Becoming Sarah Smith

“Come and see.”

It’s a verse that captivates all who hear it. With only three words, the melody of this young rabbi’s voice cuts through the air and into the heart of Andrew. He responds by bringing not only himself, but his brother, the future Pope, to Jesus.

The child hidden in every soul yearns for surprise and excitement over whatever lies hidden in the future. Jesus tells us to come and see the unknown, the dwelling place of God incarnate. A thrill rushes through the stoniest hearts as we whisper alongside Samwise Gamgee, “Is everything sad going to come untrue (The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King)?” With scared hearts pounding against our chests and feet spurred on by this command so pregnant with hope, we follow Jesus to His home.

And what do we find in the place where He is staying? What do we find in the person of Jesus Christ? This is our invitation from the Church in this period of Ordinary Time: To have a radical encounter with Jesus, God-made-man. Through Word and Sacrament, we have the opportunity to meet Jesus like we never have before. For too long, we have treated Him like a story-book character who is anything but real and personal. This season, as we follow His public ministry in the Mass’ Liturgy of the Word, we can see Jesus with new eyes. We can draw near to Him like His disciples, be touched like the leper, receive forgiveness like the woman caught in adultery, find reward like the friends of the paralytic.

Ordinary Time is not an intermission between the grandeur of Christmas and the intensity of Lent. It is an invitation to come and see Jesus like never before, to be fascinated with His person, as the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal frequently preach.1 We’re already being barraged by promotions and advertisements for Lent. And while Type-A Larisa is all for being prepared and ahead of schedule, if the profound beauty of this present moment is left undiscovered, our Lent will hardly be more than a Catholic P90X. Lent is an invitation to conversion, an invitation to turn from our sinful and lazy ways. But it’s not enough to turn away from sin. We must return to someone. That Someone is being revealed to us right now, in the supposed tedium of Ordinary Time.

Do you know Him? Do you know Jesus? The more I seek, the more I realize how little I know of this man who loves me and who has died for me. And although it can be discouraging, what a gift it is to always be invited “Further up and further in,”2 as my friend, C.S. Lewis says.

How do we take advantage of these precious weeks to revel in our God’s precious and fragile humanity, as well as His glorious, redeeming divinity? I would encourage you to pray with the daily readings for the Mass every day. Even if you can’t go to Mass, the readings are easily accessible on USCCB’s website. For my fellow ladies, I love the devotionals from Blessed is She that are written to accompany the readings. Regardless of how you receive the Word of God, the Church has chosen Gospel passages over the course of this season that specifically reveal Christ to us as God, Teacher, and Healer.

And not to sound like a broken record who’s repeating what others have said countless times, but now is the time to try out the show, The Chosen. When it was at its most popular during lockdown last year, I didn’t pay much attention. In a world when Christian art is nearly always disappointing, I couldn’t bring myself to expect anything from this show portraying the Gospels. But I just recently went ahead and tried the show again (I had only watched the first episode in the Spring). And I cried, or was close to tears, in every single episode. The Chosen brings the words of Scripture to life in a fascinating way that I had never before considered. The characters are real. They’re dirty and ugly and hope-filled. The stories are the same stories we’ve always known, but they make sense when played on a screen. And Jesus is the reason why I watched nearly the entire season in 24 hours. I could comment all day on the artistic nuances and care given to portray His divinity and humanity as accurately as possible. But all I can say is that the Jesus I watch on The Chosen is the Jesus I have met time and time again in prayer and adoration. I would highly endorse the idea of watching an episode as a warm-up for encounter with the Lord in silent prayer.

This is the season for encounter. This is the moment to follow when He calls. If we approach this season of Ordinary Time with reverence and authentic desire for conversion, we will be able to join C.S. Lewis’ Sarah Smith in The Great Divorce and proclaim to all we meet, “I am full now, not empty. I am in Love Himself, not lonely. Strong, not weak. You shall be the same. Come and see.”

1 – If you like this post, Poco a Poco, the friars’ podcast, is pretty much this, but worded far more compellingly

2 – The Last Battle

“There are Much Worse Games”

Happy December 40th, 2020…

I was planning to write a nice meditation for the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. But then I turned on my phone on Wednesday afternoon and, like all other writers across the country, realized that those plans would need to change.

Fortunately for me, everything that could be said about the Capitol breach has already been said. Sharing my intellectual reaction to the matter won’t really change the course of human history. But because this is my blog and I write the rules, I can share my affective reaction to what has continued to unfold since Wednesday. That reaction is one of exhaustion. I’m tired of one bad thing happening after another. I’m tired of being angry with the media. I’m tired of witnessing and participating in finger-pointing, tired of feeling my chest tighten as I freely choose to doom scroll news articles. Above all, I’m tired of the rampant hatred in all corners of society that only seems to grow. Perhaps my inner angsty middle-schooler who has re-emerged over the last year articulated it best when she sent her first text after reading about the riots in D.C., declaring, “I’m so sick and tired of feeling like I live in Panem [setting of The Hunger Games].”

Regardless of your opinion on what exactly happened at the Capitol, it’s undeniable that the devil is hard at work to scatter and destroy charity. How do we tired souls play our part in combatting Satan who is so intent on tearing our country apart? We’re told to join the battle against evil, but I don’t feel like battling anything at this point. Perhaps the key to fighting this exhaustion is also encountered in The Hunger Games. In the epilogue of the final book of the series, Katniss Everdeen explains,

One day I’ll have to explain about my nightmares…I’ll tell [my children] how I survive it. I’ll tell them that on bad mornings, it feels impossible to take pleasure in anything because I’m afraid it could be taken away. That’s when I make a list in my head of every act of goodness I’ve seen someone do.

It’s like a game. Repetitive. Even a little tedious after more than twenty years.

But there are much worse games to play.

Emphasis added

Spiritual warfare may seem too exhausting a concept. But we can all play Katniss’ game of listing acts of goodness. As we remember that human beings are inherently good and that they perform so many good works every day, we drive away the dark lie that screams that the men and women around us are purely evil. As we recollect the Father’s proclamation that all men and women are His beloved children, we find cause to weep and grow righteously angry at injustice, violence, and sin. But we cannot find cause to hate the ones who are loved by our Maker.

I’ll share my list of good acts I witnessed over the last 24 hours:

As I was walking out of Adoration last night, an elderly man practically ran ahead to make sure he could hold the door for me.

The librarian who was helping me set up my library card was so kind and helpful.

My roommate’s family is overflowing with joy as they meet her sister’s newborn baby.

My ballet teachers are so engaged and supportive.

Father’s homily this morning was rich and edifying, even though it was a daily Mass and he could have gotten away with far less.

You’re reading this post right now and I can’t tell you how much that means to me.

As I write, the Sacrifice of the Mass is being offered for the whole world.

I go on social media or a newsfeed and I’m promptly told that people are wicked and irredeemable. We’re told that the country is divided and it’s probably the fault of YOUR friends. But I look at those around me and I see men and women created in God’s image, with blood flowing through their veins as they triumph and fall every single day in the grittiness of the common human experience. I look at my God who calls His creation “Very good” and who chooses to dwell as Emmanuel, “God With Us” even in our sin and desolation. No matter how much the enemy strives to convince us otherwise, goodness, truth, and beauty prevail and have the final say. As we acknowledge goodness, we give the Lord glory for His creatures. We diminish the voice of the accuser while leaning into the melody of the Advocate.

Maybe it seems little and inconsequential to make that list of good acts. But it was a quiet “Yes” from the littlest of mouths that utterly undid Satan 2000 years ago. Could there be a better game to play?

And When Night Comes…

And when night comes, and you look back over the day and see how fragmentary everything has been, and how much you planned that has gone undone, and all the reasons you have to be embarrassed and ashamed: just take everything exactly as it is, put it in God’s hands and leave it with Him. Then you will be able to rest in Him — really rest — and start the next day as a new life.”St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross

Night has come on this year of 2020. I look back, and “fragmentary” can barely do justice to what has passed. There’s a video on my phone of rehearsal footage that was taken the final day we were in the ballet studio before the world locked down. I save it because that girl in the video lives on an earth that no longer exists. “What would I tell her?” I ask myself as I see this dancer rolling on the floor and being lifted by a partner, something which I can only dream about today. “What would I say to this kid who thinks she’s coming back to the studio in two weeks and hasn’t even realized that she isn’t going to Mass the next day?”

I could never have actually told her about what was coming. She wouldn’t have believed me about the livestream Masses, the kitchen chair for a ballet barre, the family huddled around a computer screen watching a Pope stand alone in St. Peter’s Square. She couldn’t have fathomed the trucks holding bodies in New York City, the hatred for mankind on display for the world to see, the nationwide collapse of mental health. I might have told her about the murder hornets though. Because there’s no way she would have bought that.

No, I would have spared her the details and just told her what I tell myself in this new year: Keep your eyes fixed on Him.

Even when that phrase feels like a slap in the face as you squint at a white circle on the Facebook Live Mass. Even as you forget the sound of real human voices and not the clinky echo of Zoom. Even when every plan you had for senior year falls apart and every theater you hope to dance in one day remains locked. Keep looking at Him.

Keep looking at Him hidden in the tabernacle outside the church window. Keep hearing His voice hidden in the birdsong that plays outside your bedroom window every morning. Keep looking at Him in the family you have extra time with, in the teachers who are still pouring themselves out for you in virtual classes, and in the community who still supports you, even if it’s done with the awkwardness of Praise and Worship over Zoom. As your bitterness rises when you do another plie in your living room and as your heart is shattered when you leave the Zoom meeting and find yourself alone in your room once again, shift your eyes to Him. Don’t stop looking at Him.

Because if you continue to look at Him, you will see the restoration He promises. You will see the joy return one day. You will find yourself in a studio once more and even performing in that final studio production you never thought could actually take place. You will get to see your friends and family again, not over a screen but in real life. You will get to say those goodbyes before moving and even embrace the people you love. And you will see His hand in it all.

I look back on this past year and recognize how fragmentary my desires were last January. I see all the ways that I fell and doubted and wasted time. But next to the pieces of myself that are left in fragments, I see His faithfulness. Now more than ever, I prostrate myself before the One on the throne who says, “Behold, I make all things new.”1 Even as He crushes and immolates, our God leads so faithfully. How can I not trust Him?

I will put all the brokenness of this past year in His hands. I will also return the glory and beauty that He has created, trusting that everything I surrender over to Him will be returned in the hundredfold. And with my hands completely empty and eyes fixed on nothing but His Eucharistic heart, regardless of the means of Adoration, I will let Him take my hand into His. I will let Him lead me to whatever end. I don’t expect to be safe, because He’s not safe. But He is good. He’s the King, they tell me.2 Whatever this new year brings, I can rest in His sovereignty that delights in my littleness.

Happy new year, friends! And goodbye, 2020 (*starts headbanging to “Goodbye Toby” from The Office*).

1 Revelation 21:5

2 C.S. Lewis, “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe”

18 Works to Read or Avoid at all Costs in 2021


Almost there, friends. We’re almost at the end of 2020.

As excited as we all are for the new year, I haven’t heard much about plans for ringing in 2021 with enthusiasm. I was so excited for 2020 that I wore a flapper dress on New Year’s Eve. A freaking flapper dress. So much for the roaring 20s.

I’d also assume nobody is very ambitious in making New Year’s resolutions for 2021. But in case you’re looking for a new book to read, I want to share everything I read, completed reading, or will complete in this crazy year. Some of these books delighted my heart and were even used by the Lord to keep me in His light during very difficult moments. There are others that I hope to never read again. Please enjoy this list, and I would love to hear what you read over the last year!

Fiction

The Way of a Pilgrim, Anonymous

The origins of this Russian work are rather mysterious, so it was hard to know where to place this book, but it reads like a work of fiction. The story of a beggar pilgrim is used as a vehicle to convey the beauty of contemplative prayer within the Eastern Orthodox tradition. I think you have to remember that that’s the motivation for the work or else you get bogged down in the somewhat unrealistic virtue and piety of the narrator. When those concerns are set aside (it’s likely that you’re a more virtuous and less snarky individual than I am), The Way of a Pilgrim is an enjoyable narrative that provides a window into both the countryside of 19th century Russia and Orthodox spirituality.

I’ve been trying to get through this tiny book for a long time now, but finally pushed through and finished this Lent. I’m so grateful because it was such a comfort to pray the Jesus prayer and practice the presence of God in a year when God’s sacramental presence felt distant.

Dracula, Bram Stoker

When I was younger, I was terrified of vampires. So I’m surprised, but delighted to say that I absolutely loved this great Father-novel of vampire stories. Although it’s a story of suspense and monstrosity, my favorite part about the book was the emphasis on the nature of man and woman. There are beautiful messages about the complementarity and unique gifts of the sexes, as well as portrayals of chivalry, self-sacrifice, and courage. All of this is given through beautifully constructed sentences that ended up filling my own journal. I do think that the plot can get a little slow and found the ending of the book very disappointing, but in Dracula you read the origin of Halloween stories as we know them today and receive a lesson in human nature, all in one fairly short novel. I’d say it’s worth it.

The Fault in Our Stars, John Green

I know you’re judging me, I know. But I was writing a college application essay in a Barnes & Noble and writer’s block had taken its hold. The Fault in Our Stars was sitting on a shelf right next to me and three days later I was crying on my pillow.

It’s one of those books that you re-read and try to figure out why on earth you invested in it. The writing quality is poor, the romance is cheesy, and the characters are fairly unbelievable. But there’s something comforting about all that. In a year of so much stress, I didn’t have to stress over phenomenological terms or complex ideas. I simply enjoyed a captivating plot line and delighted in the quotable phrases that are John Green’s trademark. And as an Indiana girl, I had so much fun reading a story set in my own city. The gas station where an ambulance is called is actually the gas station just down the street from my house.

Father Elijah: An Apocalypse, Michael O’Brien

This book. I wept, I rejoiced, I was converted, I fell even further behind in pre-calculus because I couldn’t put it down. Sound like a lot? It really is. I began Father Elijah during April when it felt like we might have been near the apocalypse. And while this suspenseful story isn’t exactly what I expected for an end-times novel, it was exactly what I needed in this year. Michael O’Brien explains that while we might not be living in the end-times, every age is called to battle the anti-Christ and every soul has a pivotal role in that fight between good and evil. The deceit and good that the media is capable of was also very prevalent and eye-opening to read this year.

I don’t know much about Michael O’Brien, but his writings seem to portray a man who knows what it is to pray and hunger for contemplative union with God. This book is steeped in Carmelite and Franciscan spirituality, not as a textbook or catechism, but as a romance that breathes through the pages. All while narrating espionage, terrorism, and murder.

But for me, the most beautiful fruit of Father Elijah is the side story that lasts for only a couple of chapters when Father Elijah meets an evil man near death. Like many of us, I was struggling with the problem of evil this past Spring and this chapter was the answer for me. All I know is that now the Lord has started calling me “dziecko” in prayer. You’ll have to read the book to understand what that means.

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, Suzanne Collins

I have never before closed a book and said out loud, “Well, that was a waste of my time.” But there were a lot of things I had never done before that I did in 2020. When I was in 8th grade, I was obsessed with The Hunger Games. I didn’t realize it at the time, but those books got me through a lot. I was so excited to relive some of that with this book that tells us the origins of President Snow. But I think Collins realized that no matter what she wrote, she would receive a lot of money. I also think she really wanted this to be made into a movie, as the book reads more like a screenplay than a novel most of the time. I do think some scenes would be fascinating and enjoyable on the big screen, between the music, mockingjays, and harrowing scenes of betrayal. But that’s not what I paid $25 for.

The Song at the Scaffold, Gertrud von Le Fort

This novella tells the true story of the sixteen Carmelite nuns who died at the guillotine during the French Revolution. It’s beautifully written in simple prose and unearths a heart of Carmelite spirituality that is sometimes not recognized in the intensity of Teresa and John’s writings. This book asks the reader two questions: Are you ready to die? And what are you ready to live and sing for? If you find these questions terrifying, this book is ready to love you and comfort you right where you are.

Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte

I’m still finishing this one up, but this is my second or third time reading the classic novel and every time I fall more deeply in love. I first read this book for school in 8th grade and it’s really beautiful to see that the way I relate to the characters and the plot changes as I grow older. If you want a coming-of-age novel with higher and gloomier stakes than you find in Austen or Alcott, this is a perfect winter read.

Nonfiction

A Right to be Merry, Mother Mary Francis, P.C.C.

Have you ever wondered what life looks like in a cloistered monastery? Probably not, but when we entered what we thought was 14 days of enclosure, I thought this would be an appropriate read. A Right to be Merry is a non-fiction book written by a Poor Clare nun and seeks to honestly depict life in the monastery while providing an overview of Franciscan spirituality, vocation, and the gift of life invested totally in Christ. I can honestly say that this is one of the most delightful books I have ever read. I couldn’t put it down because of the joy that truly exudes from every sentence. I found myself laughing out loud at the author’s jokes and holding back tears at her moving stories and proclamations. This book also served as an honest and valuable guide for all of that added time in the solitude and chaos of lockdown. I learned about the gift of silence and how to navigate the difficulty of living in close quarters with family when I didn’t have activities to escape to.

The Other Side of Beauty, Leah Darrow

This book is written by a former contestant on America’s Next Top Model who experienced a Damascus-like conversion and is now a Catholic speaker and writer. If that sounds like a mouthful, the lovely thing about this book is that Darrow’s writing is incredibly accessible and meets you where you are, whether you’ve been walking with Christ your whole life or don’t believe a word she says. Darrow provides you with a history of the fashion and beauty industry, exposing its need to lie to and compromise the dignity of women for profit. But she also explains how we can reclaim the beauty industry and our own hearts. She even includes lists of toxic makeup ingredients to avoid and modesty guidelines that help you discern the classiness of your wardrobe choices.

Fire Within, Thomas Dubay

I was told that this book would change my life, and I was not told wrong. I would love to say that after reading this, I know more about prayer than ever before, but this book made me realize how little I know and will probably ever know about prayer. An overview of Carmelite spirituality and contemplative prayer, Fire Within is a summary of the writings of St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross. I haven’t read much by either of these Saints, but I was still able to follow along and learn so much. This is definitely the heftiest read on this list and it was so dry at certain points that I actually took over a year to finish the work. So if you’re already apprehensive, I would suggest reading the introduction, first couple chapters, and the final chapter. These are probably the easiest and yet most powerful parts of the book. They have fueled my desire for God so profoundly.

Life of the Beloved, Henri Nouwen

This is the review where you’re probably going to stop reading if you’ve read Life of the Beloved. I know it’s supposed to be a spiritual classic, but I honestly wasn’t a huge fan. I don’t want to say I disliked this book, but I think by the time I read it I felt like I had already read it a hundred times in the form of retreat talks, blog posts, and personal prayer. Life of the Beloved isn’t meant to be a dense theological treatise, as it’s written to someone who hasn’t begun to walk in relationship with Jesus Christ yet. I think that makes it a valuable gift to the Church, and I do think I would have loved it when I was younger. The opening is very beautiful and the final chapter provides an excellent summary of disciple spirituality. I just wasn’t in the right time and place to enjoy this book like others have.

Making Missionary Disciples, Curtis Martin

Written by the founder of FOCUS, The Fellowship of Catholic University Students, this short book is an excellent overview of the formulae employed by FOCUS to bring college students into a transformative relationship with Christ and His Church. It’s important to keep in mind that nobody is suggesting a cookie-cutter method to fill the pews. Rather, this book provides simple answers and suggestions to the question Catholics ask over and over: How exactly do I evangelize? The answer is simple and adventurously beautiful.

The Lamb’s Supper, Scott Hahn

Let’s face it: at some point this year, we all wondered if the Book of Revelation was playing out before our very eyes. According to Dr. Hahn, it was. Hahn believes (very convincingly in my opinion) that Revelation can only be fully understood in the context of the Mass. This book provides a very satisfactory explanation of Revelation that still acknowledges the mystery of the Book. He also encourages Catholics to experience and love the Mass in a new way, and I’ve found myself more participatory in and appreciative of Mass thanks to this book.

Behold, He Comes: Meditations on the Incarnation, Fr. Benedict Groeschel

I’m still finishing up this series of meditations that carries you from Advent to Epiphany, but I would highly recommend it for any Christian who wants to be convicted to rise to the next level of virtue. Sometimes Advent devotionals can get a little fluffy (“Is there room in your heart for Jesus? If not, here are some candles that are sure to do the trick”), but this one is intense while unrelenting in its proclamation that the reader is infinitely, unfathomably loved.

Short Stories and Long Poems

The Boscombe Valley Mystery, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

It doesn’t get better than Sherlock Holmes, especially if you (like me) find it hard to fit in time or focus to read. This short story was read in 30-45 minutes and contains all of the quintessential elements of a Holmes adventure: a bizarre crime, a train ride, baffled police, a snarky consulting detective, and a straightforward yet undeniably satisfying denouement. Make a cup of tea and before you know it you too will be speaking in a British accent and trying learn the criminal background of strangers in the grocery store.

A View of the Woods, Flannery O’Connor

I think I’m too dumb for Flannery O’Connor. I know she’s incredible and her writing style is brilliant, but I just don’t get her. This story is so dark and disturbing that I couldn’t really enjoy it because I couldn’t figure out her hidden meaning. That being said, it’s short, so I would encourage you to read it and tell me what you think it means.

The Dream of Gerontius, St. John Henry Newman

I don’t think there could be a better Memento Mori read than this poem that narrates a holy soul’s death, judgment, and hope-filled punishment of Purgatory. It captures the human fear of death, a fear that doesn’t mitigate a person’s Faith in God but rather gives that Faith value. Most convicting of all, it portrays that horrible, breathtaking moment when we will look upon perfect Beauty Himself. There is nothing cuddly about the God we worship, but there is infinite Love in His gaze. That gaze will heal all of our wounds.

In Principio Erat Verbum, St. John of the Cross

I have never wept over a poem before. I actually don’t think I’ve ever cried this hard over anything written before. But this poem spoke so tenderly to some deep wounds and I was left wanting to enter into deep prayer. It’s about the Incarnation, which makes it the perfect Christmas poem.

So there you have it! Merry Christmas, friends, and I pray that you have a blessed, bookish New Year, regardless of what it brings.

The Father’s Advent

My heart sunk as the door remained as rigid as ever. I was standing outside of University of Cincinnati’s Parish Newman Center where I had been told Confession was available. But the doors were locked and my brain was transported for a moment back to this past Spring when all churches were closed. I tried another door, walking around the giant church building and rattling on every handle with my shivering fingers. In a moment of saintly virtue, I began to grumble under my breath, “This is what I get for trying to be a good person and go to Confession.” I turned away to try one more set of doors when I heard a noise behind me. I tried the door again and it had been unlocked!

As I stepped into the silent church, I was deeply affected by that simple act of unlocking. After having all doors locked for so much of the year, to be invited into a church and into a Sacrament was a healing encounter. It was almost as if I heard the Lord saying, “You’ve been expected.”

I knelt in the confessional,1 laying bare my soul to Jesus Christ present in the priest who sat behind the screen. Something that is difficult about the Sacrament of Reconciliation is that priests are imperfect humans just like the rest of us. You can tell when a priest is going through the motions, just waiting for you to finish rattling off your list so he can go on to the next thing. But that wasn’t my experience. This priest saw me as I truly was, in all my sin and dirtiness. But in that darkness, he loved me. He spoke with such tenderness, speaking conviction and comfort like the true father that he is called to be. Through “the ministry of the Church” that is spoken of in the words of Absolution, I was granted an image of God the Father, the reckless lover who was drawing His beloved daughter back to an unblemished filial relationship with Him. After exiting the Confessional, I sank to my knees before the tabernacle. How good it was to be His.

I remained in the church for a little while and noticed that I was the only person who came that afternoon. The minutes ticked by and the church remained as silent as before. And yet the priest remained in the confessional. I got up to leave and he was still there. Father remained sitting in the alcove of a church in a college town on the outside chance that someone would walk in. Someone like me.

Now I know that priests are kind of required to stay for the entire time they say Confession is available. But the image of that father sitting in anticipation of a child returning home has been cemented in my mind over the last couple of weeks. 

In Advent, a season of preparation, we spend much of our time meditating on our wait for the Lord. We enter the gasp of humanity alive in the millennia after the Fall and before Anno Domini. We accompany Mary and Joseph anticipating their Son’s birth. We are given permission to wrestle with the paradox of hope in a broken world as we look at our own twisted stories and cry from the depths of our broken hearts, “How long, oh Lord?” All of this is right and just, profoundly beautiful. But oh, have you considered the Lord’s wait for us? If we pant for the waters of His divine life, how much more perfectly and heartrendingly does He thirst for our return to Him? Night and day He waits for us prodigal children, gazing through the lattice written of in the Song of Songs, peering through the screen of the Confessional where His arms are outstretched, not to strike and smite, but to heal and embrace.

The reality is that Christ was so desperate for us that He became a baby who we could not fear. But He is not selfish in His love. He will never violate His precious gift of free will. Regardless of the self-abasement that the Lord subjects Himself to for our sake, He needs our cooperation. Just as we chose to turn our backs on Him, we must choose to run to Him. There is no faster road home than the confessional.

Maybe you’re waiting for an abundant grace this Christmas, more eager than ever for a Redeemer. But that has nothing on the way the Lord is waiting for you. We still have a few days left before the King comes to Bethlehem. Will you find time in all the havoc to go to Confession? It’s far more important than those gifts or recipe ingredients. In fact it’s the greatest gift you can offer the world: the restoration of your unrepeatable, indescribable heart that was made for greatness. Make a plan. Find a time for Confession at a nearby church. And go. A priest is waiting for you even if you are the only to come. The Father is waiting for you as if you are the only one created. Now is His Advent. Will you gladden His heart?

1 Set up in a side room near the sanctuary to assist with airflow and distancing 🙂

On Eponine and Advent

“To love another person is to see the face of God.”

It’s perhaps the most famous line from the musical, Les Miserables, a production which is not only my favorite Broadway musical, but the last thing that I would see performed in a theater before the world shut down. What a gift it was to have the words, “Even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise,” sung to my already weary heart as my parting gift from live theater.

As we continue our journey to Bethlehem this Advent, I want to take a closer look at the line, “To love another person is to see the face of God.” In my opinion, it’s not the most profound phrase to ever be written. We know that whatever we do to the least of the brethren, we do to Jesus. We know that God is love. We know that it’s good and lovely and appropriately sappy for Broadway to speak about falling in love with other people.

But what strikes me about the line is WHO sings it. That final phrase is shared by three characters: Jean Valjean, Fantine, and Eponine. Valjean is the protagonist of the story. He owes his entire life to the love given by a priest and he spends the rest of the musical laying down his life for others. Fantine loves her daughter even unto her own shame and death. But Eponine? Why does the character with perhaps the most miserable story in Les Miserables have the privilege of singing this line? Eponine is a girl born to abusive parents and is little better than a street urchin. She’s in love with a longtime friend who falls head over heels for a girl he sees walking down the street once. This guy can’t even recognize the affection Eponine has for him until she sacrifices her life to protect him in a revolt and dies in his arms.

I look at Eponine and when I get past her beautiful, fun songs that I belt with the help of our dining room’s acoustics, my eyes can’t help but widen as I say, “What a waste.” What a sad, disappointing life and character.

And yet, out of all the numerous characters in the musical, Eponine is chosen to sing, “To love another person is to see the face of God.” It is Eponine’s love that is revered and memorialized in song. Hers is an unrequited, rejected love that yearns for what can never be fulfilled. Her love ends in abject failure as she takes her dying breath in the arms of a man who does not have a way to satisfy her. But in this failed, foolish love, we are told that Eponine, whether or not she knew it, saw the face of God. Love is the willing of the good of another. It finds its perfection in the laying down of one’s life, something which Eponine did in her daily life and in her final act at the barricade. Even though it was not reciprocated, even though it ended in disaster and tragedy, her love was real. Although that love was not the cozy Hallmark love we all prefer, it was that true love that conformed her to the image of her Creator. Sometimes, to love well is to fail.

Here we are in Advent, which already feels like a season of failure without the added stress of a pandemic. It’s such a gift to have so many resources at our fingertips to observe Advent well. But it can be so easy to see the beautiful devotional journals, Jesse trees, and novenas and believe the lie of the Enemy that you aren’t doing Advent right. Surely there’s something more or different you could be doing, surely your family should be happier, surely there should be more peace in your heart at this sacred time. Every Advent, my rosy, Instagram-inspired dreams for this liturgical season are forced to confront the bag-eyed, disheveled coffee troll who struggles to make it out of the door on time, let alone with time for peaceful contemplation of the babe in the manger. Just yesterday, my prayer was, “Jesus, I feel like a failure.”

Maybe you are failing. Maybe it’s not just Advent either. Maybe you think you’ve failed in discernment. Maybe you think you’ve failed in a relationship. Maybe it’s not just a “Maybe,” but a “definitely” as you see your grades for finals. But failure requires a finite end that is left unaccomplished. For God’s infinite mind and mercy, nothing, not even death on a cross, is an ultimate failure. Edith Stein writes, “We should also be convinced that, in the divine economy of salvation, no sincere effort remains fruitless even when human eyes can see nothing but failures.”2

You see failure in the Jesse tree left unassembled. You see failure in your prayer that was scattered and anxious, no matter how hard you tried to still your heart. You see failure in being single for yet another Christmas or in the wake of a slammed door. But the Lord sees the love which you pour out to your kids who you were running across the city, thus leaving you without time for Pinterest-perfect devotionals. He sees the love in your earnest striving to know Him intimately in prayer, even though mental illness leaves you terrified of silence. He sees the love that overflowed in your heart for the one who never loved you in the same way. He sees your love for Himself that led you to be open to His Will, even if His Will turned out to be quite different from your own expectations.

Edith Stein also writes, “All that we do is a means to an end, but love is an end in itself, because God is love.” Rest assured that no matter how great or humiliating your failure, if you have loved another person, you have seen the face of God. If you press on this Advent with the same zeal to love, no matter how messy that love is, you will arrive at the manger in a few weeks, able to honestly exclaim the other words of Eponine, “You’re here – that’s all I need to know.” Even though Eponine’s love was not reciprocated, Christ is the lover who reciprocates beyond our wildest imagining. He will keep you safe, He will keep you close. His scarred hand makes the flowers grow.

1 “Spirituality of the Christian Woman”

The Legend of Simeon and the Longing of 2020

Long ago, several centuries before the “Gloria” of the angels pierced the Bethlehem sky, 72 scholars were asked to translate the books that would later be known as the Old Testament from Hebrew into Greek. After years of scrupulous independent translation, the scholars gathered to share the fruit of their labors. It was here, according to legend, that a linguistic miracle was witnessed: All 72 scholars had translated the books of the Old Testament identically, something which is a near impossibility. But the Holy Spirit had moved in such a way that the words of Scripture were translated identically, word-for-word. That is, except for one.

In the book of Isaiah, there was a line which spoke of the birth of a child, which would be a sign granted by God to an unfaithful people and a doubtful king. All of the translators wrote, “The virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel.” But there was one scholar who did not write, “Virgin,” choosing instead the phrase, “Young woman.” It is impossible and illogical that a virgin give birth, and God does not speak of impossible and illogical things. Despite the disagreement and opposition from all of the other scholars, this man held firm to his conviction until an angel of the Lord appeared to him. “You shall not die,” the angel declared, “until your very eyes see God’s word fulfilled. For nothing shall be impossible for God.”

Centuries passed. Nations crumbled. The iron rod of Rome only grew stronger. This man watched his world pass away, witnessed the death of his wife, his siblings, his children, and even his grandchildren as he was left waiting and hungering for the fulfillment of a prophecy he did not understand. As Israel was desecrated and spat upon, he pressed into the Lord, placing his trust in the words that his own fingers had written into Greek, the words, “No longer shall you be called ‘Forsaken’, nor your land called ‘Desolate’.” Children starved, men grew sick, women were assaulted, and this man waited for those words of comfort to be actualized.

I wonder if his heart grew bitter in the waiting, seeking to become impenetrable to the cold by closing the shutters of his soul. I’m sure there were seasons over that long life when the Lord had to pry open those windows, when the man could no longer hear God’s soft knocking in the wind, so a bludgeon became God’s only option. I don’t know the details of this man’s interior life. But I know that God won. Because one day, this righteous and devout man overshadowed by the Holy Spirit entered the temple in Jerusalem. As he was in prayer he heard the cry of a newborn infant and his eyes opened to a young woman walking in. “Not a young woman,” he corrected himself, “a virgin.”

We all know the consolation of holding a baby or of looking into the eyes of a mother. But it is hard to fathom the consolation that Simeon encountered as he took the child Jesus into his arms and blessed God, the faithful Father who remembers His promise to us even when we forget or doubt His power. The only greater joy Simeon knew came that night as his ancient soul departed this earth in peace. 33 years later he would gaze into the eyes of Jesus once again, no longer the eyes of an infant, but the eyes of a conqueror and Savior come to walk him from the netherworld to the gates of paradise.

As we enter Advent 2020, I invite you to join me in asking the Lord if you know what it is to long for the coming of the Christ child as Simeon knows what it is to long for Him. This year, I think you do. Although it was not centuries of strife, you know what it is to be cut off from family and friends, to witness intense societal and governmental turmoil. You know what it is to stand outside your church, sitting in your car for hours as you gaze upon the tabernacle and wait for the fulfillment of God’s word that He makes all things new and that you are called to His supper.

You know what it is to finally enter the temple and to take God into your arms once more. You know what it is to hear the “Alleluia” ring from your tongue alongside your Catholic brothers and sisters. Perhaps you know the tears of joy or the gift of laughter that the Lord sometimes gives as you received the Eucharist after months of exile and yearning.

And perhaps you, like me, know what it is to have forgotten already. You have joined the centuries of God’s people who are rescued from Egypt only to create idols and grow bitter against the Lord. Maybe you’ve been able to go to Mass every Sunday since your church reopened in June, but your heart is still in Holy Saturday, shuttered away from the light, distant from God.

This Advent, He is calling you back. He is calling you to hunger for His heart and to remember the love you once had, a love that has perhaps grown cold in the iciness of this past year. But the Lord knows that this year has made you tired and weary and that His call might seem paralyzing. So He’s not asking you to move anywhere. He’s coming to you. He’s coming escorted by the whisper of a girl’s “Fiat” that still resonates on the waves of the air today. He’s coming in poverty, embracing a manger so that he can be one with you in your physical struggle from this economically trying year. He’s coming rejected, born alone so that you are not alone in this upcoming Christmas that will be marked by isolation for many. He’s coming surrounded by animals and dung so that he can embrace you even in your sin and brokenness that has become so manifest this year. He’s coming to die for you because regardless of your struggles in 2020, your life is of infinite value to His infant eyes.

This is Advent: Sitting in deep pain and darkness and rather than reaching or running, allowing Him to turn on the light. It is waiting in the temple or in parking lot Adoration with tears streaming down your face as you say over and over, “I don’t understand you, but I trust you.” It is waiting for the consolation of Israel or the coming of the Kingdom even as buildings burn and children die.

For our entire lifetimes, we have sung, “Oh come, oh come, Emmanuel,” fully taking for granted that in less than an hour, He will come and we will receive Him. After this year, we know that we can never take His presence for granted again. Let us enter this new liturgical year thirstier than ever before for the dew that rains down the just one. Let us be unafraid of our poverty in 2020, trusting rather, in our Bridegroom who comes down to be poor with us. Then our empty hands will be ready to hold him and our parched tongue prepared to sing,

Now, Master, you may let your servant go
in peace, according to your word,
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you prepared in sight of all the peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and glory for your people Israel.

Dies Pulchrae

“My Master,” he says, “has forewarned me. Daily He announces more distinctly, – ‘Surely I come quickly!’ and hourly I more eagerly respond, – ‘Amen; even so come, Lord Jesus!'”

Thus concludes Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, and it’s one of those endings to a novel that makes me fall in love with reading all over again. The Lord continues to woo me through that spark of His perfect mind that resides in the written word. In Jane Eyre, it’s the realization that beauty is made from literal ashes, that the human person can go through countless struggles and finally encounter happiness. Through that book, I am also reminded that our ultimate happiness lies in the next world and it is a happiness which we need to courageously prepare for while we labor through this vale of tears.

Tomorrow marks the final page of the novel that is the liturgical year, the Solemnity of Christ the King. For the last several weeks, the Church has been preparing us for Christ’s Second Coming through Scripture that speaks of the end times and our need to be prepared for those days. This is the real reason why I’m not ready to pull out the Christmas decorations quite yet. There’s something about this season that has captivated my heart for the last several years and provided me with deep peace even in turmoil. And I owe that to Jane Eyre.

But it’s not just Jane Eyre. It’s every experience that I’ve had with beauty. I should be afraid of the Last Judgment. And I’m fully aware of the gravity of that moment. I’ve had the gift of chanting the Dies Irae, or Day of Wrath with my home parish’s sacred choir. It’s a sequence from the old Requiem Mass:

That day of wrath, that dreadful day,
shall heaven and earth in ashes lay,
as David and the Sybil say.
What horror must invade the mind
when the approaching Judge shall find
and sift the deeds of all mankind!

But while those words are indeed horror-provoking, here’s the thing: I’ve also heard the music that accompanies those words. From the austere yet indulgent lean and pull of the chant, to the overpowering grandeur and triumph of Mozart’s rendition, this very song has been a conduit of beauty into my soul.

When I fell in love with Jesus in a new and overwhelming way just before my freshman year of high school, it was in a large part due to my family’s vacation out west. I remember gazing into the Milky Way that was visible over Yellowstone National Park. As I stared into the swirl of light overshadowing the night-blackened trees, the Holy Spirit revealed to me that if this was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen, the One who placed those stars in the sky had to be far more beautiful.

When I look back on dancing the Grand Pas de Deux from Nutcracker, it was the beauty of dance, storytelling, and music all converging into one that made that such a vital experience. Ballet has been a vessel of the Lord’s love poured out to me as I am invited to not only watch, but co-create beauty.

Why am I not afraid of the end of the world? Because of the sunset that I witness every night. Because of those deep pinks and reds that form a palisade of streaks around the golden clouds. Because of the promise that when night falls, beauty rises. One day, there will be a final sunset and from those clouds will descend the Source of all Beauty. It is Beauty who will judge mankind.

And I should tremble at that prospect. But I’ve seen the Source of all Beauty before. I see Him every Sunday when He descends from heaven and is lifted up from the earth in the hands of a priest. I see Him still and silent in the golden monstrance that is exposed in the chapel day and night. By all means we must fight sin and be alert and ready for that moment when we meet our Maker upon death. But I also believe that the Eucharist exists so that we can meet our Maker now, so that we come close to Him in His littleness and vulnerability and so that He can show us our own littleness and vulnerability. In the Eucharist, we are invited to Eden where we are spiritually naked and yet unashamed. We are invited to drink deeply of Beauty Himself, to allow Beauty to flow through our veins and be breathed out to the whole world.

The Saints repeatedly exhort us to to remember that the only thing to fear in life and death is sin. As you reflect on Christ’s Second Coming this weekend and throughout Advent, examine your conscience. Find a time to go to Confession. But as you examine yourself and see your abject failure, rejoice in the One whose perfect love casts out fear. Allow yourself to be overpowered by the reality that the day of wrath will also be the day of beauty, or in Latin, dies pulchrae.

That balletic line, that imagery in Rosetti’s poetry, that ritardando in E’en So Lord Jesus, Quickly Come (my favorite piece I ever sang in choir), is merely a foretaste of the wonder that awaits us. The One who has created that beauty is coming soon. May His imminent embrace inspire hope in these dark days.

Poetry: “A’slumber in the Smoke”

Well, even by 2020 standards, it’s been an anxiety-provoking week. Regardless of your stance on politics, the tension surrounding the presidential election has been felt everywhere you go and as if that wasn’t stressful enough, COVID-19 cases only continue to rise.

I certainly have thoughts and opinions about all of the above, but does the world really need my two cents about these topics? Personally, I’ve deleted all of my social media from my phone for the purpose of not having to hear so many opinions, hot takes, and arguments, so I have no desire to throw my hat in the ring.

But on this crazy evening, I can offer what gave me so much comfort throughout high school: poetry. Every week, my Great Books class would open with the reading of a poem. We didn’t hotly debate the poem like we did so many other topics. We weren’t even encouraged to have the most intellectual commentary about the poem. We would merely read it and find something about the work that drew our attention. No matter how ill-prepared I was for the rest of our class, no matter how distracted I was by exterior fears, for those twenty to thirty minutes of poetry conversation, I could rest in my fascination with language and its ability to create landscapes in the mind.

So tonight, instead of a regular post, I want to share a poem that I wrote back in September. It’s nothing compared to the masterpieces I read in Great Books, but as it’s written about resting in the midst of uncertainty, I thought it would be appropriate to share. Maybe when you’re done reading, look up some poetry on your bookshelf or on your PC. If you need some recommendations, Christina Rosetti and John Donne are two of my favorite poets, but of course you can never go wrong with masters like Shakespeare and Dickinson. Grab a cup of tea and candle if you want the aesthetic, but for however long you read, allow yourself to rest in the words you encounter. Are there any lines that stand out? Any images that inspire you? Emotions that align with yours? You deserve rest, friend. Don’t be afraid to seek it out through the goodness, truth, and beauty displayed by the English language.

And now, onto tonight’s poem, titled, March Twenty-Seventh, Two Thousand and Twenty, after the date of Pope Francis’ Urbi et Orbi address.

Oh Master down within
The cellar of this boat
How soundly you remain 
A'slumber in the smoke

You do not seem to mind
How far we are from shore
For nothing stirs your head
Not screams, nor torrent roar

I cannot stay above
Much longer in this storm
The waves are crashing o'er
The deck's begun to burn

So I will run within
The cellar of this boat
Where still is heard the wind
And felt the sting of smoke

But here I see your eyes
E'en though they're tightly closed
I'll lean upon your breast
And trust you don't oppose

Oh Master of the depths
You hear me when I cry
But since you choose to sleep
In peace near you I'll lie

Why College Board Should Pay Attention to National Vocation Awareness Week

Ah, the first week of November. Buckets of Halloween candy are still overflowing. Every four years, an election is taking place. Christmas commercials have begun to sneak onto TVs and YouTube ads while families begin to earnestly discuss Thanksgiving plans. And for every youth group goer, the familiar strain of Chris Tomlin’s, “I Will Follow” resounds alongside videos of priests skateboarding and nuns sledding, all accompanied by whispered threats to start a drinking game if Father says “Be not afraid” in his homily one more time.1

Starting tomorrow, National Vocation Awareness Week is upon us.

For those who aren’t familiar with the week, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops defines the first week of November as, “an annual week-long celebration of the Catholic Church in the United States dedicated to promote vocations to the priesthood, diaconate and consecrated life through prayer and education, and to renew our prayers and support for those who are considering one of these particular vocations.” And while I write about it with a light-hearted snark, in reality, I am so grateful for this beautiful gift and effort on the part of our bishops. We are all ready to do anything to alter the vocation crisis in the Church, and hopefully our experience of the acrid separation from the Sacraments over the Spring has only fueled this desire in our souls. While seminary numbers remain deeply concerning, Vocation Ministry reports that in 2018, “the United States gained more religious sisters than it lost.” So although effective means of vocation outreach must be discussed and discerned, clearly we’re doing something right.

But what impact does National Vocation Awareness Week have on society at large, if any? The concept of priestly and religious vocations remains an enigma to the secular world, which only has The Exorcist, The Sound of Music, or Lifetime’s The Sisterhood: Becoming Nuns2 as context for these ways of life. This week, young people fully immersed in secular culture have the opportunity to tangibly encounter the idea of Vocation, to be presented with the possibility of a radical call to poverty, chastity, and obedience. But at the heart of National Vocation Awareness Week is a call perhaps more radical in the 21st century than any of the above listed evangelical counsels: The call to slow down.

Starting as early as middle school, youth are asked to begin seriously considering their futures. High school freshmen still struggling to find any sense of identity take academic classes with test scores in mind and fifteen-year-old sophomores taking the PSAT for their first time are asked to bubble in a chosen potential major. At an increasingly younger age, students are required to think significantly forward into a hypothetical future, asked to consider not only occupation and academic prestige of college, but desired location to live, possibility for grad school, and plan for paying off inevitable student loan debt. Although gap years have become more frequent, young people choosing this route still face significant judgment and questioning.

Society forces itself further and further into a future that it tries to predict, but is really only known by God. There’s certainly nothing wrong with planning for the future and using one’s present gifts to prepare for the next steps in life, but this becomes problematic when students are led to believe that the next steps are the only thing of value. We’re told that middle school is a preparation for high school, high school for college, college for a job and hopefully MRS degree, post-college for family and job advancement, job advancement for retirement. As society continues to more rampantly advertise “next steps,” young people are led, either explicitly or subconsciously, to equate their value with accomplishments that will aid them in those fleeting and increasingly unsatisfying next steps.

But this is not the case in vocational discernment. The goal of vocation ministry, whether through this upcoming week, a conference-style retreat, or simple conversation with a student, is not to see a drastic uptick in habits, collars, or wedding rings the following week. Although there are certainly exceptions, most vocations aren’t fully revealed until after college. Middle school and high school youth ministers are most certainly aware of that fact. Yet middle school and high school students are invited to openness to marriage, the priesthood, or the consecrated life as a method of planting seeds. Vocation ministry initially sets out to bring a young person in contact with the God of the present moment, and in touch with themselves, not as a future priest in the diocese of Scranton, but as a high schooler who has just heard Christ’s words about “Fishers of men” in a way he never has before.

As I researched for this article, I visited the vocations webpage for the Sisters of Life. The first sentence on that page is not about retreat information or a contact form. It is the simple and profound declaration that, “The God who created the universe and called everything into existence, loved you into being.” A Vocation is a call that emanates love. It is an invitation to lived intimacy and it is something that no grade, test score, or other achievement can affect. It is also something that takes time to discover. This is difficult to impress on us Gen-Zers who have been told to start formulating a life plan since eighth grade. And yet why have teenagers whose brains have not even fully developed been expected to have a career and home life planned before they enter adulthood?

What a gift it would be if the general public took note of National Vocation Awareness Week and its emphasis before anything else on prayer and self-growth. If it saw the Church’s understanding of the inherent dignity of the human person and a soul’s capacity to reflect goodness, truth, and beauty into this dark world regardless of grades or plans for the future. At the end of the day, we are human souls, incarnate thirsts yearning for the Fountain of eternal life3, not numbers assigned by the College board, or transcripts reviewed by a college. How drastic it would be for the education of children to return to the end of cultivation of virtue and love of wisdom rather than the end of a diploma.

One of my favorite quotes about discernment is, “Our God is a God of journeys, not of destination.” A seminarian once explained that it’s celebrated when a young man leaves the seminary, because that means he’s closer to finding God’s will for him. In a world so focused on end goals, let’s spend this week learning from the Church of the easy yoke of our Master who makes our crooked lines and failings straight. Let’s entrust ourselves more fully to the present moment. You don’t know if you’ll get into your dream school. You don’t know if you’ll meet your spouse this year. You don’t know if tomorrow is promised to you. But you do know that regardless of your state in life, today, your Vocation is to love. Let us love as fools in the world’s eyes.

Oh, and while you’re at it, pray for an increase in vocations to the priesthood, religious life, matrimony, permanent diaconate, and consecrated single life. Consider donating to your diocese’s seminarian fund or to the Laboure Society, which fundraises to pay off student loan debt for those entering religious life. And if you’re feeling the nudge, reach out to your diocese’s vocation office or a religious community this week. It’s just an email.

1 – Or maybe that was just me

2 – It’s actually better than you would think

3 – Allusion to Thomas Dubay