Fear, Faith, and Recognizing God’s Voice

Today I share my third and final post about fear and faith. Or rather, a fragment of a much larger post, because this is the part that’s relevant. In March 2014 I was sharing about my first spiritual direction appointment, and I wrote:


I talked at some length about the scrupulosity issue, the fear that I’m not supposed to be writing, that GOD’S WILL FOR MY LIFE (finger wagging as an illustration) is for me to be a mom and nothing else. My spiritual director said, “Do you think that’s what God’s calling you to?”

Not a question I wanted to answer. I fumbled a bit, and she rephrased: “Have you ever had a moment where you were sure you were hearing the voice of God?”

After a bit of thought I could say yes, I did. It’s never, ever about the big things, it’s always about small things that are immediate and in the here and now.

“And what does that feel like? Does it feel like the wagging finger?”

“No!” This one I could answer with certainty. “No, it feels quiet, and peaceful.”

Those words hung in the air for a couple of seconds before I realized their importance. I have identified what the voice of God sounds like to me, and more importantly, what it doesn’t sound like.


Stepping back in as 2020 Kate: I want to clarify the connection. In that post I referred to a wagging finger. But the point is what that wagging finger made me *feel*: fear. Anxiety.

How anxiety looms over life.

I have a history with anxiety–a long, tangled, ugly history. For me, fear and anxiety were twisted up in dysfunctional ways with my faith. (I still fight it sometimes.) A feeling that anything I wanted had to be contrary to God’s will, simply by definition, because “my ways are not your ways.” (I once told that fear to a good and holy friend of mine. He blinked in silence for a minute and then said, “Wow. What an unfortunate reading of that Scripture.”) A fear that if I got a discernment wrong, I was out of luck and basically doomed for all eternity (literally).

So the moment I described above, in my first spiritual direction appointment, was a game-changer. I cannot speak for others, but this I know: God does not speak to me in anxiety and fear. The Devil, however, does. The devil speaks anxiety and fear often, relentlessly, and loudly.

God speaks to me in a quiet sense of security and peace and joy.

There has always been an end-times movement. The world is always about to end in someone’s mind. There are always visions. Some of them well-respected in the Church and others, well, a lot more questionable.

I ignore them all, because I know now that is not where God speaks. Not to me, at least. And honestly, I don’t think following out of fear is what God wants for any of us. I think of Elijah. God didn’t speak in the scary, bombastic stuff, but in the tiny whispering breeze.

Is the world going to end? At some point. But that’s not where I need to keep my focus. I’ve been at this long enough to know that if I focus on fear, I’ll fall farther from him, not grow closer. I’ll only live a half life.

I wrestle many things these days, but this I am certain of: God wants more than that for us.

Fear and Faith, Part 2

Sharing today the second of three posts about my journey in pondering the relationship between faith and fear. This one dates from March 2, 2011.


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A pastor named Rob Bell wrote a book that raised people’s hackles because they felt it espouses “universalism,” the idea that nobody’s going to go to Hell. I ran across this topic here, and it got me thinking. Not about Rob Bell, his book, or the existence of Hell—frankly, because I think the whole discussion is a distraction from the primary issue.

I have no patience with the sentiment “I believe in God, but I’m not really religious.” Or “I’m more spiritual than religious.” Cop-out! If you believe in God, that God is creator of all and above all, then it makes no sense to act as if that belief doesn’t matter. When the stakes are so high—Heaven and Hell, eternal life and eternal death—how can you stick your fingers in your ears and ignore the call to act, saying “la la la I can’t hear you?”

On the other hand, being “religious” because you’re scared of going to Hell is a pretty poor version of Christianity. If that’s all your faith is based on then it’s bound to do one of two things: get twisted into some hideous distortion of true holiness (how often do we see that happen?), or fall to pieces entirely. Holy living should be a response born of gratitude to the One who gave us everything, love for the One who continues to pour out goodness on us, even amid the pain and difficulty of this fallen world. And by love, I mean a conscious decision to act, not some touchy-feely, ephemeral happy place.

When you love someone, you try to get to know them, to understand what they want, what makes them tick. When you love someone, you look for ways to make them happy, you look for ways to deepen your relationship with them. When faith becomes an act of love, the discussion of Hell, its existence or lack thereof, is….well, perhaps not completely irrelevant, but certainly beside the point.

Hell is the absence of God. Look around the world. Everything beautiful in this world, everything that makes it worth living, is from God: love, cuddles, creation, skies and outdoors and fresh air and friendship and music and all the things that make our hearts skip a beat. To be separated from all that? If that doesn’t give you the shudders, then I don’t know what will.

I don’t think much about Hell, end-times or the apocalypse, because it scares me, and when I’m scared I focus on fear instead of on my true job as a Christian. My true job is love. I’m trying to learn to live in such a way that I am acting out of love for the One who made me, acted out toward the people and the world He created. I have a long way to go; I’m well aware that I’m not guaranteed a place in Heaven just because I say I believe in God. Actions speak louder than words, and fear is not a good long-term motivator. Besides, it’s not like I have any control over the apocalypse (or lack thereof). God’s the editor of the final markup, not me. Thank…well, thank God.


The Kate of 2020 steps back in to note that I apparently had a lot more answers when I was in my thirties than I do now. 🙂

Fear and Faith, Part 1

An exchange earlier this week on Instagram got me thinking about the relationship between fear and faith. Over the years I’ve pondered this quite a bit, so rather than try to write it again, it makes more sense simply to re-share things I’ve written before on the topic.

The first reflection was originally written in August of 2011.


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My freshman year of high school, a non-denominational organization called Youth For Christ rocketed into prominence. I thought that meant it was for all Christians, and indeed, it seemed to cross boundaries. The most popular kids in school and plenty of the invisible majority walked the hallways wearing snappy black T shirts that proclaimed, “Jesus loves U2. Jesus: if you still haven’t found what you’re looking for.”

One night they brought in a high-powered speaker. They filled up a large room with teenagers: in folding chairs, standing at the edges and the back. I don’t remember much about the talk itself, except that it scared me. It was about “almosters,” people who are almost good enough for Heaven, but not quite, and who thus will burn in fiery damnation for all eternity.

I started thinking of my faults, of the sacrament of Reconciliation, and what would happen if I forgot to confess something. I got more and more scared…but alongside the terror grew another, quieter sense of discomfort, one I couldn’t put words to.

Then came The Altar Call. You know: “If you want to profess Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and savior, get up and go to the back, where we have people waiting to speak with you.” And suddenly, the shuffling chairs, the whispers and sniffles and scraping sneakers all around me, made me realize something that cut the legs from beneath the fear.

We were being manipulated. Manipulated, in the name of religion.

That moment of clarity changed everything. I sat in my hard folding chair with my eyes closed, my arms folded, and prayed. Prayed that I wasn’t imposing my will on God’s. That if this was truly from God, that I would be open to it, even if it felt wrong. I kept praying as the speaker backed off his altar call: if you feel like you want to make the profession, but you need help to do it…if you feel moved, but need more information…if you simply want to ask questions…

At this point, I felt a stab of disgust. I realized he wasn’t going to be satisfied until the room was empty, until every person had gone to get “saved.” And I knew, with absolute certainty, that this wasn’t how God worked.

I sneaked a peek. The holdouts were me and one other girl—also Catholic. At this last, shameless call, she gave in.

I did not.

When it was all over, the last holdout and I went to the leaders to express our displeasure with how non-inclusive this experience was, and asked if we could bring in somebody to offer another perspective on being not quite good enough for Heaven. Oh, no, they said, we’re not going to get into doctrines of individual denominations. That’s how you tear groups like this apart. I hadn’t really expected a Protestant to buy in to the idea of Purgatory, but still, it irked. It wasn’t until hours later that I realized why: their entire presentation represented a sliver of Christianity, and not the whole.

I never went back.

It’s tempting to impose the more mature faith of my thirties on my fourteen-year-old self. Of course I didn’t have it worked out then like I do now, just as I’ll have it worked out better when I’m sixty than I do today. But I do believe that experience sensitized me to emotional manipulation in the name of God. Maybe that’s why my TEC (Teens Encounter Christ) two years later fell so flat, and made me so suspicious of retreats in general: that entire weekend felt like a giant emotional manipulation.

I know that many people have found their faith bolstered by such experiences. No doubt true conversions have happened off of altar calls employing fear tactics. God can use any circumstance to achieve His purposes.

But mostly, I think it harms Christianity. Because when you get back out into the real world, that amazing little thing called intellect kicks in, and you start to see the flaws. You realize that you’ve been manipulated. And then what? What saves a fledgling faith when it realizes it is based on manipulation?

Revisiting Race

In light of the discussions taking place online these days, it seems like a good time to revisit what the US Bishops have to say about racism, and in particular institutional racism, in our country, and what that reality means for us as faithful Catholics. There’s a lot of anger going around these days on both sides of every issue, and we ramp each other up. Extremism on one side begets extremism on the other. Neither of which are justified, but people only want to point the finger at the other side rather than acknowledge extremism on their own.

Too many Christians seem eager to write off the entire question of civil rights and institutional racism because of violence in some protests. Of course, horrific things like people shouting “let them die” outside a hospital where police are fighting for their lives are equally indefensible.

It’s so tempting to take the extremes, because the extremes are easier. It’s really messy in the middle, where we have to call out both “let them die” and the institutional racism that has sparked the protests which, in some cases, have turned violent. It’s easier to blame one or the other and act like the problem is ONLY one thing.

The reality is, whenever we paint things in absolutes–whenever we write off one point of view because of the faults of some among them–we are part of the problem. That messy place in the middle is exactly where we must be as Christians.

Our bishops are telling us in the clearest possible way that race matters, that racism is real, that we are part of it whether we mean to be or not, and that we thus have a responsibility to act for change.

I cannot say it strongly enough: read this letter in its entirety.

#seethegood: parenting, prayer, and virtual school

Taking video notes on a used manila envelope. I know. I’m a model of good academic skills.

I was dreading many things about this school year, but so far the one that’s been the most problematic was the one I didn’t really anticipate: workload management for my high schooler. He’s stressed, which makes me stressed. We all know how important high school is in shaping the man or woman you become. Plus, when you have to cram a year’s worth of work into a semester, the workload is heavy.

I internalize my children’s stress. (That’s a blog post for another blog.) So this week has been an exercise in creative, prayerful parenting. I woke at 3:50 a.m. yesterday and couldn’t get back to sleep. This is pretty common for me, but usually it’s because I’m thinking about my own work. Yesterday it was anxiety on behalf of my high schooler.

I ended up praying a rosary on his behalf as I laid awake, and then moved on and started the day. Checked in with the kids, then did my own work for a while.

But when he came up for lunch, I closed up shop and said, “Okay, bring the work here. I’m here to help from now until school pickup.”

By the time I had to leave an hour and a half later, we were both feeling better. I didn’t connect it with my morning prayer until late last night as I was lying in bed again. I feel like that prayer settled and grounded and oriented me for the day–and perhaps him as well.

Definitely a #seethegood moment.

Being Intentionally Catholic on Social Media

I’ve been at this Intentional Catholic business officially for 18 months right now, but in reality for much longer. One does not come to such a pithy, focused phrase “just like that.” It develops over time.

One thing I’ve learned is that living the faith intentionally always, ALWAYS involves a lot wrestling. In fact, I would argue that a faith that is complacent, that thinks it has simple answers, is not intentional at all. The world is too messy for complacency. We are too small for the problems we face. When we think the answer is simple and obvious, it’s a good sign that we’re missing a LOT of context.

I’ve been wrestling hard with what being “intentionally Catholic” means when people are saying horrible things online. Self-righteous memes so badly stripped of context, they cross into falsehood; distortions; statements by Christians that do not reflect Christ.

Today I’d like to reflect on a handful of influences I’ve been wrestling lately, surrounding this conundrum.

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#1: my husband saying, “You may need to stay off Facebook this fall.” I recognize the wisdom of this advice, but I struggle because my ministry is precisely to address the messiness of the issues where real life intersects with faith–issues we address via the political process. And also, Facebook is my professional networking avenue.

But as my husband constantly points out, no one ever changes their mind. So when is it worth wading in? When I do, how do I respond in a way that respects the human dignity of the person on the other end of the e-connection, when such egregious errors are on display?

#2: A friend of mine shared Bishop Barron’s podcast for yesterday’s readings with me, in which he tied together the call from Ezekiel–yes, in fact we ARE supposed to correct our fellow Christians–and the “how do we do that?” outlined in the Gospel. Bishop Barron focused narrowly on how to respond when one has been personally wounded. Truthfully, it felt insufficient. It’s not personal offenses that I feel so compelled to respond to on social media. It’s public statements by religious people who do not see the inherent conflict between their statements and the faith that is so precious to them. Jesus’ guidance, applied in this situation, seems… insufficient. Sure, I could message a person privately, but if that person is making public statements, he or she is leading others into error. Speaking to them privately seems–well, not to be repetitive, but “insufficient.”

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I’ve spent a lot of time praying: “Should I ignore this, Lord? Or speak?” I responded in passion a couple times and felt that I, too, wasn’t representing my faith authentically. Another time, I walked away and found a calm, sincere response bubbling up. I thought I recognized the voice of the Spirit in that, so I went back to share, only to be publicly (and passive-aggressively, i.e. in detail but not by name) excoriated. I came away feeling that I really have no idea what the heck God is asking me to do about all this.

Which brings me to Influence #3: a story told by Steve Angrisano in a breakout session on chant that I listened to this weekend. (While pulling crabgrass in my back yard, if you want to know.) He talked about a priest who had two best friends stand at opposite ends of the room. He surrounded one of them with other girls of similar age, and had them all call out a number between 1 and 100. No one in the room could pick out the number from the original girl–except her best friend, who had spent so much time listening to her friend, she knew the voice and could pick it out of the cacophony.

I am trying to spend enough time with God to do that, but I feel no confidence in my ability to pick out God’s voice right now.

Actually, that’s not true. I feel great confidence that I can see God’s will in the issues themselves. But in how and when to speak, I have no earthly idea.

I have no answers today. Only thoughts. Wrestling. Because that’s what it means to be intentionally Catholic.

#seethegood in virtual learning

(Background image by Free-Photos, via Pixabay

My kids’ school district finally decided last night to go online. We knew it had to be coming, but the uncertainty has been punishing. It’s a tough thing, living with delay and uncertainty. And as long as it wasn’t certain, it was hard not to keep hoping. Hoping for a couple days’ normalcy a week.

2020’s been a punishing year. For all of us. For the most part, we’re not handling it well. I firmly believe the ugliness and rush to the extremes that we’re seeing has been exacerbated by stress. When you feel like you can’t handle one thing more, that one political nugget just sends you over the edge. Certainly it’s been happening to me. I’m at the point where I don’t trust my discernment of when to speak and when not to.

Contemplating an all-online school year, or at least a significant start to it (because the carrot is always dangling there: if the cases go down…) has so many really obvious negatives, it’s a real spiritual exercise to #seethegood. I’m going to have to give up so much. My kids are so sick of this house. Of each other. My soul feels suffocated from togetherness, from lack of time to go out in the expansiveness of the universe. I lost the spring for my weekly hikes and bikes, but I clung to the fall, and now the fall is gone too.

But there is this: going back to school was always going to increase the exposure exponentially. As long as we’re virtual, we can still rest secure that our kids’ friends, who are also virtual, are low-exposure, and that’s one good thing, because it means we can continue to carve out time for them to be together with less worry (not “no” worry, but “less”).

And all virtual means, paradoxically, more instruction. The hybrid schedule involved two days of in-seat and three days of independent study, which has been a struggle for my kids. In the virtual model the kids can all be “in class” together.

I suppose there’s also the potential for slightly more flexibility of family schedule, although I won’t know that for sure for a while.

And I suppose there’s another #seethegood so obvious, we’re not really clued into it right now: that all this suffering and upheaval is sensitizing us to the goodness of our ordinary lives. We have taken so many things for granted. If we approach this time exercising our thankfulness muscles, we could be different people when we come out the other side.

Educating for Peace

I’ve been hearing a lot lately about how public schools are indoctrinating in socialism. For that reason, this quote really struck me this morning. It comes in a section of Gaudium et Spes that is focused on peace and war. Paul VI says that those who are in charge of military will have to “give a somber reckoning of their deeds of war.” He talks about how “extravagant sums” are spent on military and on developing new weapons while the miseries that cause war remain unaddressed. He talks about how peace requires working for justice. And he calls for an international public authority with actual, universal authority to settle disputes.

That’s the context of this quote. We are called by our Church–by a saint of our Church, in a document approved by an ecumenical council of the Church–to form our children in these sentiments.

There’s a disheartened, jaded part of me that suspects many in our Church would call this “socialism,” despite the fact that it’s the teaching of our Church. And it’s interesting to me that this exhortation comes from the papacy of St. Paul VI, known and revered for Humanae Vitae. It illustrates that the Catholic faith stands independent of political ideals.

#seethegood – my breakfast cafe

It’s been beautifully cool this week, and I left the house on Tuesday before the kids were up to do my favorite bike ride, 12 miles roundtrip, with an hour and a half to sit quietly beside the Missouri River at the turnaround point. This point was my breakfast cafe.

There’s divine magic in the way a drop of dew clings to the tip of a piece of grass.

And there’s something that reveals the mystery of holiness in the play of light and shadow.

It’s been 157 days since this pandemic shut down schools. 157 days of intense parenting and constantly shifting reality and discernments. This is the time of year when I try to get out to be still with God in nature at least once a week. I’ve only managed it about four times. It’s been rough. But I’m so grateful for the times when it’s been possible.

The Difficulty of Discernment

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I’ve been wrestling a lot lately with the “prophetic” part of the baptismal call: priest, PROPHET, king. Like many people, until I was well into adulthood I had a wrong understanding of what it means to be a prophet. Prophecy was never about predicting the future. It was about speaking for God. Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah et al called out leaders, cultural institutions, and members of the culture for behaviors and attitudes that stood in opposition to the covenant they’d sworn to uphold.

Of course, no one likes being called out, so prophets often ended up exiled or stoned to death or beheaded (like John the Baptist). But it didn’t change the fact that they were speaking truth to power, whether anybody ever changed or not.

It’s hard to discern this call in modern life. The world is so noisy, and people speak what they believe to be “truth” with great volume and varying justification. I’ve been in far too many debates lately, and the people other side of these debates are absolutely convinced that they are the ones speaking truth and I am misguided, while I believe to the depths of my bones that it’s exactly the opposite.

Both of us can’t be right.

It’s difficult to discern when to speak and when to let someone else have the last word. My husband says, “They’re never going to change their minds. Quit arguing. Just scroll by.” But I say, “These are things that doesn’t even stand up under the weight of critical thinking and reason, let alone the faith. If we don’t speak the truth, we cede the battlefield to the devil.”

These days I bring everything back to its essence: “This post/argument/belief is inconsistent with the Gospel.” We’ve been blurring the lines between faith and politics so long, we often don’t even recognize that some of the most passionately-held opinions in Religious World have nothing whatsoever to do with the Gospel, and are, in some cases, contrary to it. I understand it, because I lived it until I was more than thirty years old. It was a hard thing, requiring a lot of humility and prayer, to allow myself to change. It only happened because the reality of parenting a child with a developmental disability put me nose to nose with inconvenient truths I had, until then, been able to ignore.

It’s very uncomfortable to envision oneself in a prophetic role. Who am I to do this? How can I be sure I’m actually speaking what God wants said? What if I’m wrong?

Except… the sea change in my world view has been so tightly woven into my spiritual growth, I don’t see how it could be wrong. I’ve been praying too long, too fervently, and too consistently for discernment, for wisdom, for clarity, for God’s will, and for God to keep me on the path of that will, whatever it is. There’s no way God would have allowed me to continue on a totally erroneous path. If I were wrong, God would have put me face to face with other inconvenient truths I couldn’t avoid, to make it clear I needed to detour. Instead, the epiphanies of the last decade or two keep being confirmed.

I’m afraid of breaking relationships. I’m afraid of going too far and abandoning God’s path in the opposite direction. I’m afraid of speaking the right thing in the wrong way and doing more harm than good. I’m afraid of failing altogether when the stakes are so high. Most of all, I’m worn out by the battle. I know in the end, God will sort it out, that “success is not the prize” as Rory Cooney wrote. But it’s hard to stand in the maelstrom and wonder if I’m being egotistical for thinking I’m meant to be in it at all.