
We can’t just keep shouting “Love is more than sex”, we have to show them that love is even more than intimacy. We can’t just argue that real love is desiring and acting for the good of the other person, we have to bring them to an encounter with the One Who IS their good. We can’t just appeal to their confused minds, we have to tend to their wounded hearts. We have to be willing to step into the myriad facets of this unique struggle that has such popular prominence in our world, to engage not just our idea of what the problem is but the actual day-to-day fight for authentic love and happiness these people face. We need to go beyond telling them to “offer it up” and introduce them to the beauty of suffering love that Christ has made possible on the Cross.
In short, catchphrases and battle-cries aren’t going to cut it if we hope to turn the tide in our war against a world that turns a legitimate struggle into a glorified rebellion against God and His Church; the only One Who can win this fight is Christ, made present by the Holy Spirit, leading us to the Father. If we truly want to evangelize and minister to the broken-hearted, our job is to make His voice, not our own, heard as rolling thunder in the public square and, more importantly, as a still, small voice in the intimate moments of each human life.
Just gonna start thinking out loud. I’ve been listening to Hamilton: An American Musical (*insert wild, shameless plug for possibly the greatest musical of our time*) a lot lately, and the line that I made the title of this post has always really struck me. And I think now I see a little bit of why.
There’s a big difference, at least in this life, between the winning of a victory and the extending/sustaining of what you’ve won. In other words, it’s one thing to drive out an enemy or claim something for yourself, and another, more challenging thing to keep what you’ve defended or claimed safe and in order. Winning a battle is no walk in the park, don’t get me wrong; it takes a lot of sacrifice and a lot of holding yourself to high standards, keeping your eyes focused on what you’re fighting for. But once that battle is done, to keep what you’ve fought for in place, keep it true to its trajectory, make decisions with what you’ve fought for in mind, and build up a defense against what you’ve fought against (both internally and externally)–it’s something that’s never really complete, because life is so dynamic that bringing the truth, the reality that you believe in to bear on the present is a constant task you have to undertake and live according to.
This is true of a lot of things in my own life. My faith, for example. The Catholic Church was brought into being two thousand years ago after Jesus conquered sin and death at Calvary, so the victory is won, the kingdom is established. But bringing that kingdom to every corner of the world, defending it against the relentless losing strokes of the enemy, reminding its subjects Who they serve and how to serve Him–all that is the story of salvation history, and it’s still going on. And it’s not that much of stretch to say that the Church has never had such a difficult time opening the eyes of the world to the truth about itself and the God Who made it. Still that “governing” stage goes on, sustained by the life of grace which has always to be cultivated by continually seeking union with Christ, the Head of the Mystical Body.
More personally, it’s true of my own life. I’ve won huge victories against depression and anxiety, battles I was never sure I’d win. Thanks to God’s healing and strength, I can actually say that I can live my life and take each moment with overarching joy. But now I have no excuses for the sinful habits that developed and festered underneath the perpetual storm clouds; the sun is shining on me now, even when it gets rainy, and it’s up to me whether it shines on deeds of light or darkness. The battle to live my life is won; now I must govern it. And shoot dang, it’s tough. The weeds of sin grow really tangled roots really fast, and it’s been ages since I properly tended the garden. Now it’s exhausting to make it through a single row.
So what’s the solution here? Keep exhausting myself, only to plop down and chuck the weeds back onto the ground where their seeds can just take root again?
Honestly, that’s been my solution for a long time now. Weed a row, plop down, undo all the work, go to Confession, wash, rinse, repeat. It’s like watching the same seven seconds of a movie over and over again until you’ve forgotten how the movie ends and you look up to find out you’ve wasted two hours on those same stupid seven seconds on repeat. Not exactly ideal. Feels a lot like “Out of the frying pan, into the fire.” The clouds were blocking out the sun and my memory of it for awhile; now that the sun is a constant, I’m finding I let myself get pretty caked in mud and crap, and I get so tired of rubbing it off and keeping myself away from it that I just plop back down in it and let myself get covered in it again before I remember how badly I want to be clean.
So how the heck am I supposed to do this? How do I go from momentary victory to lifelong governance towards the good?
I think there are three things I’ve learned that I need to put into practice on this:
1. I ACTUALLY NEED TO PUT THE THINGS I’VE LEARNED INTO PRACTICE.
It’s one thing to know what I need to do, and another thing to do it. I’ve got the principles, but if I don’t govern myself according to them, they just remind me how far away I am from living according to them, and the walls of the hole I’m in just become more clearly defined. If I want to actually move forward, I need to act on them. The Catholic principle that grace builds on nature presupposes that we actually order our nature towards its proper end, that we actually act for our good, for the good. God didn’t make us as automatons that just need proper programming; we’re meant to be loving children, freely living according to His Law, which reveals to us our fullest flourishing and happiness. If we want that, we have to act, and act boldly, according to that. Laziness is all too easy to get caught in, as is complacency. Excuses just aren’t going to cut it; excuses only get us to mediocrity, or maybe normalcy, not holiness.
2. I SHOULDN’T TRY TO DO THIS ON MY OWN.
If I’m going to live a life of virtue, I need to step out of the way. We’re pretty much powerless to live a good life on our own, people; we’re fallen. We have to remember that. We’re broken at a very deep level. Baptism heals that break (praise God!), but we’re still affected by that. But the Good News is that we’re not asked to do this alone. Christ came and died for our sins and rose to restore our everlasting life. And He gives us the New Law, the Holy Spirit. That’s the great thing about the gift of the Holy Spirit as the New Law: we don’t live under a merely external set of principles that only serves to let us know how frail and faulty we are. We are given one of the very Persons of the Trinity to dwell within us and direct all our actions, all our thoughts, all our words, to be in accordance with the will of God (if we let Him), one Who gives us the power to live the life we are called to. Any attempt on our part to do this alone is going to fail. To live well, first and foremost, we have to give up the idea that we have the power to be holy without the only One Who is truly holy. To live well is to surrender.
3. IT’S TIME FOR HEROIC VIRTUE.
Put simply, “good enough” isn’t good enough anymore. Christ made us for more than mediocrity. That’s why we are given crosses to carry, after all: to share in the redemptive work of Christ, to bring meaning even into what seem to be the most meaning-destructive moments of our lives. In the moral life, mediocrity is settling for not committing the big sins, and the devil is all too happy to take advantage of that, tempting us until we find ourselves deep in sin when we thought we were doing “just fine”. There just isn’t room for that. Our decisions aren’t just about the here and now; we’re dealing with eternity. Our eyes need to be fixed on Heaven, and every decision we make needs to keep that in mind. There’s this brilliant monologue in Murder in the Cathedral by T.S. Eliot where St. Augustine of Canterbury shocks everyone around him, even fellow priests, by insisting that they open the doors of the cathedral, even though that means that the very soldiers who seek to end his life will be able to murder him. Right in the middle, he says this: “I give myself to the law of God above the law of man.” By every earthly standard, he should have kept the door closed; above all, his job, according to the world, was to stay alive if he could. But he put himself at the service of a greater standard, one which he understood meant that his life was called for, that this was the moment in which to give everything, even the precious gift of life, for the sake of serving God and Him alone. We may never have to give our own lives so dramatically, but we are all called to such radical obedience to God’s will. We’re all called to be martyrs, even if we’re never touched by the sword.
All this being said, if there’s anything I learned in prayer this past Lent, it’s that our furious self-improvement has to be tempered by the hardest kind of patience there is: patience with ourselves, patience that persists in demanding the best while not giving up when we do the worst. The same patience as the One Who hung on the cross, seeing every sin you’ve committed and will commit, stayed on the cross for your sake, and bothers to come in the Eucharist just to say He loves you.
I’ve held out hope for a long time that I would see a day when all my past hurts would go away completely, that I’d eventually be just totally OK, that I’d be able to be in the same room with someone whose very presence excites me without being terrified of what they think of me, ashamed that I care this much, or lonely and reminded of old wounds when they were gone. That day still hasn’t come. And I’m not sure it will in this life. And I think that’s OK.
See, our God isn’t a snow-plough God (thank you, Fr. Dan Pattee, for that analogy). It’s not as if, the moment we through ourselves upon the Lord, we’ll never experience pain again. The love of the Lord doesn’t always move mountains. Sometimes it just carries us until we can start climbing again. Sometimes it’s just the next breath we take into our lungs.
And that’s OK. That’s enough.
Our hope isn’t for this world, this life. Our hope is for Heaven. It feels so far off sometimes, like a distant dream, but it’s real. It’s there, waiting for us through the dark door of death. It’s the light on the other side of the dark sepulchre that radiates back on the entirety of our lives and makes it all worth it.
Guys, this is what St. Paul means when he says, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” (Romans 8:18) It’s not that there are no sufferings. It’s that they can’t compare to the glory of Heaven, the sheer magnificence of finally being united forever with the God who loved us so much that He created us, and loved us too much to leave us when we left Him, and loves us too much to leave us alone even now. This is the great mystery of learning to suffer in the shadow of the cross: to learn that it’s enough that He came to us, that He died for us.
In coming into our world he came also into our suffering. He sits beside us in the stalled car in the snowbank. Sometimes he starts the car for us, but even when He doesn’t, He is there. That is the only thing that matters. Who cares about cars and success and miracles and long life when you have God sitting beside you? (Peter Kreeft, Making Sense Out of Suffering)
The greatest moment of healing in my life was not when I stopped having anxiety attacks, or the first month I went without feeling like I was shrouded in gloom, or the first time I could say hello to a guy I wanted to know better without dying inside. It was when, in a time of distressed prayer, God took me back in my memory to the most painful moment of my life, laying crying in my bed, hating myself, my dreams going up in flames around me and my view of the future completely darkened, and showed me that He was there, sitting on the side of my bed, crying with me, and hearing my desperate prayer that I needed Him to love me, even though I wasn’t sure if He could. Even before we know how to love our own broken selves, He loves us. He’s there. He’s with us. He already died, knowing full well what you would turn out to be. There is nothing you can do, no one you can become, that will make God stop loving you. He came. And He meant it. He came FOR YOU.
We believe in a God who loved us so much that He came and died for us so that we could spend eternity with Him.
So when you suffer, even if it’s the millionth time in a row that you find yourself crying and alone, even if the darkness feels like it’s been there from the beginning and will never go away, remember this:
You who fear the Lord, wait for his mercy, and turn not aside, lest you fall. You who fear the Lord, trust in him, and your reward will not fail; you who fear the Lord, hope for good things, for everlasting joy and mercy. You who fear the Lord, love him, and your hearts will be made radiant. Consider the ancient generations and see: who ever trusted in the Lord and was put to shame? Or who ever persevered in his commandments and was forsaken? Or who ever called upon him and was overlooked? For the Lord is compassionate and merciful; he forgives sins and saves in times of affliction, and he is the shield of all who seek him in truth.
If you, like me, are struggling, go to the foot of the cross. Pour out your heart. Wait, and cry, and let the Lord hold you in His arms outstretched on the cross. Let your wounded heart rest in the Sacred Heart pierced for us. Wait upon His comfort, and let Him love you. LET HIM LOVE YOU. Let Him see and hold close to Himself all that you hold closest and deepest within yourself.
I know I’ve said this over and over AND OVER AGAIN. But each time, it rings with a little more sincerity, a little more clarity. Even if all we do is echo a truth until our very lives echo it, we’ve done well. And right now, that means stepping back from my ambitions, my new hopes and dreams, and allowing myself to remember that I still carry scars and wounds. Right now, it means learning how to live with them rather than shoving them aside. Right now, it means learning how to carry the wounds of Christ, to let my soul be His sepulchre, in which both His death and resurrection are reflected into the lives of those around me.
God bless, fam.
Three years ago, I still had anxiety attacks and often ditched my friends just to feel like I could breathe without choking. Three years ago, I still broke down crying every week and laid on the floor with music blasting in my ears to quiet all the sad thoughts running through my head. Three years ago, I was still hoping and praying my life would be short because I didn’t know how to cope.
Three years ago. There’s something that feels so distant yet so intimate about that. It’s so close that to remember still makes my heart ache, and yet so far that it usually feels more like a bad dream than a memory. I’m forever changed by the years I spent carrying these crosses, but I’m not defined by them. If anything, I think they just uncovered who I was all along.
Look, I don’t know what many of you are going through right now. Suffering is so much more than a single defining moment or the words we try to use to describe it. Deep down, really, only Christ can reach those hurts we can’t express, those unseen twinges and unspoken groans. Only He can really hold us right where the hurt is. Only the Holy Spirit can help us to pray with sighs too deep for words, as Romans tells us.
But the love of another human being makes all the difference. When you stop to listen, to hug, to laugh with or to cry with a brother or sister, it shows them it’s possible that they’re loved, that they aren’t doomed to be stuck in their own heads amidst their own tumultuous thoughts forever.
Three years ago, I poured out my heart, all my brokenness that I hated, my most shameful secret, and someone said, “I don’t care. I love you.” That has made all the difference.
I’ve said this before, I’ll say it again and again and again long after you’re sick of hearing it: I see you, I hear you, I know you, and I love you. Seriously. You. Reading this right now. I so wish I could hug each and every one of you close and tell you how much you mean to me. But I’ll settle for knowing you know that whatever your struggle, whatever your shame that you carry around with you…I don’t care. I love you. The God Who fashioned you died for love of you. I may not see your beauty and worth as clearly as he does, but I do see it. And gosh dangit, I want to show you.
P.S. I totally meant the hug thing. Seriously, ask me anytime for a hug. That’s my jam.
St. Raphael, pray for us.