For the last several years, the concept of “feeling God’s love for you” has been swirling around my life and times.
First, it was because I was reading Henri Nouwen’s Life of the Beloved in my small faith group. Some of my friends were wrestling with feelings of unworthiness. I could not identify with this. Certainly I have had moments—plenty of them—in which I am deeply aware of my failures. But to have a global sense of unworthiness is one cross I have not been asked to bear. (Yet, at least.)
At the same time, I didn’t feel “beloved,” either. Or IN love, for that matter, as so many people like to say. I have, in my lifetime, oscillated between jealousy of such a feeling and a jaded suspicion that such things are more for show than reality.
After Nouwen, I started doing contemplative/centering prayer, and Fr. Richard Rohr, as well as William Meninger, talk again and again about how it’s in the dark emptiness of centering prayer that you encounter and experience the love of God.
Well, I experience God’s presence, but I don’t feel anything that feels like love.
This theme keeps popping up, because I have an ongoing connection with the Center for Action & Contemplation, and every time it does, a little cognitive/spiritual dissonance comes up. Not troubling, exactly—just puzzling. Puzzle is a good word. It’s like a liturgical song text, when I’m working on it. I work on it for a while and then I have to walk away for a while, because I need some distance. And every so often I return to it to see if a fresh perspective has emerged.
Friday morning, I believe it might have done just that. I think.
I was out on one of my rambles, and I landed on an abandoned concrete bridge over a creek—one of my favorite spots to sit and be still, and sometimes to work. This particular morning it was a song text, in fact—one for Advent. I was scribbling in the dappled shade and I glanced up, and my whole consciousness lit up, because the transition between near-illegible scratches on a page and the sheer, heart-stopping beauty before me was so striking.
I set my pen down and said, “Thank you, God. This is You I’m seeing here. This is your gift to me.”
And this quiet thought whispered: This is how God loves me. This is what it feels like to be loved by God.
It doesn’t look or feel like what I assumed it would look or feel like, but it’s 100% me, and maybe that’s the point.
There once was a little girl who had a red dress she loved. It was a long red sundress and, for a farm girl in the 1980s, it was the closest thing to a princess dress she was ever going to get.
That little girl was me. And as an aside… my classmates in primary school pulled me aside and told me Santa wasn’t real, in the tone of: “I’m about to destroy your world.” I knew I had to play it cool, but I wasn’t really upset. I’d seen what the other girls got for Christmas compared to what I got, and it made way more sense to think that my parents, who’d just been through a devastating drought year followed by a devastating flood year, were the ones in charge of my Christmas, rather than thinking some benevolent fairy liked the other girls better. It made me feel better about the whole thing.
I shared that aside because unless you understand what it was like growing up on a farm in the 80s, there’s no way you can understand the importance of this red dress to me.
But at some point, my conscience twinged me. I saw those kids in Africa. I felt I was called to give this dress away to some girl who was much poorer than me. Because after all, we had cattle and hogs and chickens and a big garden I had to work for two hours every day all summer, and we never, EVER went hungry. I wasn’t comparing myself to the girls whose Christmas haul was so much bigger than mine. I was thinking of those who had it harder than I did.
So I wore the dress one last time and asked my mom to give it away. Years later I found it in a pile in the utility room, and I was pretty mad at her. Ha! Don’t you know how much that cost me??? As a mom I totally get it… that is called “I have four kids and too much to do and how do you send a dress to Africa, anyway?”
I tell this story because I’ve been thinking lately that maybe my daughter’s arrival really didn’t change everything for me, after all. Maybe it just forced me to face the misalignment between what I believed about living the faith–as a set of concrete actions taken in a concrete world–and how I was actually applying it.
A year or two after that Red Dress story, I was going to Confession—still pretty young—no older then ten—and I confessed to the priest, “I don’t FEEL anything about God.” I was really, really worried about this, worried about my soul.
The priest said to me, “If you see a guy with no coat and you FEEL bad for him, your FEELING does nothing at all for him. He needs a coat. It doesn’t matter if you FEEL compassion. It matters that you give him a coat.”
I walked out of that confessional feeling free and very empowered, because man, DOING things is within my control!
The question that invites reflection is this: what happened in between those two formative experiences and the arrival of my daughter to cause me to embrace a world view that blamed others for their mistakes and their bad luck alike, and refused to see that the systems under which we live are structurally skewed toward people like me and against others?
That’s a big question, and probably the answer is less important to you reading this than it is to answer similar questions for ourselves individually. But I thought I would share, because I am reading Eric Clayton’s Cannonball Moments, and the first question in that book is an invitation to reflect on the moments when we recognize the conflict between what we think we are, or want to be, and what we are living in our bodies. The first insight I gained was that when I was young, there wasn’t one. The misalignment he highlights, for me, happened later.
I’ve been listening to the Bible in a Year, and the long exploration of the prophets, where I am now, has been quite illuminating. First of all, I never really processed that a whole lot of the prophetic books don’t mean “Israel” as the nation of Israel, but the northern kingdom. It clarified for me that Judah is in fact what I spent most of my life thinking of as Israel. I just figured prophets were speaking to the whole nation of Israel all the time, but that’s not actually true. That’s why we hear so much about Judah. Not every prophet is speaking to everyone. They have specific crowds they are called to talk to, to address specific problems in those communities.
I have been wrestling with the idea of the prophetic call for quite some time. Priest, prophet, king: through baptism, we are all called to all these things. Prophets, by definition, have the task of saying what the considers-ourselves-religious crowd doesn’t want to hear, because it is inconvenient and uncomfortable. Occasionally they talk to the pagans (the unchurched), but mostly they’re talking to people who think they are God’s chosen and are not living it.
As I listen to Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, Ezekiel et al rail against their various audiences, what strikes me is how blatant the idolatry seems. If people were burning incense and sacrificing children on mountains and building “gods” out of wood and gilding them with gold, that’s pretty flagrant!
And yet I feel that most of the charges being leveled against God’s people in ancient times still ring heartbreakingly true today. But our idols are more subtle. Money is a big one. I struggle with its influence in my own life and household. Politics is HUGE, and individual political figures & issues, in particular. Idolatry. No one who professes Christianity wants to acknowledge that, but I do not see how anyone could argue that I am wrong. I’ve never had anyone do so. When I point it out, they just pretend I didn’t say it and move on. If you can’t answer the charge, it seems to me, that’s an invitation to examine one’s conscience. It certainly has been in my life. That’s how I’ve ended up where I am.
The last few weeks, I have also been listening to Fr. Richard Rohr’s series of talks on the Sermon On the Mount. It was recorded shortly after the fall of Communism, and his references to Communism versus capitalism (isn’t it odd how we capitalize one, to demonize it, and not the other?) are startling both because they are so out of context and still so right on point, because 30-odd years later we, the Christian capitalists, are still arguing about communism.
This series of talks was really eye-opening. I highly recommend it. To break open what the Kingdom really is, and what it means to live in the Kingdom—to acknowledge how far off our so-called Christian culture is from what Jesus actually called us to do—to be challenged in our judgments both as liberals and conservatives… it’s a very Christ-centered, radical approach to the intersection of faith and the real world. It is giving me a lot to think about. I don’t have it worked out; I’m just beginning to process. In fact, I think I might go back to the beginning and start again. (FYI, it is on Hoopla for audio download, which is how I am listening, so check your library.)
So that’s what my spiritual life looks like at present. I’m not sure how valuable any of this is to anyone out there—I feel like effective blog posts are supposed to present a problem and solve it, and I’m more just faith sharing here—but who knows? There has to be some reason I felt compelled to write all out, right?
Last winter I wrote several posts about celiac disease and the Eucharist. I thought I’d share the letter I sent to Pope Francis and which, now, I am in the process of sending to the U.S. bishops. (Incidentally, this is not an easy task. You can’t email blast it, and you can’t get a list of addresses easy to toss into printable labels, either. I am handwriting every envelope.)
Dear Pope Francis and the bishops of the Catholic Church of the United States,
I am writing to you as a lifelong Catholic, formed and active in liturgical music ministry and committed to living and deepening my faith. I am writing to ask during this Synod on Synodality, that you and the bishops of the world reconsider the prohibition on gluten-free Communion hosts.
Last November, my teenage daughter, who has Down syndrome, was diagnosed with celiac disease.
As we began transitioning her to a gluten-free diet, I was astonished, and then angry, to discover that although gluten-free hosts are readily available, they have been specifically disallowed by canon law.
Online resources and priests I have talked to have told me that the reason gluten is “required” is because our sacraments must follow the form in which Jesus gave them to us.
However, the Gospels say nothing about wheat or gluten. Scripture says only that Jesus took bread and wine and said “do this in memory of me.”
There are many forms of bread, including those without gluten. In fact, as I searched online for Passover regulations, I found that, at least in modern times, Passover bread may be any one of five grains: wheat, spelt, rye, barley, or oats. Oats are gluten free.
Even if we accept the assumption that Jesus’ last supper bread was wheat, the wheat used today is not what he used. Modern varieties are vastly different. If we have to use what Jesus used, why aren’t we limited to a variety that at least existed at the time of the Last Supper?
The answer, of course, is that it is impractical. It would be an undue burden to insist upon using varieties that are no longer grown. Whatever kind of bread Jesus used, he used because it was what was practical in the place and time where he was.
The Church has already made this and other adaptations to what Jesus did at the Last Supper. Individual hosts, reduced to two ingredients only, have been declared the norm for Catholic liturgies. Substantial or “real” bread, such as Jesus would have shared with his disciples, is also impractical for use in large assemblies.
But if these adaptations to Jesus’ practice have already been made without jeopardizing the validity of the sacrament, the Church should be able to accommodate celiacs as well.
I appreciate the allowances made in the letter from then-Cardinal Ratzinger for extremely low-gluten hosts. I am aware that regulations also allow for a separate cup to be offered to those with celiac disease.
But when many places (especially post-pandemic) only offer the host, a cup-only solution serves to separate a person with celiac disease from all his or her fellow worshipers. It serves to divide, rather than unite, the Body of Christ.
If we truly believe that the Eucharist is the source and summit, and our spiritual food for the work of discipleship, then we should not be putting obstacles in the way of people receiving it.
This is why I am reaching out during this time of preparation for the National Eucharistic Congress in the U.S.—to ask the leaders of our Church to go back to the base assumption upon which the law concerning gluten is based. I beg you to consider: Is this really a necessary burden to impose?
I’ve been pretty quiet lately. First of all, this summer has been something like… I don’t know… imagine that a glitter bomb went off on your lawn and you HAD to pick up every individual piece of glitter. You wouldn’t have much mental space for, well, anything else.
That’s how I feel lately. But that’s not the whole reason I’ve been quiet. A few weeks ago, Claire Swinarski posted to Substack a piece called “Maybe Jesus Shouldn’t Be Your Job.” Intentional Catholic is definitely not a job. Let’s be frank: Barely anybody even reads this. I certainly don’t make money off it.
But a comment she made in that link really pierced my conscience. She said it’s way easier to write a lyrical, poetic spiritual blast that goes to 10,000 people* than it is to witness Jesus to your family, friends, and children. (*Liberally reworded.)
I thought: Ouch. That is SO true. And it is SO me.
And then I thought: Maybe I need to focus on witnessing Jesus to my children for a little while.
My youngest two children are in that stage of life where they pick at each other all.the.time. In the immediate wake of this revelation, I learned a new response to it. As things are escalating, I say to each of them, “Even now, even in this moment, you are called to be a follower of Jesus.” I need to work on how to make the line clearer. Subtlety is not a hallmark of teen and almost-tween boys. But it’s awkward simply to say that.
So that, in addition to “picking up glitter,” is where I have been lately. But I have laid out a few posts, so I should be back to semi-regular posting.
When I began reading “All the Way To Heaven,” the letters of Dorothy Day, I was shocked by how flamboyant and… earthy… she was as a young woman. Of course, before her conversion she was very worldly—divorced in a time before that was common; living with another man; having had an abortion. But to see her sensuality, her sass, etc. in black and white was really quite something. The early letters were way more… INTERESTING… than I expected the writings of a saint-in-progress to be.
The turn was abrupt when she found God. But once I made the adjustment to the totally different writing style, it was more spiritually edifying. 🙂
One of the gems I highlighted actually came from Robert Ellsberg’s introduction. It synthesizes a great deal of what’s in the book, so I’ll share it here. It’s in the context of how her ministry was founded on Matthew 25 (“when I was hungry, you gave me food…”). He says: “For Day, that meant not just practicing the works of mercy—feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless in her house of hospitality—but also protesting and resisting the social structures and values that were responsible for so much suffering and need. The Catholic Worker movement was not intended to resolve the problems of poverty and violence in the world, but to provide a model of what it might look like if Christians truly lived out their faith in response to the challenges of history and the needs of their neighbors.” (Emphasis mine.)
To synthesize: her example demonstrates that true discipleship is not an “either/or” prospect, but a “both/and.” It is personal charity and work directly with those in need… AND a commitment to work to change systemic structures that underlie, facilitate, and even cause poverty, inequality, injustice, and (to extrapolate into today’s terms) natural disasters.
So many of our conflicts in the Church happen because we choose to ally with one side or another of worldly divisions, thus abandoning huge portions of the Gospel mandate. It’s EITHER abortion OR the death penalty. EITHER abortion OR taking on the structures that enable injustice and inequality.
And too many times, Church leaders who see the fracturing of the Gospel mandate are afraid to speak too pointedly, for fear of alienating The Money.
One of Dorothy Day’s letters was addressed to the bishops of California during a worker protest where she got arrested. The editor says they’re not sure whether it was ever sent or not. But in it, she was absolutely flaying the bishops for being afraid to stand with the workers, because of a fear of losing contributions from the wealthy who supported corporations over workers. She was saying, “How much better off would we be if the Church would get rid of all its properties and just depend on God to provide what is needed, when it’s needed?”
Not that this is ever going to happen, but it was shocking to read, because she’s right. When you’re worried about pissing people off and having them take their money and walk, you’re afraid to call them out when they need to be called out. This has been the case for years in the Church, as we have swung farther and farther toward “abortion is the only issue that matters” at the expense of the rest of the Church’s social teaching.
(Money really does corrupt, doesn’t it???? I am pointing all manner of fingers at myself here… just recognizing a reality!)
I have one last post to write on Dorothy Day, but to wrap this one up, here’s one last gem from her on money, in response to “a priest critic.”
“I do not think, however, that we are guilty of envy or begrudging a rich man his wealth if we point out the abuses of the capitalist system which allows one man to accumulate the most of the world’s goods while other families suffer year after year, the aching pinch of poverty if not of actual destitution. St. Jerome and many many Fathers of the Church, and our Leader Himself condemned the rich and no one would dare breathe the word of envy in connection with them.”
I love Thomas Merton, and when this landed in my email yesterday via the Center for Contemplation and Action, I thought, “Yes–yes–this!” (And then I thought, “I need to make time to read some Merton…”)
It is a holy thing to acknowledge publicly those who came before us, and how they have influenced us. That’s the reason for Mother’s and Father’s Day, for one thing. And why we have acknowledgments pages in books. And a host of other things. There’s something built into our souls that wants to draw the connection points, to express gratitude. There’s also something cathartic about telling the stories of bad influences–traumas and abuses that had just as profound an impact as the positive ones. By processing the things that made us who we are, we better understand ourselves. And self-understanding feeds growth in holiness, because self-delusional holiness is how we get hypocrisy in religion.
Given how universal this compulsion to connect our present to our past, I’m often puzzled (and frustrated) that so many people remain attached to that American false god, “rugged individualism.” It’s so clear that no one has ever stood on his or her own or pulled one’s self up by his or her own bootstraps. For better or for worse, we are what those who came before made us–woven in with our own choices, to be sure. But always dependent on those who nurtured us and gave us our start in life, out of love and generosity. And also dependent on those who wounded us. And on the structures that shape our culture and society. We stand on the shoulders of others. Always. We know this is true at an individual level. And if there, then also at the societal and global level, too.
For several weeks I’ve been wrestling with what to say about the expected court decision overturning Roe. It took me several days after the decision to get my thoughts to coalesce. Truthfully, as raw as this issue is right now in our country, I don’t really want to wade into the conversation at all.
But given that I grew up in the pro-life movement and have been fairly opinionated on what being pro-life ACTUALLY means (as opposed to what it has been made into), I feel I should.
I am glad this day has come. Life IS precious. The unborn ARE human beings whose dignity we, as Christians, are obligated to protect.
But beyond that foundational level, I worry. Why? Because the methods undertaken in the political sphere to achieve this good end demonstrate a belief that a worthy end justifies any means, no matter how far from Gospel values.
Lately I’ve thought a lot about something we used to say when we were teaching NFP for the Couple to Couple League: a morally upright goal does not justify immoral means. This was how we explained the difference between NFP and contraception. Wanting to provide for one’s family is praiseworthy. Robbing a bank to do it is wrong. Period. Planning a family is a holy thing, but it matters how.
The problem around abortion is that the “pro-life” party has been, for more than two years, enthusiastically and willfully embracing outright lies about stolen elections. It has been dismissing the violent attempt to overthrow the fundamental basis of our country—the peaceful transfer of power. It has been tossing out false equivalences and red herrings (like CRT) to avoid facing up to real injustices that have been baked into our system and left lasting ripple effects that cannot be dealt with without governmental intervention. It has been prioritizing wealth and money (i.e. low taxes, corporate interests, and deregulation) above caring for our neighbor. To say nothing of guns (how can any person claim to be pro-life while placing gun ownership above human life?)
The problem we have is that all this has been winked at–and in many cases, vehemently and rabidly defended–by good people. The most acknowledgment we’ve gotten is, “Yes, but without life, none of that matters!”
But it does.
It all matters. If the measuring stick is Jesus–and of course it is–it ALL matters. Uncomfortable truths are still true.
On the other hand, I’ve been equally baffled and appalled by the rhetoric from pro-choice people—especially those who claim to be Christians. I understand and affirm the desire to advocate for women in impossible situations. But to do so while blindly—is it willful blindness?—ignoring the uncomfortable truth of the life of the human being sacrificed in abortion? I can’t understand that, either. We live in an age where we can see inside the womb. How can we doubt that those children are human beings with dignity equal to that of the marginalized, discriminated against, or suffering?
I have maintained for years that we were going about this fight in the wrong order. There are valid concerns put forward by abortion rights advocates. Abortion is the wrong answer, but the problems are real: poverty, inequality of education and opportunity, health care that is not, no matter what anyone says, the best in the world (at least in our way of accessing it–and I have more right to have an opinion on that matter than most, given our family’s medical history–the insurance system serves Mammon, not people). If we had been willing to address those problems, I don’t think we’d have reached this point of poisonous, toxic division over this issue. Now that we’ve done it in the wrong order—at the very least, it should have been done concurrently—the pro choice advocates are right. We ARE responsible to step in on these issues.
The trouble is, abortion was easy to oppose, because criminalizing abortion costs US nothing. We don’t have to bear the burden. And yes, I use the word “burden” without apology. Pregnancy and parenthood IS a burden. No one who complains about parenting, ever, has any right to suggest otherwise. Which means none of us get to deny the word, because all of us complain. All of us feel the burden. It’s a joyful burden, a burden that sanctifies and gives as much as it asks of us—but it IS a burden, nonetheless.
So the quote below, which has been shared a lot, also resonates uncomfortably. It’s not perfect, but there is truth in it, and we have an obligation to examine our consciences.
“(Pro-life Christians) inhabit the ambivalence of this moment, embracing a multitude of responses. … We must also admit that we are part of something larger than ourselves. Because just as was true for the women of Jerusalem, the destruction of children is too often the result of larger, collective sins.”
This weekend, I finally finished reading Dorothy Day’s letters. My overarching takeaway is: This woman is not who you think she was. She defies categorization.
I highlighted so many passages in my e-book. So many things to reflect upon. There’s one particular facet I want to reflect upon in depth, but I think I need to address the big picture first, and give that one particular aspect its own post.
My whole life, I have assumed that Dorothy Day would take a certain approach to everything. I believed this in the years when I was a staunch political conservative and thought she represented everything that was wrong with the world. And I still believed this when I began reading this book as a person who has embraced as Godly many things I once thought misguided.
But she is way, way more complex than the general narrative about her allows her to be.
In many ways, she was shockingly conservative. In her younger years it wasn’t so obvious, because the world was still conservative surrounding matters of sexuality. In those years, her conservatism manifested as repeated acknowledgment of the Church’s (and specifically Church leadership’s) authority over her, and a repeated commitment to cease her work if she was ever told to do so. Of course, that never happened. There were many, many priests and bishops supporting her work… because it was CATHOLIC.
But as soon as the sexual revolution started, she started railing against it all. She was not a happy camper in the last couple decades of her life. She was kind of a grumpy old lady, in fact, often unhappy about the depravity of the young and the sorry state of the future. (And she didn’t like the post-V2 Mass. Although in her defense, she was complaining about it in the time just after the change, when everyone was still figuring it out and a lot of things were done badly.) She talks about how the government is not the ideal provider of services to the poor—that it’s necessary at times, but that ideally this work would be done by the Church. (Not individual Christians. The CHURCH.)
On the other hand, she had a moral code that demanded social justice, and she was absolutely, 100% rigid in following it. She participated in protests for peace, spent time in jail, stood with workers against corporations, and lived in abject poverty her whole life—never kept any of her earnings.
A big part of her code was pacifism. She opposed Vietnam, of course (rightly so). But she also opposed World War 2. I found that shocking—downright disturbing, actually. If ever there were a just war, that was it.
Her commitment to pacifism was so unshakable, she wouldn’t take honorary degrees from Catholic universities because they had ROTC programs and took government grants that largely benefited the military industrial complex.
She also raised holy hell when she found out her publisher was going to take funds from Rockefeller and Ford foundations to help archive her stuff. She flatly refused permission as long as they were involved. In part that was b/c she believed in personal responsibility (a tick in the conservative chart), but in part it was also that the Rockefellers, in her words, had a lot to answer for (a jab at corporate abuse of workers, a tick in the progressive chart).
What I hope I’m laying out here clearly is that she was CATHOLIC. Not progressive Catholic, not conservative Catholic, just CATHOLIC. Because sometimes Catholic IS progressive. And sometimes it’s conservative. And virtually all of us try to separate those two, and in so doing, do violence to the Gospel.
I begin to suspect that I have more than one more post to write about Dorothy Day… but I’ll stop there for right now.
I know this post will make no difference. Some people will react with cheers and the rest will rear up in defense of guns. They’ll use every worldly argument and not one Godly one, because there is no Godly argument for placing guns above human life.
In the larger world someone, probably multiple someones, will say we shouldn’t politicize this tragedy, therefore neatly sidestepping the glaring call to examine our collective conscience… yet again.
Many Christians will insist, again, that the gun isn’t the problem, it’s mental health—but won’t support public funds to address that problem, either. They’ll change the subject using whatever excuse they can find to bury the fact that the only places in the world with more gun violence than us are places riddled with gangs. To bury the fact that no one else in the developed world has as many guns in people’s hands as we do, or as many people dying from guns.
And nothing will change.
And yet, I will say it anyway, because it needs to be said:
Guns are an idol.
I’m not even angry. Just disgusted that Catholics who fight so hard for the innocent unborn, who believe themselves to be pro-life, can act as if guns are more important than the lives of innocent school children. Can go to bat looking for reasons to oppose the legislation that the U.S. bishops have been urging for years.