It’s been a minute since I posted here, but not for lack of spiritual journeying… just struggling with how to write it publicly. God continues to place signposts in my journey to balance Godly anger and detachment. Sometimes I don’t quite know how to balance the two.
I spent Lent reading the letters of Dorothy Day, because I thought, “If anyone has figured out this balance, she’s that one.” “All The Way To Heaven” was the recommendation of a priest friend of a friend.
In the first 40% of the book she was not at all what I expected from Dorothy Day. It’s really interesting to watch her own spiritual journey unfold. Then there comes a sharp turn. I’m still only at the 46% mark (she wrote a lot of letters!) but I am thoroughly engrossed by it all. But I wasn’t finding the nugget I was looking for–the thing that showed me how to be an activist and advocate for social justice without being angry all the time.
Then, without warning: this.
But, because God doesn’t deal in the obvious and the clear-cut and the black-and-white–he just doesn’t–within 24 hours, I stumbled across this quote in the front of a novel I pulled from the library to read:
So… I suppose the divine message here is to hold things in tension? That this struggle is real, and inevitable, and a part of the journey?
A while back, I heard a discussion on the radio about a book called “High Conflict.” As I listened, I thought, “That’s me. That’s what I’m feeling.” I put it on hold at the library, but I was way down the list. And when my turn came a few weeks ago, my heart quailed. I thought, “This is not going to be an enjoyable read.”
Then I pulled up my big girl panties and read it, praying throughout for openness. Because this, clearly, was God’s next signpost in my spiritual journey this year, toward balancing Godly anger at injustice with detachment. Because—also clearly—high conflict is NOT what God is calling me to.
Or any of us.
It was an incredible book… eye opening for myself, and extremely balanced in calling people across spectrums on the carpet. (You can tell a well balanced book by the fact that reviewers from both sides of the High Conflict that is American politics gripe about how their side was treated more harshly than the other.)
Reading that book did change me. Among the many valuable things she urged was to “muddy the waters.” The fact is that we like to put people in “us” and “them” categories, and we need to remember that we are all products of multiple influences, and just because two people share an identity in one of those influences doesn’t mean they will in others.
For myself, Catholic is my identity above all others. It is the filter through which I view everything. It is the measuring stick by which I gauge my secular work and my advocacy (“Disability Mom” and “writer” are tied for a close second in my identity)– and advocacy is, in fact, one of the red flags she warns of as an indicator of high conflict.
The point is that it helped me. It cooled down the temperature of my passion. Let me tell you, in the past two to three weeks, that cooling trend was critical… and not for any of the reasons I thought it would be. It’s just been a rough few weeks, personally.
And yet, yesterday I found myself triggered again. Multiple times. By multiple triggers, in multiple places. I found myself starting arguments with no one again.
The most bizarre thing was that I had a flashback to an incredibly contentious… and thankfully, defunct… relationship that caused me tremendous mental anguish over the course of COVID. I have zero contact with these people anymore. I have almost, if not completely, removed myself from these people’s orbit.
And yet, suddenly I was there in the middle of the emotions again, reliving the offenses, reliving the, well, anguish of trying to behave in a Christlike manner, cringing at the one mistake I made, raging at the certainty that they didn’t learn a thing from that conflict, that because of my mistake, they never admitted their own.
It was as if it happened yesterday instead of more than a year ago.
And sometime during Mass, as I sat behind the piano, wrenching my mind back to the liturgy again and again, it occurred to me: “I wonder if this is a spiritual attack.”
Because I WAS making progress toward what I know God is calling me to do.
I don’t have a neat and tidy bow to wrap around this post. I am just sharing the journey. Maybe high conflict, itself, is indication of a spiritual attack almost all of us are suffering…
Anyway… here’s that book you should all read, regardless of where you stand on any of the multitudes of points of contention we have all elevated to High Conflicts.
At the beginning of this year, I set myself a spiritual goal to focus on contentment. I have not been incredibly successful.
Honestly, I didn’t expect to be. Some goals are set knowing they are beyond reach—knowing that the striving toward them brings one closer to God.
Still, it’s been a hard year to reach for contentment. The summer disappeared beneath a deluge of appointments, meetings, and a million other very worthy time constrains that are not writing time. Early July, a friend offered me an open invitation to sit in her screened-in gazebo by a creek—with wifi!—to work any day I wanted. “I can’t come tomorrow,” I said, “but I’ll be there the day after.”
It’s been eight weeks and I still haven’t had time.
Almost right off the bat, she asked a question that stopped me cold:
Why are we demanding that we be content? What if our discontent is a message from God? What would happen if we followed, rather than denied, that discontent? What if that discontent is a holy prompting, calling us to something more?
This question shocked me into self-reflection. I think her primary focus is mothers who feel pressure from the culture—especially the religious culture—to be content with motherhood as their total identity, all the fulfillment they need. That was me, once, but not for a long time. Publishing music, publishing a novel—I am officially on the rolls of working mothers. I used to get squirmy and guilty identifying myself as such. I still hesitate to claim the label; my work is so flexible, it often gets shunted aside altogether. (Hence my recent discontent.) I am not caught between two immovable forces the way mothers who work outside the home are.
But work it remains. And I realized long ago that the gifts God gave me were not given to be stuck under a basket for twenty-odd years until my nest empties, at which point I’d be so rusty it would take another series of years to hone them, if indeed I could at all at that point. So my first thought was that I’m not sure the question entirely applies to me.
And yet… and yet! What if my difficulty finding contentment is not a sign of my own lack of spiritual fortitude, but of the whisper of the Spirit saying, “Something is out of balance”?
Simply giving myself permission to ask the question shook loose some recognitions in the way our family life is set up. There are things we tend to laugh about. Like, Dad is sitting at the kitchen table on Saturday morning and Mom is outside pulling weeds, and yet the kid comes outside to ask Mom for whatever the thing is? Really?
Twice on Sunday afternoon, I closed the bedroom door to do something for myself—write this blog post, the first time, and the second, simply take a nap—and literally within fifteen seconds someone shouted my name. It’s like there’s a radar that says: “Warning! Mom is taking time for herself! Red alert! Stop her at all costs!”
Voice such a frustration in public and a mother will inevitably get variations on one of two themes: 1) “You’ll miss this someday! Enjoy it while it lasts!” or 2) “That’s the nature of the job!” It never occurs to us to say, “Sure, I’ll laugh at this someday, and of course I’ll miss my kids when they leave—but that doesn’t change the fact that right now, people are interrupting my self-care for ridiculous minutiae they are perfectly capable of dealing with without me.”
What if I actually asserted my Godly identity as a human being independent of motherhood? What if I chose to say, “I am a person too, and my needs are more important right now than your Xbox time”?
What if I stopped making a martyr of myself and simply, firmly insisted that others must also be flexible—that I am not always the one who must give way?
The religious part of me rears up at such things. Self-gift! Self-sacrifice! Self-emptying! But these things go more than one direction. Mothers are not the only ones who need to practice them.
First of all, let me just say I recognize how challenging this quote is. This idea stands 100% in opposition to our American cultural values.
However, if we are citizens of Heaven first and America second–as should be the case for all who call ourselves Catholic–then we have to accept the challenge in these words.
Interestingly, they are *not* Pope Francis’ words. They are the words of Pope Paul VI (he of Humane Vitae fame) from an apostolic letter called “Octogesima Adveniens,” dating from May 1971. I haven’t read the whole letter, but this is the full paragraph Pope Francis quoted from:
Through the statement of the rights of man and the seeking for international agreements for the application of these rights, progress has been made towards inscribing these two aspirations in deeds and structures (16). Nevertheless various forms of discrimination continually reappear – ethnic cultural, religious, political and so on. In fact, human rights are still too often disregarded, if not scoffed at, or else they receive only formal recognition. In many cases legislation does not keep up with real situations. Legislation is necessary, but it is not sufficient for setting up true relationships of justice and equity. In teaching us charity, the Gospel instructs us in the preferential respect due to the poor and the special situation they have in society: the more fortunate should renounce some of their rights so as to place their goods more generously at the service of others. If, beyond legal rules, there is really no deeper feeling of respect for and service to others, then even equality before the law can serve as an alibi for flagrant discrimination, continued exploitation and actual contempt. Without a renewed education in solidarity, an overemphasis of equality can give rise to an individualism in which each one claims his own rights without wishing to be answerable for the common good.
Pope Paul VI, Octegesima Adveniens, #23
There’s so much to unpack in that. “Legislation is necessary, but it is not sufficient for setting up true relationships of justice and equity.” Legislation, in other words, needs to happen, but we have to go beyond it.
And “renouncing rights” means what? Perhaps we could read that as a call to be less tax-averse. Perhaps we could read it as a call to be less inclined to hoard, judging others as unworthy, requiring them to prove they don’t need what we have to offer before we’re willing to give it to them.
“A renewed education in solidarity…” Solidarity is a word a lot of us associate with Lech Walesa, but it’s something we’re all called to–to enter into the pain of others, to make it our own. (Read Shannon Evans’ book Embracing Weakness. She broke open solidarity for me in a way I still haven’t figured out how to incorporate into my real life.)
“individualism in which each one claims his own rights without wishing to be answerable for the common good.” That one explains itself.
A lot to think about here! Because again, we’re recognizing that evangelization is not narrowly defined as walking around talking to anything with a heartbeat about Jesus Christ. Evangelization is something that encompasses all of real life. Because who will listen to us when we talk, if our view is so narrow we can’t see the forest for the trees?
It’s been six years since I read Thomas Merton’s “New Seeds of Contemplation,” but the experience remains with me. It resonated so deeply with my experience of finding God in the silence of nature, beyond cell signals and wifi, beyond human noise. So many things stood out to me, but this quote in particular seemed noteworthy, because we think of “freedom” as “I get to do whatever I want to do.” We fail to recognize that self-gratification makes us prisoner within a set of chains far more inescapable than the strictures we rail against.
Here’s the larger quote:
It should be accepted as a most elementary human and moral truth that no man can live a fully sane and decent life unless he is able to say “no” on occasion to his natural bodily appetites. No man who simply eats and drinks whenever he feels like eating and drinking, who smokes whenever he feels the urge to light a cigarette, who gratifies his curiosity and sensuality whenever they are stimulated, can consider himself a free person. He has renounced his spiritual freedom and become the servant of bodily impulse. Therefore his mind and will are not fully his own. They are under the power of his appetites.
It’s something women talk about a lot when we discuss how difficult it is to make a dent in the world: how we feel a need to subordinate our own priorities and skills and voices in favor of others. Men don’t feel this compulsion nearly as much as we do. My husband often wants me to be more assertive in professional situations. It is a constant struggle.
And so, as a woman, my first reaction to the word “meek” is to put up my claws and hiss. I don’t need any more of that, thank you very much.
But in praying about how to write this section of The Beatitudes, The Spirit whispered the bit of wisdom contained above. That nugget shaped the section of the book on meekness, framing it in a whole new way, free of the baggage I attach to it naturally.
I realize now that meekness–real meekness, not some pale, distorted earthly version–is a trait I will spend the rest of my life trying to master.
This insight was a really monumental shift for me in my faith. I knew the truth of it, at least as it related to particular issues of importance, of course. But it was a big deal to realize that whatever ignites my righteous anger, makes me squirm, or breaks my heart in the news–those things are, in fact, a call to action from God, speaking through my conscience.
I recognize them now, though I’m far from perfect about the “doing something” part. Writing “The Beatitudes” reminded me of that every time I sat down to work on it.
My book, “The Beatitudes,” is now available from Our Sunday Visitor’s Companions in Faith series. If you’re not familiar with this series, they’re small books meant to be compact–to get right to the point, because we all know nobody has time to waste. “The Beatitudes” looks at the nitty-gritty issues of real life through the lens of these statements, which encapsulate the Christian faith.
I loved this idea from the moment OSV approached me about it. We hear the Beatitudes so often, it’s easy for them to lose their punch. They sort of roll over our heads without really impacting. This book uses them as a way to examine our attitudes and actions and discern where God might be calling us to grow. You can read a section in about three minutes and spend the next several days mulling over and praying about it. Sounds about perfect for modern life! (Where are the emojis when you need them?)
In any case, I’m very excited about this book. It is perhaps the most compact, focused way I’ve been able to lay out what I mean by the words “intentional Catholic.” So over the next week or two, I’ll share a few quotes from the book off and on. I hope you’ll check it out!
I can’t say enough good things about this book. Written by two Christians (not Catholic) who have been involved for decades in mission work, they share wisdom on how to be helpful, rather than going in with great intentions and making everything worse. In a nutshell, it boils down to this: we can’t come in and be saviors. Our job is to facilitate others helping themselves. There are three types of help: relief, recovery, and development. Most of the time, what’s needed is development, but the vast majority of the time what we offer is relief–because it’s easier. It’s easy to measure, its results make good reports to the investors.
The authors take a “both/and” approach. Many Christians look at the poor and assume they got that way by their own bad choices/sins; therefore their problems are theirs, not ours, to deal with.
Sin is an issue, the authors stress, but so are unjust societal institutions. As an example, they point to civil rights work in the south in the 1960s, and a particular pastor who didn’t speak out on racism.
“Both Reverend Marsh and the civil rights workers were wrong, but in different ways,” the authors wrote. “Reverend Marsh sought the King without the kingdom. The civil rights workers sought the kingdom without the King.”
The authors address overseas missions as well as efforts undertaken within the U.S. When Helping Hurts suggests that successful solutions are not either/or; they have to acknowledge both the effects of personal sin and the effects of institutional oppression, because those two things exert an influence over each other:
“What happens when society crams historically oppressed, uneducated, unemployed, and relatively young human beings into high-rise buildings, takes away their leaders, provides them with inferior education, health care, and employment systems, and then pays them not to work? Is it really that surprising that we see out-of-wedlock pregnancies, broken families, violent crimes, and drug trafficking? Worse yet, we end up with nihilism, because these broken systems do serious damage to people’s worldviews. Worldviews affect the systems, and the systems affect the worldviews.”
When Helping Hurts offers the concept of “poverty alleviation” as a solution to the complexities of institutional injustice and personal sin. It is a “ministry of reconciliation” in which we use our money in such a way as to empower those in desperate circumstances to begin to help themselves. It acknowledges that they do, in fact, need help from outside, but that as much as possible we should honor the God-given human dignity of the poor by allowing them to be the leaders and the experts in their own lives. That our job is to empower them, not rescue them.
I’ve long believed that in most issues we bicker about, God is in the middle. This book shows us a Godly middle to issues of poverty. Both conservatives and liberals will find things that resonate and things that challenge in this book–which is, to me, the strongest argument that they are on target.