The Beauty in Weakness

I’m not perfect.

I know. It’s shocking, right? A human being who isn’t perfect? Who could believe that?

Oh. Wait. Right…

I’m human. I’m not perfect. Sometimes I don’t do things right the first time. I screw up. I fail. I don’t do what I should do and I do what what I shouldn’t do.

This afternoon, I was thinking about three situations from the past few weeks in which I have felt weak or have shown weakness. One was a situation in which I had something wrong and needed to rectify the situation in some way. One was a situation in which I was in over my head and needed help. The third was a situation where I admitted that I was struggling with a variety of things at this point in my life.

The thing that I realized as I reflected on these situations is that our society does not have much use for weakness. We like strength. We like heroes. We don’t like failure. We like to believe in ourselves. We don’t like to admit when we’ve done something wrong, but we do like to point out what others have done wrong. We’re human. We like to be right. We like to have things together-or at least look like we do. We like to be in control.

But we’re not in control. We don’t have it all together. We aren’t always strong. We’re human. We aren’t perfect. We aren’t always wise. And yet, we struggle with weakness. Seeing weakness either in ourselves or in others can be difficult. It is a reminder that we are fallible beings.

In one of the situations I referenced earlier, the person did not want to hear about my weakness; she merely wanted to move past the situation. For me, this was hurtful because I had mentally prepared myself to admit my weakness and explain what I did, but she did not want that. I have to accept that. The situation is closed. I don’t know why she was unwilling to hear my explanation, but that does not matter. There are two lessons for me in this situation: Treat others better than I want to be treated and don’t repeat the mistake that got me into this situation.

The other two situations involved admitting my weakness to two different people who I know well enough to know that they are both women of strong faith. In one situation, the person chose to meet my practical needs in the moment. In the other, the person offered to pray with me in that moment. They acknowledged my weakness. They saw that there were things that they could do for me.

Those were both moments of grace for me. I saw Christ in those two women. He was using them. I acknowledged my weakness, and he filled in the gaps. He is God. He is strong. I’m human. I’m weak. But when I acknowledge that weakness, he can act through it. He can act through me. That’s the beauty of weakness. God can take our weaknesses and our brokennesses and turn them into moments of grace. It’s okay to be weak because weakness offers God a window to act.

“And He has said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.’ Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.”

-2 Corinthians 12:9

A Hard Call

(Note: This is not intended to be anything more than my own thoughts and reflections. It is not the be-all and end-all of anything. It is not a condemnation of anyone else or meant to be hurtful towards anyone. It’s just my thoughts.)

For as long as I can remember, Christian unity has been a cause that was near and dear to my heart. I’ve long held that John 17:20-23 is one of my favorite passages. Growing up in an ecumenical community, I was profoundly aware that Christians of different denominations could work and pray together. I saw this happen in prayer meetings and at the summer camps I attended. On the other hand, growing up Byzantine Catholic and attending Roman Catholic schools showed me firsthand some of the deeper divisions among Christians.

I grew up with a strong awareness that I was different from my RC peers. No one ever intentionally tried to make me feel like I was different, but it was hard to hide from the facts. I was able to receive the Eucharist before any of my peers. My peers mostly went to churches that were near their homes while my family drove 35+ minutes to church. I made the Sign of the Cross differently. On the rare occasions that we said the Nicene Creed, I clamped my mouth shut for three words. I had no problems saying “Alleluia!” during Lent. I didn’t see my school friends at church. I was different.

And I was deeply aware of the brokenness of the Body of Christ. I saw the brokenness in the differences between myself and my classmates. (“You’re making the Sign of the Cross wrong again!”) I saw the brokenness in the fact that my RC friends would decline my invitations to attend church with me. (“I’m just not into that kind of thing.”) I saw the brokenness in the differing liturgical calendars between different faith traditions. (“Why do you have to go to church tonight? Ascension is on Sunday.”)

I found it painful to see this brokenness, and as I grew up, I had a variety of reactions to it. When I was in early high school, I went through a phase where I thought that the best way to resolve this issue was to teach others about my church and encourage them to visit it. Nothing really happened. My brother had friends who were interested in our church, but I didn’t. That hurt me even though I wasn’t good at verbalizing my hurt.

Then, I tried to avoid the brokenness; I didn’t want to deal with it. From about age 16 until about age 24 or 25, I went through a several year period where I really hated seeing differences and divisions. I wanted to ignore them. I wasn’t happy being Byzantine Catholic because it made me weird and different and unusual. I wanted to be Roman Catholic. I talked about how I wanted to marry a Roman Catholic man so I wouldn’t have to be Byzantine anymore.

Why did I want to be Roman Catholic? I didn’t want to be weird. I didn’t want to be different. I had all kinds of excuses for why I wanted to leave the Byzantine Catholic Church, but really, when I sat down at about age 24 and confronted myself, I only wanted to leave the East because I didn’t like being different. I was sick of being one of only a very few young women in the church I attended. I was sick of being different from my friends.

Somewhere around age 25, I came to see that I am called to be Byzantine Catholic at this point in my life. As I came to this realization, I saw that while the Body of Christ is broken, there is beauty in this broken Body. There is beauty in our unity. The call to unity is a hard call. There are things that we do not share. I still clamp my mouth shut for three words every time I attend a Roman Mass at which we pray the Nicene Creed. I make the Sign of the Cross differently from my friends. We don’t always share the same feasts. I can’t receive the Eucharist in an Orthodox Church. I almost laughed in a friend’s face once as she expostulated on how wonderful it is that no matter where you go in the world every Catholic Mass looks pretty much the same. (Oh darling, you meant to say Roman Catholic Mass.) I occasionally resist the urge to email various Catholic bloggers and ask them to please specify that they are Roman Catholic and that not everything that they say is true for all Catholics is actually true for all Catholics.

It’s hard. It is hard to share a common life with people who do not share all of our traditions. It can be hard to know how to approach certain situations in an ecumenical context. How do you discuss certain things? What topics should you avoid? And I don’t have any easy answers to those questions. I don’t know what the right things to do are all of the time. I don’t even know how make certain things stop bothering/troubling me. I screw up plenty in this regard. I’m sure that I offend people at times. Heck, knowing me, I’m probably offending someone with this post.

“May the Holy Spirit guide us along the way of reconciliation, so that the unity of our Churches may become an ever more radiant sign of hope and consolation for all mankind.”

-Paul VI

But I know that unity matters. I know that unity is important to the Body of Christ. I know that the Trinity is Three Persons in One God; the Trinity is our model for unity. I don’t know how to fix difficulties between Churches. But I pray for God to make us one as the Trinity is One. I pray for healing of wounds and restoration of relationships. I pray for bridges to be built. I pray for Church leaders to be given wisdom and hope.

I don’t want to change people’s minds. I don’t want to force my RC friends to become Byzantine Catholic-although I would love it if they had a greater knowledge of my Church. I want to promote understanding. I want to encourage people to understand one another more and love one another more deeply. I want to encourage people to pray for unity and to work for unity. I know that Jesus wants unity. I know that only he can heal our wounds, and I know that he wants to do so.

“I do not ask on behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word; that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me.

The glory which You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one, just as We are one; I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know that You sent Me, and loved them, even as You have loved Me.”

-John 17: 20-23

Father, make us one. Show us how to love as you love.

Be.

In the fall of 2012 as my beloved Detroit Tigers were making an epic playoff run, I discovered the song “Hall of Fame” by The Script featuring will.i.am.

At the time, the song was about sports for me. But this past fall, I encountered the song in a different context. What if this song could be used to remind young people about the importance of the Saints?

I’ve always been struck by the lyrics of the whole song, but the rap has especially struck me.

Be students, be teachers
Be politicians, be preachers

Be believers, be leaders
Be astronauts Be champions
Be true seekers

Be students, be teachers
Be politicians, be preachers

Be believers, be leaders
Be astronauts, be champions

To me, the main message of that is BE. Do something with your life. Make something out of yourself. God has put you on this earth for a relatively brief time. Use that time wisely.

I wanted my students to meet the great Saints. I wanted them to get to know the people who “burned with the brightest flame” as the song says. So, using Hebrews 12:1-2 as my theme, I gave them a research project to research Saints of the twentieth century.

Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross,despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

I wanted them to meet Gianna Molla and Chiara Luce Badano. I wanted them to meet Josemaria Escriva and Pier Giorgio Frassati. Who were these people?

Some died young. Some lived long lives. Some were priests or nuns or even Popes. (Blessed be God who gave us such holy Popes during the 20th century!) Some were missionaries. Some were mothers. Some were martyrs. All of them loved Jesus.

I wanted them to see that they can be saints too. They can be holy. They too can put their hearts near the heart of Christ.

If I could teach these children one thing, it would be that they can saints. We are all called to be saints. Christ desires that we become holy. Christ desires that we join Gianna and Josemaria in the Hall of Fame.

In addition to their essays, I asked my students to present their Saints to their peers. I wanted them to share these people with one another so that they could come to know these holy men and women. However, in addition to their presentations, I made a video for them featuring photographs of and quotes from their Saints as well as other favorites of mine. I used “Hall of Fame” as the background music on the video.

I showed them the video yesterday, and today one of my students asked me if we could listen to “your saint song” again. She told me that she thought it was a good reminder that they can be Saints, that they’re called to the hall of fame; they’re called to heaven.

That was my point. We are called to run after Jesus like the Saints who have gone before us have. We are called to be holy. We are called to be students, to be teachers, to be preachers, to be politicians, to be believers, to be leaders, to be astronauts, to be truth seekers…we are called to be Saints.

“Life holds only one tragedy: not to have been a saint.”

-Charles Peguy

“I know of nothing else that can save this civilization except saints. Please be one.”

-Dr. Peter Kreeft

When the First and the Last Concur

Today is a paradox. It is a mystery. Behold, God is conceived. But also behold, God dies. Today, we as Eastern Catholics celebrate two of the most important feasts on our calendar, and they are a seeming contradiction when placed together. March 25 is always the Feast of the Annunciation, the feast of the Incarnation of our Lord. It is the day when we celebrate the visit by the archangel Gabriel to the Theotokos in which Mary learned she was to be the Mother of the Christ.

And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)

But it is also Good Friday, the day when we celebrate the Passion and Death of Jesus. We commemorate his brutal saving Passion.

“And Jesus, crying out with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.’ Having said this, He breathed His last.” (Luke 23:46)

The two feasts appear to be contradictory. How can we honor the Incarnation of Christ and His Death at the same time? Our Roman Catholic (and certain Eastern Churches) brothers transfer the Feast of the Annunciation to another day. We do not. How can we do this?

Well, practically speaking, we haul out some special rubrics and we celebrate Entombment Vespers (my second favorite Byzantine service) followed by the Divine Liturgy for the Annunciation followed by the Procession with the Shroud and Veneration of the Shroud. It is beautiful. We have special books made. We pray for our clergy and cantors. It works. It is beautiful.

But why do we do it?

I could be sassy and say that we’re Byzantine Catholics. We like mysteries. (I mean, we do…) But there is more to it than that. We believe that feasts of the Incarnation trump solemnities. Also, in the early Church, the two feasts were celebrated together. (That’s also when we believe that a multitude of events occurred including Noah’s Ark coming to rest on Mount Ararat, Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, and the Destruction of the Ring of Power on Mount Doom.) We believe that they are inextricably linked as two of the three most important mysteries of our salvation. Together with the Resurrection, which follows on the 27th, these events usher in a new springtime or a season of new life. (Here’s a great article that looks at that in more depth.)

There is an odd beauty in this paradox. The immortal God becomes a human child in the womb of a teenaged woman and the immortal God surrenders his life for the salvation of all humanity. It is the ultimate feast of the Divine Condescension. On their own, each of these feasts allow us to see the love of God and the humility of God in a clearer way. Together, they are a formidable reminder of just how much God loves us and just how far he is willing to go to be with us.

The beauty of Christianity is that it introduces us to a God who loved us so much that he could not bear to be apart from us. Because of that, He sent His Son into the world (the Annunciation) so that the Son could die (Good Friday) for the salvation of all mankind. In many ways, it is meet and just that these two feasts should coincide.

In 1608, these two feasts overlapped, and the poet and future Anglican priest John Donne wrote a beautiful reflection on this. Donne looks at Mary who both becomes a mother and surrenders her only child on this joined feast. He looks at the gift the Church gives us by uniting these feasts and allowing us to contemplate Christ’s love for us and his humility.

This Church by letting those days join, hath shown
Death and conception in mankind is one ;
Or ’twas in Him the same humility,
That He would be a man, and leave to be ;
Or as creation He hath made, as God,
With the last judgment but one period,

This day is ultimately a reflection on the humility of Christ. God became man, as St. Athanasius said, so that man might become gods. He became human to unite us to Himself. He joined Himself to our lowly state so that He might unite us to His divine state. That is love. That is humility. And so, it is (to me) truly right that (when the calendar so allows) we celebrate the Annunciation and the Passion in one day. It is good that we are reminded of just how much our God loves us. And what better way to remind us of that than to give us what appeared to be the first and the last of the life of Jesus in one day?


(The publication time for this post was very carefully chosen. It is intentional.)

NB: I know that John Donne wasn’t perfect.

Lessons of Theoden

On a recent revisit to The Lord of the Rings, I was particularly struck by Theoden, the King of Rohan. When we meet him early in The Two Towers, he is an older gentleman, and his mind has been contaminated by evil. However, after an exorcism from Gandalf, he returns to his right mind and leads his people to battle.

But he goes into battle knowing that he will not see the end result. He is fighting for the freedom and preservation of Rohan, Gondor, and all Middle Earth really. However, he knows that he will not see the liberated Rohan (and Gondor) in his lifetime. In all likelihood, he will die in this war or soon after its end. He knows this. He is not fighting for himself. The young men around him-Faramir, Eomer, and Aragorn-fight with the hope that they will see their goal accomplished. They will live in the free Rohan, the free Gondor, the free Middle Earth. Theoden does not go to war with this hope. Theoden goes to war with the mentality that he will not see the end of the war. If his side wins the war, he is unlikely to see the end. He does not fight for himself. He fights for others.

I was struck by this in the context of Christianity. I teach middle school religion, and at times I wonder why I’m doing this. Why am I teaching other people’s children about the history and the faith of the Catholic Church? Why do I as a childless woman pour an hour of my day every school day (and more time preparing myself outside the building) into teaching children about the importance of having a relationship with Jesus Christ? I will probably never really see or know these kids after they graduate from middle school. I am unlikely to see them as adults or to see what becomes of their faith. Why am I fighting for a something that I will never actually see?

Theoden fights because he believes in the cause. He wants his people-especially his niece and nephew-to see better days, to live in a better world. While he may not live to see a free Middle Earth, a Middle Earth free from Sauron’s evil, he wants others to live in this world. He wants to make a better world for others even if he does not have the opportunity to see that world for himself.

Forth, and fear no darkness!

Similarly, I want a better world for my students. I want them to know and understand their faith. I want to share Jesus Christ with them. Even if I never see the end and I never know what happens to them, I want to share Jesus with them. I want them to hear about a Jesus who loves them. I fight to pass down the faith of our fathers. I may not know if they come to a full and deep relationship with Jesus. But I fight to give them that opportunity. Like Theoden, I have hope for their future, for them to find a future full of hope, joy, and goodness.

Why I Celebrate the Lives of Dead Authors

Yesterday, a friend of mine remarked that I had to be one of the only people she knew who celebrated birthdays of authors. (I had just been whining about how I had to celebrate Jane Austen’s birthday alone and I won’t be able to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Shakepeare’s death because I’ll be at her wedding.) She said this in a manner that implied (probably unintentionally) that it is weird to celebrate the birthdays of dead people whom you never knew “just because” they penned great works of literature.

I agree that it is not terribly common to celebrate the lives of dead people whom I never knew because they penned great works of literature that inspire my life, move my soul, and draw me into closer relationship with the God who made both me and those writers and inspired their souls to write such works. But just because a thing is uncommon, that does not mean that it should not be done. Every November 22 and 29, I drink a toast to C.S. Lewis because while I never met the man, he has inspired my heart and soul and enriched my life in enormous ways. I would not be the woman that I am today without his writing. I am grateful to him for all that he did as a human being, as a Christian, and as a writer. I owe him so much, and those toasts (for his birthday and deathday) are one way that I can honor him.

The good, the true, and the beautiful are often considered to be the transcendentals. I believe that life is meaningless without those three elements. Culture is not worthwhile unless is carries with it those three things. I am enormously grateful to Evelyn Waugh for his openness to those three elements in his writing. In reading his works, I can see the importance that he placed on these elements. In reading Waugh, I have seen his faith and grown in my own. He has encouraged me to think about new ideas and to look at God in new ways.

Similarly, my beloved J.R.R. Tolkien reflects these ideas in his works. Professor Tolkien was a devout Catholic who fervently believed in the Lord of time. He also believed that literature could be (Lewand often is) inspired by the Divine Creator.

“We have come from God, and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. Indeed only by myth-making, only by becoming ‘sub-creator’ and inventing stories, can Man aspire to the state of perfection that he knew before the Fall. Our myths may be misguided, but they steer however shakily towards the true harbour, while materialistic ‘progress’ leads only to a yawning abyss and the Iron Crown of the power of evil.”

-J.R.R. Tolkien

Lewis, Tolkien, and Waugh are but three examples of writers who reflected their Christian faith in their writings. Other writers did this as well, some in more obvious ways than others. This sort of literature is an important element of high culture. Culture demands truth, beauty, and goodness to survive. Our souls, which eternally crave God, desire this kind of literature, this kind of culture. It is important to celebrate this culture, to embrace it. To me, it is important to take time to celebrate the authors who celebrated and encouraged this sort of culture.

I think that C.S. Lewis might find it odd that I celebrate his birthday. I’m sure that Jane Austen would look a bit askance at the idea that I celebrate her birthday. But they celebrated culture. They embraced the idea of celebrating life. Their characters embraced life. Their characters rejoiced in good things. And while they might not completely understand this, I believe in celebrating them as a way of honoring what they did for literature and as a way of celebrating life, of celebrating the good, the true, and the beautiful.

These authors wrote in part because of a desire for another world. Faith inspired these authors. Hope inspired them. Look at the worlds that they created. Look at the characters that they created. Shakespeare, Austen, and Waugh give us characters who at the very least reflect strong virtue, high virtue. They show us right and wrong, good and evil. They show us morality and the exercise of such a thing. Lewis and Tolkien give us glimpses of eternity, of heaven. These authors must be embraced and celebrated. They point us towards God, and that is a beautiful thing, which must be embraced and celebrated.

Halfway Out of the Dark

For regular readers of my blog, it can be no secret that I love Advent. I love this season of preparation for the celebration of Christ’s coming into the world. I have to admit that one of my favorite things about Advent is my Advent wreath.

IMG_2388

Here’s the thing about that “wreath.” I love light. I love candles. I think that candles and candlelight are beautiful. But I also love these particular candles because they represent Christ the Light of the World. I love the idea of Christ the Light coming into a world made dark by sin and Death. He brought his brilliant radiance into the world and changed everything.

As the Byzantine Tropar of Christmas says,

Your birth, o Christ our God, has shed upon the world the light of knowledge. For through it, those who worshipped the stars have learned from a star to worship thee the Son of Justice and to know you, the Dawn from on high. Glory be to you, o Lord!

Christ came into the world bringing light and truth. Even if Jesus wasn’t actually born on December 25, it is appropriate that we celebrate the coming of Jesus just after the Winter Solstice. As the days begin to lengthen and the daylight begins to increase, we celebrate the birth of him who must increase in our lives and our hearts, of him who brings light into our lives. And the darkness flees from Christ, the Light of the World. Darkness does not understand Christ. When we welcome Christ into our hearts and our homes, darkness has no choice but to flee from his light.

The light shines in the darkness and the darkness could not comprehend it.

-John 1:5

Christmas is in 20 days. We are halfway through the Fast of Philip. My Advent wreath is half illuminated. We are halfway out of the dark. We are halfway to the great celebration of the coming of the Light of the World. As we complete these forty days, I encourage you to seek out the Light of the World and ask him to dwell more fully in your heart.