Saturday, June 24, 2023

Lessons from The Fool of New York City

You wake up in a room you don’t recognize. You shiver inside a coat you’ve never seen before. You touch your face, which you know is yours but you can’t identify it. You look out the window at a city, and you have no idea how you got here. 

You have taken a wrong turn somewhere; you have fallen asleep and lost yourself. And now you are awake again but have not refound yourself.

So begins The Fool of New York City by Michael O’Brien. The helpless protagonist is completely lost: he has no memory of his past, and the little glimpses he has into his locked-away memories could be unreliable. For example, he believes his name to be Francisco De Goya, the Spanish artist. 

Thankfully, Francisco does not have to survive on his own for long. A giant named Billy Revere comes to his aid. At first Francisco shrinks from the giant’s overwhelming presence, suspecting that this stranger may wish him ill-will. Billy’s acts of generosity, kindness, and thoughtfulness soon convince Francisco otherwise.

For here is immense strength, and it is mastered. Here is perfect form and balance, yet it is without vanity. This man does no harm.

As someone who once suffered from amnesia himself, Billy has special empathy for Francisco and goes to great lengths to help him remember, following little clues that may hold deeper meaning. 

There are layers in existence.

O’Brien does an incredible job of slowly unraveling the mystery of Francisco’s life, unfolding what led him to this state and revealing that he and Billy have more in common than they first believed. The author uses a powerful metaphor of the pond: relics of the past, hidden at the murky bottom underneath the water, that Francisco tries to see. Autumn leaves of years ago hide the truth of what has happened to him. Francisco tries to cross the frozen pond and cracks appear, the truth leaking through … and possibly drowning him in its pain. Can Francisco dredge through the pain of his past to find clear waters?

I found it fascinating that O’Brien opened his novel in the second person point of view, something I’ve only read in a “choose-your-own-adventure” book. But it was a brilliant tactic because he places the reader in the shoes of this protagonist who is so lost. Haven’t we all felt that sometimes, to some degree? Have you ever gazed at yourself in the mirror and wondered who you’ve become? 

A losing can be a better kind of finding.

Much of this book deals with the idea of identity. Who are we, at our essence? Sometimes it takes a moment of crisis to strip away pretenses and reveal the truth at the core of our person. 

And when we think that we know someone, we can be wrong. Appearances can be deceiving. Many characters in the book came across Billy, an anomaly for his enormity, and shunned him or failed to see him as a person: as someone more than his incredible height of 7 feet, 11.5 inches. Who is the fool then?

Also: what defines us? Both Billy and Francisco experienced great pain in their pasts. Billy hurries into a crisis situation, like his namesake Paul Revere, warning of danger and trying to help—even placing himself in harm’s way. He took his pain and let it define him in a positive way: he became a rescuer because he knew what it felt like to be lost. That’s his identity.

Billy was who he was not only because of his nature and upbringing but also by his personal sufferings—rather, by what he had done with them.

Francisco’s challenge is to take his pain and not let it chain him anymore. 

… when a person faces himself—truly faces himself for what he is—he can make a new start, deal with the weaknesses and work on strengthening the better parts.

You are not the creation of the things that happen to you.

Do I let my past hurts define me in a negative way that prevents me from being fully free? This book is one of transformations: from lost to found, from hurt to healed, from past to present.

You can bury the memory and think it’s dealt with, done and gone. It is never gone, but it must be transformed into something that gives us life. To overcome death, you must create life.

I hope that you have the courage to dive into the deep waters of your history and then break free to the surface of the water, renewed and strengthened in the essence of who you truly are: you are more than the bad things that happen to you. 

Tuesday, April 18, 2023

My Side of the Street

Alleluia, Christ is risen! He is risen for you, for me—for every single person God created.

That reality sometimes makes me stop and think. Christ rose from the dead for the friend who ghosted me, for that individual who grates my nerves every time she crosses my path, for the person I thought would always be there for me but wasn’t.

In the eyes of God, the Resurrection is a win for everyone. So why is it that I often forget that we are all playing on the same team?

For many years I operated under an ideology summarized by the mantra, “as long as my side of the street is clean.” In other words, other people will make poor choices, sin, and do wrong. But that shouldn’t affect me as long as I make sure I am not doing the same. The focus is on myself and ensuring that I am doing what is right. It becomes a division between me and all of “those” offenders. Of course, I can’t control others and the choices they make. But does that mean that I also stop caring about them?

I perceive this thinking filtering into my parenting too. When I pick my children up at school, sometimes they might tell me about another child who spoke inappropriately. I tell my kids, “Well, just make sure you aren’t doing those things.” Of course I don’t want my children making sinful choices. Does that mean I shouldn’t care about the other children who are?

What is “my” side of the street anyway? Should I really wrap myself in this self-righteous cocoon, tending my hurt feelings by assuring myself that at least I haven’t done anything wrong? I wonder if the Pharisees felt that they kept their side of the street clean by arranging for Our Lord’s crucifixion.

Even if (and that’s a big if) I don’t personally ghost someone or hurt or annoy another, that doesn’t mean someone else’s poor actions justify my cutting them off, leaving them to tend their— apparently much dirtier—side of the street alone.

Maybe justice says I can ignore the friend who first ignored me, who never responded to my text message or email. However, mercy says otherwise. Mercy says: perhaps there is a reason why this friend didn’t reply. Instead of admiring my own side of the street, priding myself on never being the one who doesn’t respond, I could cross that empty space, reach past my hurt pride of being ignored, and extend a word of friendship.

Sometimes offering a smile to someone who hurt you is a tremendous sacrifice. He or she may never know what it cost you to give that smile. Our Lord knows though. And He knows that, deep down, you were really smiling at Him, present in that person who hurt you.

In the grand scheme of things, someone else’s mess is my mess too. I am called to care about the salvation of everyone’s soul.

Do I really win when someone else loses? It is so tempting sometimes to make lists of someone else’s offenses. It justifies my pain, resentment, and anger. “Look at everything that person did to me!” But instead of self-satisfaction, this kind of thinking should invoke feelings of sorrow and concern. It should also remind me: “Look at everything I’ve done to God.” I cringe to think of a list of my own failings toward Him. My side of the street? It’s not always so clean.

Christ rose for that person who hurt me. More important than my wounded feelings is the salvation of this other person’s soul. More important than feeling justified or the “winner” of some argument is making sure this other person knows the joy, peace, healing, and freedom of living as a son or daughter of the Risen Lord.

I will strive to have this influence my approach to parenting. The next time my children mention another child at school speaking inappropriately, I can say, “Make sure you aren’t talking like that. But maybe next time you can help your friend by changing the subject, quietly saying a prayer for him, or gently explaining that’s not the best topic of conversation. Perhaps no one ever took the time to explain that your classmate shouldn’t talk like that.”

So in this Easter season—the time when God’s mercy pours forth upon poor souls— spend some moments pondering those people on the “other side of the street.” Is there someone to whom you can extend mercy? In reality, we are all on one street and in this one world God gave us. Let’s do everything possible to make sure everyone is traveling together, cleaning up as we go along, purifying our souls to enter into the heavenly home Christ’s Resurrection has opened for us.

Saturday, March 11, 2023

Blessed with the Cross


“Twelve years ago I was blessed with cancer.”

I heard this powerful statement from a speaker during an online conference I recently attended. I am still struck by her choice of words. Blessed with cancer? It seems almost like an oxymoron.

Yet, during this season of Lent, I feel particularly close to Christ’s cross. Our nine-year-old son has been sick for six weeks. As any mother knows, it’s so painful to watch your child suffer. But how can I suffer well? How can I help my children to suffer well?

Meaning in Suffering

This time has challenged me to embrace, not run, from suffering. What if I can find peace, joy, contentment, and meaning—not only on days that go well, plans fulfilled, restful nights, and relaxation—but also on days where all my plans unravel, nights repeatedly interrupted by a sick child, new and unexpected responsibilities, and no free time?

I remember a story someone once shared with me. Christ appeared before a man and offered him a cross. The man looked at it and said, “Oh no! I could never carry that! It’s much too heavy for me. Send me another cross.” So Christ brought the man into a large room, filled with other crosses, all of which were much larger and heavier. “What cross would you like now?” Christ asked. The man glanced back at the original cross … suddenly it seemed so much lighter. 

Christ will never give me a cross that I cannot carry. I looked at my son, coughing for probably the millionth time, and reassured him, “Christ will never give you a cross that you cannot carry.” His slender shoulders can bear the weight of this illness. Who am I to say this cross is too heavy for us?

The pathway of pain, properly tread, offers us so much. It is not a punishment from God, but an invitation to unite our suffering with the suffering of Christ on the cross. Christ calls us to pick up our cross every day. A day without the cross is a day without Christ. I explained to my son that we can take this suffering and transform it into something beautiful. We can accept that this is what God wants of us right now and, if it’s God’s Will, it’s what is best for us. 

Simon of Cyrene can inspire us. Perhaps, as the Roman soldiers summoned him forward, Simon thought: Why me? Maybe Simon wanted to run from the cross too. There were so many people lining the street watching Jesus carry His cross. Yet Simon was the one chosen for the job. Maybe that’s how Simon viewed the task at first: a job, an unpleasant suffering. Yet as he carried that cross alongside Jesus, how must have Simon been transformed? He must have walked away a different man, forever changed by that shared suffering. It wasn’t a punishment; it was a gift.

We hear stories of the saints who bear the wounds of Christ: the stigmata. On first impression, it seems like such a magnificent miracle! And it is. But sometimes, in the remarkableness of it, it’s easy to overlook that it’s a miracle of suffering: physical pain. Jesus blesses those He loves with the cross.

During Lent, our family has a sacrifice jar on our dining room table. Whenever someone has to do something unpleasant or difficult, he or she puts a dry bean into the jar and offers it up as a sacrifice, turning that cross into a prayer. I watched my sick son come downstairs in the morning. I hear the clink of the dry beans as he puts his sacrifices in—sacrifices for coughing throughout the night, for feeling exhausted, for not being able to go into school … He says nothing, but he offers them to God. 

Suffering, well borne, becomes a training ground for the soul. 

Suffering Reveals Who We Are

The cross also reveals. It strips us open and makes us see ourselves better. What kind of wife, mother, and disciple am I when it gets really hard? Am I just a fair-weather friend to our Lord or am I willing to trust in Him even when things become painful? This cross has humbled me in helping me see the virtues that I lack.

As I prayed during this time, I pictured Christ crucified. I embraced Jesus, clinging to His shoulders and wrapping my legs around his waist, like how a young girl would hug her father. I imagined the sticky sweat on His body, the caked and fresh blood, His gasps for air, the pounding of His heart beneath my ear as I rested my head on His crucified body. I was with Him there on the cross. 

But I also felt the soaring energy and power of God Himself emanating from that throne of glory. 

On a recent Sunday I parked the van in our parish church’s parking lot. My son and I planned to pray from our vehicle, watching the liturgy live streamed from my cell phone, his cough still too bad to have him sit with the rest of the family in the pew. I saw other families entering the church, mothers with their sons, laughing and running up the steps of church. I saw my son next to me, circles under his eyes, coughing harshly. 

This is hard and difficult to bear. I felt tempted to complain. Yet, I sensed Christ telling me: you are so blessed. We have a gift. Jesus loves this son of mine even more than I do and He is inviting us to share in His suffering. Christ is so close to us in the cross. He makes our burden light.

How have you been blessed with the cross today?

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

The Plan for Love


There is a most beautiful, perfect, and exquisite plan for love, specifically the life-giving love between a husband and wife. Celebrating St. Valentine’s Day, a day all about love, is a good opportunity for us to reflect on the free, total, fruitful, and faithful love of God—and what it means for us, especially those called to married life.

What is love?

If you had to draw a picture of love, what would you draw? 

Perhaps the best image of love is the crucifix. Afterall, the Bible tells us that God is love. Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross teaches us the four marks of true love. First, love must be free. No one forced Jesus to die for us; He freely lay down His life out of love. Second, love must be total. Jesus didn’t hold anything back, but gave all of Himself. Third, love must be fruitful: it produces life. Jesus’s love on the cross opened the gates of heaven—eternal life—for us. Fourth, love must be faithful. Jesus stayed true to us to the end. His love is constant. 

We can even better understand God’s plan for love by considering the Catholic Mass. Mass is a sacrament of love! Jesus (the Bridegroom) gives Himself totally to His bride (the Church). The book of Genesis describes that a man leaves his father and mother, cleaves to his wife in total commitment, and the two become one flesh. These steps of marriage happen between Jesus and His bride, the Church. Jesus left His heavenly Father and earthly Mother. On the cross, He gives Himself totally to His bride. Then the two become one flesh in the Eucharist

There is a good reason why the Bible describes heaven as a wedding feast! Jesus is so madly in love with us that He isn’t content to be with us from afar. He wants to be in us. In the Eucharist Jesus plants the seeds of eternal life within our souls. 

Body Language

God created us body and soul. Our bodies are holy and precious, temples of the Holy Spirit. Pope Saint John Paul II talked about a theology of the body: that our bodies reveal God’s purpose for our lives. It is true that we have body language! Our bodies reflect what is happening inside of us. 

By looking at the body that God gave me, I understand my purpose, which is that I am made for others. I have told a toddler many times, “God didn’t give you hands to hit someone. God gave you hands to help others and to love them.” Our bodies are meant to give, to serve, to love others. A woman’s body, taken on its own, doesn’t make sense without a man’s body—and vice-versa. They are different but complementary. They are for each other.

The Church shows the importance of our bodies. Every sacrament has matter and form: matter is the “stuff” of the sacrament (like water in baptism) while form is the words spoken. In the sacrament of matrimony, what is the matter? The bodies of the bride and groom. The bride and groom are not officially married until they have done what is properly called the “marital act.” They must consummate, or complete, their vows.

Now, the terminology we use is important. For example, consider the difference between the words “relationship” and “courtship.” Many people use the word “relationship” to describe being boyfriend and girlfriend. Yet, when you think about it, relationship is an ambiguous term. Siblings, friends, or coworkers all have a “relationship.” The term “courtship” makes a clearer delineation that this is a commitment between a man and woman who are discerning marriage. 

So when we speak about this sacred action between a husband and wife, the term “marital act” (as opposed to “sex” or “making love”) feels more appropriate. It is a special, sacred, holy, and beautiful act between a husband and wife. It is their bodies saying: I belong completely to you. I give myself totally to you. I love you so much, I want to be one with you.

Through the marital act, the two become one. This is how God designed their bodies. In their wedding vows, a bride and groom expressed their lifelong commitment to love each other. In the marital act, their bodies speak this total gift of self. 

Purposes of Spousal Love

So why did God give husbands and wives this incredible gift? First, the marital act is unitive: it unites the spouses. Every time they express their love through the marital act, a husband and wife are renewing their wedding vows. Their bodies are saying, “I do.” God designed the marital act to be something that physically feels good. It bonds the husband and wife, strengthening their love.

The second purpose is procreative: the marital act produces new life. Every marital act should be open to the blessing of children. God designed it so that a baby is literally conceived during an act of self-giving love. The powerful love between a husband and wife, through the grace of God, produces new life. 

The marital act is for “babies and bonding” and these cannot be separated. A baby needs a mother and father who are in a committed, lifelong marriage: this is best for children. That is why the marital act is only for marriage. 

Some people don’t realize this is God’s design for love. Sometimes people fall into temptation and sin. We must always remember that, no matter what, God’s mercy is always greater than any sins we could commit. This is why, however, it is always important to pray for purity of heart and for chastity, since the devil tempts many people away from God’s loving plan.

If we return to the four marks of true love, we see that the marital act between a husband and wife fulfills every point. Is it free? Yes! One of the questions posed to a couple about to exchange wedding vows is, “Have you come here to enter into marriage without coercion, freely and wholeheartedly?” Is it total? Yes! In the marital act, a husband and wife hold nothing back. They give every part of themselves to each other in an act of total self-gift. Is it fruitful? Yes! The marital act is open to new life in the blessing of children. Is it faithful? Yes! A husband and wife only give of themselves in this way to each other. 

Giving Love

How am I using my body to love others? As we celebrate Valentine’s Day this month, let’s magnify our love by imitating the free, total, fruitful, and faithful love God showers upon us, especially through the Eucharist. God has a perfect plan for love: how do you live it out in your life?

Saturday, February 4, 2023

Lessons from The King's Achievement

 The assault was not going to stop at matters of discipline; it was dogma that was aimed at, and, worse even than that, the foundation on which dogma rested. It was not an affair of Religious Houses, or even of morality; there was concerned the very Rock itself on which Christendom based all faith and morals.

To whom are you faithful? 

This was perhaps one of the most critical questions facing the English people in the years of King Henry VIII’s reign—the period of the English Reformation. When remaining faithful to the Catholic Church could cost you your head, should you pledge your allegiance to the King’s new church? 

In 1904 Father Robert Hugh Benson wrote The King’s Achievement, a historical novel that follows the lives of the Torridon family. Two brothers, Ralph and Chris, represent two contrasting paths. Ralph—of the world—works for Lord Cromwell. Meanwhile, Chris—of the spirit—enters a monastery and becomes a priest. As the persecution against the Catholic Church heightens and monasteries are attacked, Ralph becomes the antagonist who leads an attack against Chris’s monastery.

A family grieves the brother whose soul seems lost. Ralph pursues worldly success while courting the lovely Beatrice, who is a fervent Catholic, but will devotion to Lord Cromwell sabotage his burgeoning love? Can Ralph continue to justify his actions, even as he befriends and comes to respect the great Thomas More? Chris’s turbulent emotions toward his wayward brother threaten his own spiritual peace—can he learn to be in the world but not of it? And can he save his brother even while Chris’s resistance to the King’s orders places his own life in danger? 

Benson does a remarkable job of bringing this era of English history to life, especially in illuminating the horrific, completely destructive persecution against the Catholic monasteries. Many monks gave their lives as martyrs. Many monasteries were looted, robbed, and destroyed. Peaceable religious men and women who had quietly carried on valuable spiritual work within the walls of these monasteries and convents suddenly found themselves on the street, nearly penniless and, objectively speaking, vocationless. 

Peterborough Abbey, Benedictine monastery dissolved November 29, 1539

The methodical tearing apart of the Catholic Church in England is concerning in its familiarity to some of the tendencies one could observe in our own world today. The Catholic faithful of the 1530s, many of whom were not fully catechized, did not know what to believe. King Henry and his clergy expressed persuasive arguments that quickly led people astray. Then these same men criticized, condemned, and silenced those who dared defend the truth of the Catholic Church. 

King Henry VIII by Hans Holbein the Younger

There are so many excellent aspects to this historical novel. Benson brings alive the personalities of St. Thomas More, King Henry VIII, and Lord Cromwell. Also, I truly enjoyed the family dynamics of the Torridon family. It’s sobering how two brothers, raised by the same parents in the same household, could veer along such completely opposite paths. At one point in the novel, Benson describes Ralph and Chris walking along with their father, just feet apart from each other, but an impassable gulf exists between them. Anyone who has experienced conflict within one’s familial relationships can relate to that sensation of heartbreaking distance among people of shared blood. 

Chris’s spiritual journey is very fulfilling, especially as he overcomes his inner struggles. Within his monastery, Chris detaches himself from everything and everyone in the outside world. As the plot progresses though, Chris begins to realize that, while leaving the world behind, he still needs to be mystically one with that same world. 

“Neither a life in the world would have done it, nor one in the peace of the cloister; but an alternation of the two. He had been melted by the fire of the inner life, and braced by the external bitterness of adversity.”

I will say that there are a few aspects of the plot that I found disappointing. While Benson does a superb job creating suspenseful scenes, sometimes those moments lose their punch: in two specific instances, when Chris finds himself in particularly dangerous circumstances and the stakes are high, the resolution to the conflict is quite anticlimactic. As for the romantic plot of the book, I questioned why the highly intelligent and deeply faithful Beatrice would be attracted to Ralph. However, I became most concerned by one of the major take-aways of the novel, namely that one should practice loyalty for loyalty’s sake. Faithfulness to something—or someone—bad is not a virtue and I cannot understand why it was lauded as such. 

Where does your loyalty lie? Are you a faithful son or daughter to the King of Kings? The King’s Achievement reminds us that sometimes faithfulness carries a steep price. Yet, Benson depicts Saint Thomas More reminding the other characters—and us—that we are all God’s prisoners. May we serve Him loyally every day of our lives.

Sunday, January 1, 2023

Resolutions: A Family Tradition

In the top drawer of my desk, which is located in our dining room, sits a couple of sheets. They are worn and crumbled from much use. One reads at the top: RESOLUTIONS 2021. The next: RESOLUTIONS 2022. And we have just added a new sheet with the words—I’m sure you’ve guessed it—RESOLUTIONS 2023. 

It’s become a tradition in our family at the end of every year, certainly not an uncommon practice. Many people make New Year’s resolutions … in a way, so did Our Lord! 

We read in the Gospel of Luke,

When the days for His being taken up were fulfilled, He resolutely determined to journey to Jerusalem. (Luke 9:51)

Our Lord made a resolution, which is a word the American Heritage Dictionary defines as “a firm decision to do something.” It contains a sense of urgency, purpose, and intention. A goal, in contrast, is an end, which one may or may not feel a strong desire to reach. 

To make a resolution for 2023 means more than just hoping to accomplish something; it means you will set out with a firm purpose to do it!

In our family, each person makes one or more resolutions. My husband and I try to encourage the children (as much as ourselves!) to focus on three different areas: physical, mental, and spiritual. Physical resolutions span the gamut from learning to walk (our 1-year-old) to learning to ride a bike without training wheels to running a 5K in 25 minutes. Mental resolutions involve things such as setting a goal for how many books one will read or learning a new language or achieving a certain grade in school.

As for the spiritual resolutions, we try to focus on the areas where we each struggle the most: for me, it’s patience, so I’m resolving not to lose my temper around the kids (wish me luck!). Our oldest daughter is resolving to read the Bible each day, setting aside quality time for prayer. 

We also make a “family resolution,” which is something everyone contributes to and benefits from. Last year this was quite practical: get the kids to bed on time! This year, we made it more enjoyable: have quarterly “family days” where we spend the majority of the day together doing something fun, whether it’s something simple like taking a walk and playing board games or going on a day trip. 

We keep the list of our resolutions nearby because we review them as a family at least quarterly. As the summer rolls around, we pull out the resolutions and check in with each person: “We’re halfway through the year! How are we doing on our resolutions? Have we made progress?”

There is something in human nature that appreciates a new beginning and a fresh start. Similarly, setting one’s sight on a certain objective brings purpose and intention to what we are doing. For the competitive among us, it gives incentive to “keep the streak alive” by accomplishing the resolutions of each year—or to improve upon last year’s efforts. Dr. Kevin Majeres of OptimalWork refers to the “deadline benefit:” by the end of the year, I resolve to X (for example, forgive my friend, spend more time with my spouse, publish my book, and so on). By setting a deadline, we have a parameter to work within; the goal becomes specific and, indeed, moves from a goal to a resolution. Some positive pressure is helpful! 

When we look at the Gospels, we find a model of intentionality within the spiritual life. The shepherds went to look for the newborn Infant with haste. This doesn’t mean they were chaotically running hither and thither. It means they acted with resolution! How will you seek the Lord in 2023? Will you do so with haste? Is there something you can do or sacrifice that will help you set your sight resolutely upon the Lord as we move through the year? 

Of course, sometimes we don’t reach our resolutions. That’s why, however, our family holds onto the resolutions of prior years. Maybe we didn’t achieve what we set out to do … yet. We have one family member who has carried over the same resolutions for the past three years, albeit with some modifications. And that’s okay! The point is that we are moving forward, improving and continually striving upward. As Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati said, “We must never exist but live.”

A New Year’s resolution affords us a whole year to move forward, improving ourselves in every area. Will New Year’s Eve 2023 find you and your family closer to Our Lord? Let’s resolve to make it so!