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.
Make me unknown to me, myself, and I,
may self-pitying tow’rs that fight the sky
collapse upon my ego, laying bare.
O Mother, sweet and blessed, wholly pure,
within whose tender mantle now I lie,
make me unknown.
Slow, slouched, I wait for pity as I try
to battle inner wars. Oh let me die
to self, this secret pride. These shadows lure
me to demise. While I yet stir,
make me unknown.
The Litany of Humility has pretty much become infamous among Catholics for being one of those prayers that gives you exactly what you ask for in exactly the way you don’t want to receive it. You know, like when you pray for patience in the morning and immediately spill your coffee as you get in your car, get stuck in traffic on your way to work, have to deal with that one guy who just won’t shut up on your shift talking about some anime show you’ve never heard of (but now know its entire cast of characters, plot, subplot, and existential significance), and come home to find your front lawn TP’d by the neighborhood kids…and it just started raining. You learn patience fast…or else completely break down.
So when I started praying for humility this Lent, I already had my teeth gritted and body braced, waiting for a little disaster.
…I’m still waiting.
The past few weeks have been less of a living awkward-fest and more of a self-discovery. Time after time, God has placed events and people in my life trying to tell me to love myself.
See, the thing is, I’m not particularly a fan of myself. I’m your typical perfectionist, and in the last few weeks, I’ve been particularly scrupulous for various reasons, and generally just tense and upset and frustrated. And I think this is exactly what God is trying to help me not to do. He’s trying to teach me real humility.
Because humility isn’t just knowing your weakness and smallness. It’s knowing how much God loves you, at every single moment. It’s less about stopping yourself from seeking approval and more about being so secure in God’s love that you just don’t need that approval. It’s seeing yourself for who you are before God: a beloved child. Weak and small, yes, but so remarkably precious. It’s letting yourself be loved with the perfect love that casts out all fear, all frustration, all scrupulosity.
Funny how our greatest pride, sometimes, is thinking that we’ve managed to create a mess so big in ourselves that God can’t possibly overlook it. Funny how we swell ourselves up so much in our self-pity and self-loathing.
Funny how God simply turns us to the cross and says, “I already knew you would do these things, would end up here after all these mistakes, and I still did this for you. Any reason left not to let me love you?”
Well, brothers and sisters, is there?
Recall the day the Tree of Life was shorn
of verdant life and pierced by iron nails,
when darkness, groaning, veiled the dying morn
while stones took up the trembling and wails.
Recall the day when earth and sky screamed out,
“Creator scorned, O creatures!, whence thy hope?”
Remember blood of God-Made-Man, the shout
of stone-cold tomb, salvation’s envelope.
Recall, recall, sweet soul, how blood gave birth
to sons and daughters from a granite womb,
Creation’s moans now sprung from fruitful girth
while souls by flood are washed into the tomb;
once more recall: as old life’s morning dies,
creation new from sepulchre will rise.
There’s a concept in metaphysics related to time, that there are different types of time. There’s objective, of course, the measure of change that we use clocks to observe. There’s subjective time, which is our perception of that change (you know, like how a 30-minute crash course on sexual harassment feels like it’s never going to end). There’s also spiritual time, which is when we are unaware of the passage of time because we are pulled by God out of our normal experience of time (aka ecstasy). There’s one other type of time, which I want to focus on: metaphysical time.
This kind of time presupposes that things are made with ends, that they grow and change with a purpose towards a natural end. It is the measure of the distance between where a being is metaphysically and its metaphysical end. Remarkable thing about metaphysical time, most things just progress naturally towards their natural ends unhindered unless stinted or interrupted by outside forces. We’re like that to an extent ourselves, but there is a major difference.
We have the power, throughout our lives, to derail that growth towards our ultimate end: Heaven.
So why am I writing about this on New Year’s Eve?
All over the world, people are celebrating the beginning of the New Year with (drinking, drugs, sex, other ridiculous stuff, and) resolutions. In a quiet way, people are looking at the past year and, while they are remembering the good memories, they are also seeing the things in themselves they don’t like, the choices they made that have derailed them. Their response? Resolutions, promises to make new choices, choices to put themselves “back on track”, heading towards their good and happiness.
Unfortunately, not everyone understands what this end is, this good, this ultimate happiness. Not everyone is able to see all the things in themselves that are stinting that metaphysical growth in themselves. And many look at how far they’ve jumped the tracks and simply give up on trying to find their way back to the straight and narrow.
But that’s the remarkable thing about redemption: IT HAPPENS.
We just celebrated the Incarnation of Christ, His coming into our world. He came specifically to redeem mankind, to undo what all mankind throughout history has done and win graces to save and constantly renew us. Again and again these graces are offered new to us in the sacramental life of the Church. What an incredible blessing!
So now that this year is coming to a close, I just want to sit in gratitude for the fact that Mama Troll in Frozen was wrong when she said, “We’re not saying you can change him, ‘cuz people don’t really change. We’re only saying that love’s a force that’s powerful and strange…” Love does, in fact, transform, not just draw out. Love intimately and powerfully works in the person, shaping them. Love can work even the most distant, hardened, or shattered heart into a masterpiece of grace.
I’ve discovered that in my own life this past year. It’s been an intense year of growth, coming to terms with the fact that massive changes needed to happen in my life. and by God’s grace, I’ve grown to a point where depression and anxiety, which I have struggled with for years, is now almost nonexistent, and I have the hope and courage to continue to work at cooperating with the transforming grace of God in my heart, rooting out old habits and mental frameworks that have stinted my metaphysical and spiritual growth for so long.
So first of all, thank you to everyone who has stuck with me and believed in me, and been living witnesses of the love of Christ to me. I love you so much.
Second of all, take courage! The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it! Let the coming year be a transformative one. Trust in the Lord; He can and will transform and renew your heart.
Happy New Year, everyone! May God bless you and yours abundantly.
O how long will I watch?
When will I hold in my hands
this precious universal something
that somehow missed my cradle?
Stupid wretch. He thinks himself now alive.
What living thing e’er sat like silent stone
as life was wrung from him by Life’s cruel claws?
I hold joy inside.
Or perhaps it’s insanity.
This strange desire to laugh and cry and moan
at this stupid,
thing called “life”.
Oh, hush. Leave the air you fill with folly
for others to breathe. Stay down. Be silent.
Be still, my heart; o will you ne’er be still?
When, when, oh soul, will you your moanings cease?
Again, fool? Bite your tongue and bleed, wretch! Bleed!
Put down your fists, vile thoughts! Away, away,
and leave me! Peace, I beg! Peace! Filthy self,
show your featureless face for beating! PEACE!
Where!? Show me peace and I will yield! Show me!
WOULD YOU PLEASE SPEAK TO ME!?
I loathe you.
Because I want so badly to love you.
Maybe then I could let you believe it
when they speak the word
and act it for you…
But when will you be who you must be?
And who must I be?
Tell me this, and I will yield.
You can say nothing.
Because you know nothing.
Nothing of me.
Nothing of the world
you claim would like to snuff me out.
I know not.
And so I act not.
This is my most honest poem to date. And I think the only one where I acknowledge that I hate myself…and the only one where I acknowledge that somewhere in my heart, God tells me exactly what to do with what I’m feeling. And it wasn’t just the last few words.
It was the pauses, the silences. Where I could just be. And not torture myself with my thoughts.
I guess the super-perfectionist part of me just isn’t ever gonna be satisfied. I’m never going to be perfect, or exactly who I want to be. I’m never going to know everything that everyone else seems to know so easily. There’s no point in beating myself up and trying to shove in everything I can as quickly as possible. I can’t take life as if I’m playing catch-up. Because I’ll be playing on the losing side the rest of my life. And life isn’t a game.
It’s an opportunity. Not to be perfect. Not to be great. Not to take the world by storm. It’s just an opportunity to live and to love. That’s all. That’s it.
And that’s awesome.
What does it mean to be a man?
I can discard a bunch of answers right away: it doesn’t mean being physically strong or attractive, it doesn’t mean being obnoxiously loud, and it CERTAINLY doesn’t mean getting with the most women. Sorry, majority of society, but you don’t have a clue what manhood is.
Most prolific writers on what it means to truly be a man are men who came from this point of view to a deeper understanding of masculinity based in faith. They speak mainly to people who are either in this mindset or are attempting to move out of this mindset. Truly, a noble thing, since it speak to a great part of society, and is certainly very necessary in this day and age.
Yet it leaves a particular demographic unaccounted for: those young men who come from a more gentle point of view, those who would never consider being loud or obnoxious if they didn’t have to, those who befriend women rather than trying to get with them, and those who, in general, are just more sensitive. They’re the young men who have trouble listening to talks on manhood, because little of what is said is relatable, the young men who are truly striving to find their manhood but are put off by The Art of Manliness. They’re the young men who have so many questions about what manhood is, and can’t quite hear the answer over the disgruntling war-cries and frustrating half-crudity used to excite another audience.
Does this demographic even exist? Speaking from my own life and the lives of several of my friends, YES, YES IT DOES.
So why is so little being said to us? Because we are, unfortunately, either a minority or greatly overshadowed by our more “macho” counterpart. Plus, we’re the ones still doing a lot of questioning, so there’s not a lot of resources for answers out there.
And no, we can’t just adapt to the messages being yelled from the podiums of men’s conferences across the country. I’m sorry, but I can only take being told that my mind works like a waffle so many more times before I stand up and scream, “LIES. MINE WORKS LIKE SPAGHETTI. WHAT’S WRONG WITH THAT?” (If you don’t get the reference, look in any popular Catholic teens book that discusses the difference between men and women.) I can only take being shown clips of The Princess Bride so many more times before I raise my hand and ask, “Excuse me, Westley’s devotion and courage are great and all, but what about Fezzik’s gentleness and honor?” I’m all for trying to imitate the fatherly protection and fatherly love of Mufasa, but how about the wisdom and persistent devotion of Zazu?
Here’s the thing: not all of us are built to be strapping heroes. Some of us just can’t relate to that. I was asked in my senior year to help lead a short retreat for sophomores that focused on manhood with a focus on Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassatti. Most of my hipster Catholic friends just cheered. It might surprise them to know I almost backed out. I just couldn’t get excited about it. I wasn’t a huge fan of Frassatti–it was super cool that he gave to the poor so freely and prayed a ton, but his athleticism, his rascally nature, his love of smoking and mountain-climbing…none of that resonated with me. The other guys leading the retreat were super psyched, talking about how seeing his example and still being “a normal guy, a man’s man” was so cool. I just thought it was ridiculous. I’m not saying I don’t think he should be a blessed, he absolutely gave a Christ’like example in many ways. I just couldn’t relate to him. I couldn’t identify with him. Nothing that the other guys saw was intriguing to me, it was just off-putting.
But when I went to talk to the head of the team, he encouraged me to stay. He said he recognized this in me, and that there would probably be other guys on the retreat who would feel the same way, and I could be a help to them. Manhood didn’t just lie in that. So I stayed on. I didn’t enjoy the retreat much. At all. But there were some fellow young men I was able to be there for, so it was worth it.
I still didn’t have my answers though. So I want to start writing posts on this topic with the help of a couple friends, exploring from the other side what it means to be a man. This should be a wild ride.
All glory to God.
Be yourself…it was so easy to do when you were younger, huh? Certainly, much of it had to do with the fact that you just didn’t care about what others thought of you. You were your own; the world was yours to discover. How you were perceived never came into your head; being yourself was as easy as breathing. Then suddenly you notice the way people look at you, and the startling thought enters your head: “Do they…not like me? Why? What am I doing wrong?”
Suddenly, ‘you’ is anathema. ‘You’ must be hidden away at all costs to ‘fit in’ or ‘be well-liked’. You begin to forget who the real ‘you’ is, and you try to balance the shadow of what’s left of ‘you’ with an acceptable image, blurring the lines until you can’t tell which is which.
Then, suddenly, from the radio, the television, every sign and street corner, that familiar cry rings out: “Be yourself!” “Stand out!” “Pay no heed to the opinions of the world!” FINALLY!!!! THEY UNDERSTAND!!!! You can be you! At long, long last, you can–
Wait…how can you be yourself if you don’t remember who you are?
Never fear! The world has the answer to that too! All you have to do is buy this clothing…listen to this music…say these things this way…and WHAM! You can be yourself again…just like everyone else…
Notice the discrepancy? ‘Be yourself’ has become another cliche, a new niche. It’s one more option to mask the true problem: you’ve forgotten who you are. Rebel, hipster, what have you–to stand out, you must fit in. And the more you try to fit in, the more you realize you never will.
Chesterton particularly liked to point out the beautiful paradoxes of life; it was one of the reasons he came to convert to Christianity and Catholicism. One of the paradoxes of life is that in order to fit in, you must stand out.
But allow me to clarify, for I mean something rather different than society by these terms. When I say fit in, I do not mean become part of the crowd; when we strive to join the collective, we’re searching for love. This is the deepest hunger of every person, the most basic and important desire. When I say ‘fit in’ in this context, I mean to find yourself comfortable in the world, unafraid of being judged, because you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that you are loved. (Sidebar: This is why I can’t understand the appeal of many Eastern philosophies; they declare the search for love futile and advocate instead the following of a lifestyle that will ultimately lead to to being joined eternally to an indistinguishable collective.)
And when I say stand out, I mean something other than what the world declares is within the realm of standing out. ‘Standing out’ must begin with discovering, or rather rediscovering, who you are. It is when we recognize who we are that we are able to recognize how very loved we are.
Why? Because we are children of God.
Take a second and let that fully sink in and blow your mind.
No seriously, just stop. Right now. And contemplate: WE CAN CALL GOD “OUR FATHER”.
Good. Now back to the paradox.
Who are you? At your core, you have the potential of being an adopted son or daughter of the One True God, and by baptism, that incredible gift, that indelible mark, is placed on our souls. All that we are ultimately stems from and leads to this: that we exist, each and every moment, solely because God continues to love us, and desires us to spend eternity with Him.
It’s commonly heard in my family that ‘everyone is weird in their own way’. Our quirks, our talents, our likes, our dislikes, even our crosses–they are given to us as gifts of love, such that we are completely unique.
When we can recognize our identity as beloved children of the Father, then and only then can we truly ‘be ourselves’, for then we can confidently go forth into the world, unashamed of who we are, because we are perfectly, wonderfully, unfathomably loved.
By standing out, we find ourselves fitting in.