I am slowly exploring the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius via the book “The Ignatian Adventure.” This week’s focus is spiritual freedom: the knowledge and acceptance of one’s gifts and weaknesses and, through that knowledge, the freedom from the tethers that bind you to the world.
It’s a very appropriate thing to do during Advent, really. But what I’m realizing is that I automatically associate “weakness” with “sin,” when sometimes it’s not actually sin, it’s just weakness. Sometimes you are trying to process too many things at once and trying to balance too many people’s needs and hurts, and you mess up and hurt someone’s feelings. You didn’t do it on purpose. You lie awake half the night worrying about it. You want like crazy to fix it. But the reality is, it was your weakness that caused it.
Weakness, but not sin.
I actually think those screwups are harder to deal with than outright sins. There’s a remedy in the Catholic tradition for sin. But those weaknesses that aren’t sins, just ordinary human messups–how do you make reparations for those? More importantly, how do you keep them from happening again?
It’s a good reflection to undertake during Advent: the knowledge that we are never actually going to get it all right. A wakeup call, a recognition of how deeply we need the grace that was given to us through the Incarnation.
If you can accept your own weakness instead of railing against it–if you could give yourself the grace to know that you are loved despite your weaknesses–now that would be spiritual freedom, indeed.
You know how everybody always thinks the world is going to hell in a handbasket? And then someone always brings up that quote from some guy in ancient Greece (Rome?) about how the younger generation is without moral strength and the world is guaranteed to fall apart in our lifetime?
That’s what comes to mind when I read Gaudium et Spes (The Church in the Modern World). In 2019, we are pretty much all appalled at the state of the world, even if we can’t agree on which factors are most appalling and what has to happen to fix it. We think we’re experiencing something unprecedented. But as I read Gaudium et Spes I see that we’re still facing the same issues they were facing fifty years ago.
This is one of the Vatican II documents–the actual documents put forth by the council. That’s why I picked it to explore next–because it’s part of the foundation of what we experience as Catholics in the 21st century. Plus, it was promulgated by St. Paul VI, who was canonized just a year ago, so it’s seems appropriate.
Here’s an interesting one. There’s a section in Evangelii Gaudium focused on the need to offer to others the same religious freedoms we expect for ourselves–particularly in regards to Islam. But the pope puts this cautionary stamp on it, too. This will resonate with many who lean right politically. It’s worth some real soul-searching on both sides of the question of religious freedom as to what that really means, and what the cost is, and to whom. Because religious freedom has to include both sides of the coin: freedom *from* religion and freedom *to* practice one’s beliefs. It’s inevitable that those two freedoms will come into conflict at various points. So we have to take great care in discerning how to respect one side without suppressing the other.
Many of us who are religious view our own concerns higher than the concerns of those without faith. But if we want to convert the “nones,” we’re shooting ourselves in the foot by trying to force something down their throat that pushes them away. We need to live in such a way that others say, “Hey, what do you have that I don’t? I want some of that. How do I get it?” We witness by implicit invitation, in other words–but we also have to recognize that others are not obligated to respond to that invitation. That’s how God approaches all of us, and if we want to image Him in the world, we have to do the same.
So–that being the case, how *do* we ensure that the rights of religious people are respected, without trampling the rights of those who choose not to espouse faith?
I have no answers, only–as always–underscoring that hot-button questions like prayer at public events and services for weddings are less straightforward than we, the faithful, would like them to be.
My husband and I taught natural family planning for sixteen years. So often, during that time, people would say, “What’s natural about resisting the body’s impulses?”
I thought a lot about that, and I realized what I was hearing was frustration: a desire to have the best of sex while avoiding the related hassles.
The first time I encountered the Thomas Merton quote I shared last week, it seemed made to tackle the connections among desire, freedom, and consequence. In spinning out the implications, a blog post was born. Most of that post follows today:
I’ve come to a realization lately that I think all women, and frankly
all men too, need to come to terms with. For me, it was a long time in
coming, considering how obvious it is.
There is no such thing as sex without consequences.
Proponents of natural family planning and proponents of artificial
means of birth control both seem unable to grasp this simple truth. The
NFP community likes to harp on the side effects of birth control and its
potential to damage human relationships. Those who use birth control
deride NFP as ineffective and contrary to human nature because it
requires people to fight their instincts to come together at women’s
most fertile time.
We would all like to think there’s some magic bullet that takes away
the sacrifice and, dare I say it, suffering that is part and parcel of
reproductive life. We want to be able to enjoy the coming together
without the side effects/consequences. There are basically three courses
you can take: you can impose artificial controls on nature
(contraception); you can work with nature (NFP); or you can do whatever
you want and let the chips fall where they may.
Photo by einalem, via Flickr
But every one of those paths has consequences.
If you use natural family planning, you have to deal with occasional
(and for some people, frequent) ambiguity in the signs and the need to
abstain when the woman is most interested in sex. There’s no question
that requires sacrifice and, sometimes, suffering.
If you use chemical contraception, though–assuming it does what it’s
supposed to do, and fools your body into thinking it’s pregnant
already–you’re giving up that increased sex drive altogether. Which is
why I find it puzzling when proponents of birth control criticize NFP
for the abstaining when the sex drive is highest. I mean, it’s not like
contraception solves that issue. And besides, there’s that whole thing
about side effects, and environmental impact, and blood clots. Again: sacrifice, and sometimes, suffering.
Your third option is to let the chips fall where they may. You get
the best of both worlds: sex whenever you feel like it, without side
effects, without increased risk of blood clots. But there’s a natural
consequence to that, too, and it involves bigger cars and bigger houses
and a humongous grocery bill, to say nothing of college costs. And a lot
of time pregnant and breastfeeding and exhausted. So again: sacrifice,
and sometimes, suffering.
The reality is that sex does have consequences, no matter
what you do. You can gnash your teeth all you like, but that’s the
reality. Our job is to make the most responsible choice we can, based on
as much information as we can. And the longer I’m involved with natural family planning,
the more thoroughly convinced I become that NFP, while not without
consequences, is the best option. It’s not the easiest, but it is the
best–for women, for couples, for the world.
Every so often a meme goes around Facebook that riles up Christians about public prayer and religious freedom. It’s not always the same one, but the idea is the same: we Christians are persecuted, we should rise up and demand that America act like the Christian nation it is.
The problem is, America is not a Christian nation. Many of America’s first immigrants came here to escape religious persecution. That persecution was very much on the minds of those who set up the system of government. They structured America specifically so that nobody’s faith would get to knock down anyone else’s. Everyone gets the chance to worship as they see fit. Whether we as Godly people like it or not, that also means freedom FROM religion. Not having publicly-sanctioned prayer is not persecution. It’s simply a recognition that we are a nation built on religious liberty. No one’s prayer can be imposed on all.
We as Christians may not like that idea, but this is what makes America great. Because in fact, it’s a system that mirrors God’s own heart.
As the saying goes, God is a gentleman. He doesn’t force himself on us. When has it ever gone well for us to try to force him on others? The Crusades. The Inquisition. The suppression of native cultures. Every time we try to force God on others, we end up gravely sinning in His name.
Our job is to do as God does: invite.
Instead, I would argue that much of what we as Christians display publicly is not inviting at all. Inviting could mean different things in different situations, but surely the fundamental quality of one who invites is a joyful heart. A heart so welcoming and kind and compassionate and peaceful in spirit that others say, “Hey, I want some of that. How do I get it?”
Instead, so often we Christians display anger, resentment, bitterness, judgment, and attitudes of exclusion when faced with those in crisis situations. We focus on our own preferences and emotional comfort while turning a blind eye to inconvenient facts—like the fact that if my free expression of religion requires the suppression of someone else’s free expression of religion, then it really isn’t religious freedom at all.
When we turn a blind eye to these realities (which admittedly are hard, complicated to navigate, and resist neat and tidy solutions) and instead let ourselves be manipulated into outrage over something that’s really not a threat at all, we damage our ability to evangelize. We alienate those we are meant to invite.
I’ve been trying to write this post for a while, but I can’t seem to come up with a hooky opening. (Or title.) Maybe that means there isn’t one. Maybe I just have to write it and hope you’ll all read it, even without a hook.
During a discussion of Henri Nouwen’s “Life of the Beloved” a year or two ago, I had this moment in which God pried my brain open and I understood something so liberating, it was almost dizzying.
My whole life, I’ve looked at sin as falling down in a pit of muck.
But in that moment, I had a vision of sin as tripping over rocks while hiking up a steep mountain with a glorious view at the end.
Most of the time, we talk about sin as a huge, inescapable reality: a systemic failure to which we’re inevitably and forever doomed as part of our humanity. We can fight it and fight it, but we’re always going to get dragged down into that muck again, because that’s who we are.
It had never before occurred to me to look at discipleship and the Christian life as a lifelong hike up a beautiful mountain whose pinnacle is Heaven. Of course you’re going to get tired along the way. Of course you’re going to slip and trip. Mountain climbing involves rocks and uneven ground.
The difference between these two perspectives is profound. In one, we view ourselves as mud dwellers. It’s our natural state of being.
In the other, we view ourselves as good people seeking to be better. Even when we trip and fall, we get up and keep going. Notice I didn’t say “get up and try again,” as if we’re running on a treadmill sunk in the mud and will never be anywhere other than in the mud.
No. I said we get up and keep going. We acknowledge that we fell down, but we brush ourselves off and keep heading for the heights.
This is a tremendously liberating thought. It takes away the hopelessness of sin. I still recognize my need for mercy—the fact that tripping on the way up the mountain doesn’t get me kicked off the mountain is a grace I can never fully comprehend. On Earth, after all, tripping up is routinely used as grounds for getting kicked out.
But because I belong to God and God is my end point, sin doesn’t have to define me. I can see myself as beloved. As worthy of receiving mercy. I can see hope for getting farther up the mountain, closer to God.
And if I see myself this way, I can learn to see others this way, too.
If I see myself and everyone else basically as mud dwellers, then Pope Francis’ quote makes no sense.
We Christians have a tendency to take an all-or-nothing view of things. When we see what we perceive to be weeds growing in the field, we filter out any fruit those people might be bearing. If the fruit is being produced by someone who doesn’t look like we think Godliness is supposed to look, we don’t want it, thank you very much.
But “weedy” people have gifts and wisdom and worth to offer, too. Thank God, nobody has to be perfect to have a place in God’s Church. And if we go around making a big list of things you have to do to be “good enough” to belong, then we’re driving away the people we’re supposed to bring to Christ.
And who’s to say that one of these days, that “weedy” person won’t be the one offering us the hand up on that steep, difficult climb toward God?
Until I started reading Evangelii Gaudium last fall, I had never thought much about the relationship between joy and faith. The very beginning of this apostolic exhortation consists of a list of very familiar Scripture quotes that I never before thought of in terms of joy.
Simple, childlike joy: if we want to evangelize, Pope Francis said, we do it by showing that our faith in Jesus Christ gives us joy.
I have to admit, “joy” is not the vibe I get off most of the people who make a big Thing out their Christian faith. Some…yes. But a precious few.
More to the point, it’s definitely not been the vibe I sensed from myself. I want to see the world as God sees it—yes, there’s beauty, but there is also so much that is not as it should be. How can I help being grieved by what grieves the heart of God?
For years, faith has reminded me of Jacob wrestling with God/the angel. What is the point of faith, after all? Isn’t it to challenge us to become better than we would be without it? If the point of faith is to pat us on the head and tell us how we’re saved and forgiven and we’re blessed in temporal terms because we’re saved—well, I would submit that what we’re actually worshiping isn’t God at all, but our own comfort.
The psalms encompass the breadth of human emotional experience. I know this. But this is Psalm 34. There are more than a hundred more psalms after this one. There is no way that David never had more troubles after writing this song.
Maybe being set free from troubles just means those troubles don’t rule you. You still have to walk through the dark valleys, but you don’t have to let them define you. They don’t have to define your identity.
So maybe it’s okay to be angry with the things I see happening in the world. But I don’t have to internalize it, dwell on it, and lie awake fretting about it. (Or what people think of me for calling it out, for that matter.)
And maybe it means that I can advocate for the will of God in the world, as best I can discern it, but I don’t have to be crushed when the inevitable setbacks come. I can default to joy, even though things aren’t as they should be.
One of the hardest things about harvesting quotes from Church documents is that, taken out of context, we don’t always appreciate the magnitude of what we’re reading. This quote, for instance, is in the middle of a passage on goodness. Goodness, Pope Francis says, spreads outward by its very nature. What goodness we receive wants to expand out to others.
Is this really how we receive goodness? Do we desire to take what has filled us and spill it over to others? If so, what does that mean for the way we interact with others?
Yesterday morning my son and I took a bike ride along a trail near our house. Along the way we crossed paths with two people, one of whom I think was homeless and the other I’m sure of. I said hello and waved as I do with everyone I encounter on the trails, but where most people respond with “beautiful morning!” or “good morning!” these two men appeared guarded. I got to thinking about how we, the with-homes crowd, react to homeless people. I can list off a series of things I’ve heard or thought myself, and none of them are charitable. All of them focus on the fact that the homeless are an inconvenience, they make us uncomfortable, or they got themselves into their own messes and thus they are Not Our Problem.
These people, who are not beneficiaries of the good things you and I have, have to know that this is how they’re viewed. No wonder they feel a need to be on the defensive whenever they cross paths with us. They’re probably bracing for being reported to the police and kicked out, when they have nowhere to go.
Where is the evidence, in these instances, that goodness desires to spread outward? If we are truly receiving goodness–in other words, if we are cognizant of it, if we are truly grateful for all we have been given–why do we default to judging those less fortunate based on assumptions about their situations? Are we truly free from sin? Because if we are, shouldn’t we be more willing to acknowledge and responsive to–not just individually but as a society–the needs of others?