Wrote this five years after the previous poem. Slow learner.
Reflection by Joshua Elzner
“There is a beautiful reality which one discovers through growing in the childlike spontaneity of love, through being enfolded ever more deeply and consciously in the dimension of gift. This is, namely, the truth that holiness does not consist in surpassing our own limitations, either as a creature or as an individual, but rather in accepting them and coming to live joyfully within them. It could be said that the only limitation which we need to fight to overcome is the narrowness of our own sin, which blinds our perspective, isolates us within ourselves in possessiveness, pride, and fear, and draws us to dominate and abuse others and creation. But this sin is precisely a distortion of our creaturehood, not an essential part of it; it is the false effort to be bigger than we truly are, or to be something altogether different. Sanctity, in the last analysis, consists in simply being able to truly be a human being—indeed, more, in being oneself in the eyes of God.
“Precisely by wanting to “be like God” in a false way which went against their creaturely limitation and dependence upon God, Adam and Eve found their nature corrupted and broken. For us, therefore, returning to dependency upon the Father and trustingly accepting our littleness and our limitation is at the heart of our healing from sin, our rediscovery of the happiness of being beloved children. This is the happiness for which God made us.
“It is fear and pride which impel us to strive to be something that we are not, to fashion an “ideal” in our minds toward which we strive. Anyone who has taken a big step in life, whether in embracing a new vocation or a new job or a new way of living, has experienced the human tendency to “imagine” oneself in the new state. Certain ideas crystallize in our minds and we tend to act in a way so as to fashion ourselves according to these ideas. Because of this we can tend to become blind to the actual responsibilities incumbent upon us in our state, to the actual invitation of God that is coming to us in prayer and in the circumstances of our lives. Above all, we lose sight of the gift that each day and each new moment is meant to be for us. Further, we can experience a kind of “self-alienation” when we do not live up to our ideal, and consequently we feel like a failure. We say to ourselves: “This is who I was meant to be, but I am too weak, too broken to live up to it. Now God must truly be frustrated with me, at least as frustrated as I am with myself.”
“This kind of experience of humiliation can be healing, however, for it teaches us not to rely so much upon our own ideas or imagination. Rather, God’s grace seeks to penetrate into this experience of weakness and failure, and to awaken in us something much more pure and profound. We learn to see ourselves, not according to our own limited ideals, which are always more or less impersonal, but as God himself sees us. Then we realize that he loves us just as we are, here and now. He sees and loves in us the deepest and truest personal mystery that is our own. Who we really are is precisely who we are in God’s eyes. And there is nothing in the least impersonal or general about the way that he loves us, nor about the invitation that his love begets in our hearts to become free through responding to this love. He invites us to become, so to speak, “more than we are,” not by becoming someone else, or by living up to an abstract ideal, but by allowing the truth that he has already implanted within us to blossom from within and to express itself outwardly, to come to full maturity.
“The encounter with God’s love in the midst of our own weakness and poverty goes still deeper than this. Ultimately it can lead us to simply entrusting our own limitations, our own brokenness, hopes, desires, and fears, into the hands of the One whom we know loves us—and leaving them there. This is true surrender. Rather than needing to control and fashion our own lives, our own growth, our own sanctity, we simply leave it in the hands of the Father. On our part, all that is ultimately necessary is to receive each new day as he gives it, each moment as it flows from his loving hands, and to respond to it with all of our heart. In his will, indeed, is our peace. If we simply surrender to him and obey him in childlike trust and simplicity, he will, truly, take care of the rest.”
by Andrew Petiprin June 4, 2021
About ten years ago, I felt overwhelmed with all sorts of things in my life, and I confided some of my troubles to a wise mentor. I later found out that he was going through something truly awful at the time; my concerns were ultimately very trivial by any standard, but must have seemed especially so to him at the time.
When I told him my woes, he had paused for a long while, then looked at me and unexpectedly asked, “Is it real?”
“Is what real?” I replied.
“All the Jesus stuff. The cross, the empty tomb, all of it? I know you say it is, but do you really believe it?”
And at that moment, I realized that far too often in my life, I am practically an atheist.
That is, when it comes to how I react in difficult circumstances, my instinct is not to think of God’s goodness and mercy, or even his wrath and judgment. My first instinct is not toward hope. Rather, I only think of myself. How will this situation create even greater inconveniences than I already face? How will that problem ever be resolved? How am I expected to deal with this?
Even in the most mundane matters, I find myself imagining the worst-case scenarios and leaving God’s grace completely out of my calculations. In such moments, when they come, I seem to answer my old friend’s question with, No, it’s not always real.
Last week, I woke up from a difficult night of pointless worrying only to find a tweet from another wise friend, who quoted the first stanza of St. John Henry Newman’s great hymn:
Lead, kindly Light, amid th’encircling gloom;
Lead thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home;
Lead thou me on!
Keep thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene – one step enough for me.
My night was not a complete catastrophe, but it did concern a family matter—the kind of thing every parent says is normal and relatable but which feels so lonely when you’re actually dealing with it. We parents are often so quick to see problems, as they arrive, as indictments of our own character rather than simply life, as it comes. Newman’s familiar words were just the reminder I needed to keep it real.
My friend shared these words because it was the 188th anniversary of their composition. Newman tells us in the Apologia,
I was aching to get home; yet for want of a vessel I was kept at Palermo for three weeks. I began to visit the Churches, and they calmed my impatience, though I did not attend any services. I knew nothing of the presence of the Blessed Sacrament there. At last I got off in an orange boat, bound for Marseilles. Then it was that I wrote the lines, “Lead, kindly light,” which have since become well known.
I would not call Newman an optimist. Being a good Christian does not always mean being cheerful or bending over backward to put a positive spin on the worst things. Newman’s words do not evoke a facile “God is in control” affirmation.
But they are full of hope, and Newman was a man of great hope, which has always made me feel better about my life and the world. His work makes Christ real again, deep within me. Newman’s great hymn, written at the height of his Anglican influence, foreshadows his entry into full communion with the Catholic Church twelve years later. I endured the losses and enjoyed the gains of my own similar journey in large part because of his example. Newman disabused me of any idea that I would be entering an assembly, or living a life, without any problems. But his witness always assured me that if I moved forward in God’s direction, however slowly, I would find my way.
Seeing Newman’s familiar words pop up on my screen after my own recent dark night reminded me that the Church—and especially Catholic media—should do a bit more for its underserved market of people who would like—nay, badly need—a greater sense of hope in everyday circumstances.
People have hard times for all sorts of reasons—stress, loneliness, anger issues, health problems, financial woes, you name it.
There’s nothing wrong with stating this plainly: Because Christ died and lives for you, it’s all going to be ok. There’s nothing wrong with reassuring people: Your lousy situation could very well get better, and if it does, it is a victory for the kingdom of God.
Again, Newman’s words set the tone: “One step enough for me.” Sometimes that’s all we need. Just a little bit of good news can pack a powerful punch of grace.
And that’s how hope works. It is not particularly reasonable. It is not dependent on facts. It is not what we or anyone should expect. It is all because the Jesus stuff is real—the cross, the empty tomb, all of it.
What evidence-based judgment does an alcoholic have to think he can quit drinking? All the evidence seems to be stacked against him. And yet, he goes one minute, one hour, one day, one week. He is led to a new place with a whole new rhythm of life. He becomes someone who does not drink anymore, but he cannot ever dare to walk alone. It never stops being one step at a time.
Newman’s “encircling gloom” is always there. It’s not just the pandemic or the lockdowns or elections or protests or Church fights. It’s all those hope-sapping moments of emptiness at the first sign of difficulty in our daily lives.
We lie to ourselves if we ignore the possibility that everything that matters to us could just fall apart. And sometimes things are just really bad—like they were for my wise friend ten years ago, and like they were for Newman, seriously ill and stranded alone on an island where he did not know the language and did not practice the religion. But in both men’s cases, the Lord was there.
And there is the source of hope, even for those unaware.
I may forget God, but he never forgets me. Until the day I take my last step toward him, I pray I keep following where he leads.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Andrew Petiprin is Fellow of Popular Culture at the Word on Fire Institute. He is an author and former Anglican cleric who came into full communion with the Catholic Church on January 1, 2019. He earned an M.Div. from Yale University and an M.Phil from Oxford University.
I repost this every Lent. It’s still the best recommendation as far as I am concerned.
This comes from a Magnificat article written by Fr. Peter John Cameron a few years ago. I do not have time to quote the whole article (which is always dangerous because what you read will be edited), but I hope–especially those of you who despair of ever giving up what he suggests we give up–that you will find some hope in what he says:
Here’s what to give this Lent: the doubt that goes, “I can never get closer to God because I’m too sinful, too flawed, too weak.” This is a lethal attitude, for it based on the false presumption that we can possess something of our own–that does not come from God–by which we can please God. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Only what is from God can please God. …
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Reblogged from “Where Peter Is”
We sat in the car, my husband and I, still stunned, trying to eat a quick dinner before we drove to the hospital. I was avoiding looking at the medical building we had left earlier, the one with the unfamiliar doctor’s office where I’d heard the terrible words: “I’m so sorry, I see your baby’s heart…but it isn’t beating.”
I broke the silence, plaintively: “I just don’t feel prepared for this—spiritually prepared. I should feel more ready for something so big. I haven’t been praying as much, doing what I should. I’m tired. I feel completely unready for what is going to happen.” In my head, I was running through all of the heroic stories of saints and other Catholics I’d read about who had faced losses of children or spouses and terminal diagnoses with expressions of their trust in God. How could I possibly do that?
He nodded. As usual, we were of the same mind, perceiving what lay ahead—the stillbirth of our fourth child—as a kind of spiritual challenge to which we felt we should be able to rise. We should know how to pray through it, or “offer it up,” or explain it to others in spiritual terms, including our other children.
But we couldn’t.
The experience was a crisis. It was the traumatic loss of a child who we never got to know, one that upended our lives and changed the future we expected for our family. In the words of Pope Francis, describing “crisis” in his recent address to the Roman Curia, it is “an extraordinary event” that creates “a sense of trepidation, anxiety, upset and uncertainty in the face of decisions to be made”. Crises prompt our response, whether we face them as individuals or as a society.
This year has undoubtedly brought some sort of crisis into all of our lives, to be honest. “If we can recover the courage and humility to admit that a time of crisis is a time of the Spirit,” this pope with the heart of a spiritual director tells us, “whenever we are faced with the experience of darkness, weakness, vulnerability, contradiction, and loss, we will no longer feel overwhelmed. Instead, we will keep trusting that things are about to take a new shape, emerging exclusively from the experience of a grace hidden in the darkness.”
God in his mercy allowed my husband and me to be disarmed and disquieted and completely vulnerable in the crisis we faced. There was simply nothing we could do: nothing could change the fact that our child had suddenly and inexplicably died before birth, at 22 weeks gestation. All we could do was to feel ourselves completely at the mercy of the situation, to accept what would come next, and to allow others to guide us and minister to us.
It felt foreign and exposing. We were powerless. In our privileged lives, we’d never experienced anything quite like it, not to that extreme, and there was no way out but to go through it all. This reality tested the limits of our ideas about how faithful people respond in suffering and tragedy. I had heard the expression before—from St. Therese and Bernanos’s country priest—that “everything is grace,” and it sounded beautiful and meaningful. But did I really know what those words mean? Did I truly believe that God is love and is always with us?
The truth is that God uses these moments of profound vulnerability to draw closer to us. At the edge of our inadequacy, in his goodness, he comes to us. This can only happen when we put down (or are forced to put down) our defenses and accept the realities in which we find ourselves—in my case, beyond the ability to understand or explain—and allow him to come to us.
It was in our great need and only because we were forced to accept things as they were that God was able to break through our attempts at self-sufficiency with his love. “God always loves us with a greater love than we have for ourselves. This is his secret for entering our hearts,” said Pope Francis in his homily on Christmas Eve. “God knows that the only way to save us, to heal us from within, is by loving us: there is no other way.”
It is into this space that God enters and is with us: the concreteness of our reality when we accept it and allow him in. “He knows that we become better only by accepting his unfailing love, an unchanging love that changes us.” And he comes as a child, as a son who is given to us, and who has a name: Emmanuel. “Only the love of Jesus can transform our life, heal our deepest hurts, and set us free.”
Francis returned repeatedly during this Advent and Christmas season to the tenderness and weakness of the child Jesus, the son given to us who is the source of our strength and courage to accept things as they are and to therefore enter in more deeply to the place where God meets us. “Jesus’ appearance in our midst is a gift from the Father,” he wrote in Patris Corde, his letter on St. Joseph, “which makes it possible for each of us to be reconciled to the flesh of our own history, even when we fail to understand it completely.” It is the coming of Emmanuel which has the power to open our hearts to God’s love and to prompt our love in response. “In the Child Jesus, God shows himself to be lovable, full of goodness and gentleness. We can truly love a God like that with all our hearts.”
The coming of Jesus in his lovable littleness is proof for us of the goodness of God whose love gives us life. It is only in our vulnerability and neediness that we can begin to accept this gift, because we knew then that “this is pure grace, not by any merit of our own.” Christmas reveals to us present to our painful reality that “Everything is grace, a gift of grace,” said Pope Francis in his catechesis on Christmas. “And this gift of grace, we receive it through the simplicity and humanity of Christmas … in the rediscovered awareness that that humble and poor Child, hidden away and helpless, is God himself, made man for us.”
All night long, we tried to rest while the induction of labor began. I listened to music—lullabies like I the ones I played every night to put my three-year-old to sleep—and prayed, feebly begging God for peace when I couldn’t sleep. I wanted the peace of Assisi, a place we visited on an Easter pilgrimage in 2018 and left me with an imprint in my memory of what can grow from a single life radically given over to God, even centuries later.
That night, I wanted to escape, and I filled my mind with thoughts of quiet, warmly-lit streets that wound their way to the basilicas on either end of the medieval Italian hill town. I thought of how easy it had been to feel God’s presence there, in the very stones of Assisi. Throughout that painful night, I longed to feel his presence again. “Give me the peace of Assisi” was my prayer. God would not fail to answer it.
With his Ignatian heart, Pope Francis always draws our focus to how our feelings and our senses respond to our human experiences. The emotions are indeed where Our Lord can speak, and Francis at Christmas drew our attention back to that place inside ourselves where the response to a crisis begins: “Do you have a feeling of failure or inadequacy, the fear that you will never emerge from the dark tunnel of trial? God says to you, ‘Have courage, I am with you.’”
I always had the impression that courage was a human virtue, something we did because we knew something others didn’t. I thought courage was how, when we were beyond our strength, God would fill in the gaps with his love and grace. But looking back, I learned that night that God’s presence with us doesn’t remind us to be strong or courageous; rather, as Francis reminded us, Christ is our strength and our courage. “Only the Lord can give us the strength needed to accept life as it is, with all its contradictions, frustrations and disappointments,” Pope Francis writes in Patris Corde. And the courage we receive does not come from a show of power, or only in special places, but from presence, the presence of a child: “He does this not in words, but by making himself a child with you and for you.” Again, Emmanuel.
In reflecting on St. Joseph in Patris Corde, Pope Francis called this “creative courage”: engaging with the reality of our own lives and stories, no matter the crises they entail so that in hope we may creatively move forward with God. “In the face of difficulty, we can either give up and walk away, or somehow engage with it. At times, difficulties bring out resources we did not even think we had.” This is not drawing on our own strength, but on God’s. When God is with us, he acts by trusting that we will lovingly receive him and courageously and creatively act with him. Joseph did this when God trusted him to care for Mary and Jesus and to flee Herod’s slaughter:
Our lives can be miraculously reborn if we find the courage to live them in accordance with the Gospel. It does not matter if everything seems to have gone wrong or some things can no longer be fixed. God can make flowers spring up from stony ground.
While laboring later that morning, we heard a knock on the door and the familiar, though subdued, voice of our pastor outside. It had been a difficult few hours and I wasn’t sure I could bear to see anyone. My husband left the room to talk to him and soon returned—with a pyx.
Emmanuel. God with us.
And peace. Christ, our Peace, the peace of Assisi.
Our child was not born silently during a dark sleepless night. He was born in the late morning, a few hours after sharing in the Eucharistic feast with his parents.
My midwife asked after wrapping him in a tiny blanket, “are you ready? It’s a boy,” and to us a son was given.
We named him Francis.
This is the undying heart of our hope, the incandescent core that gives warmth and meaning to our life. Underlying all our strengths and weaknesses, stronger than all our past hurts and failures, or our fears and concerns about the future, there is this great truth: we are beloved sons and daughters. God’s love for us does not, and never will, depend upon us. It is completely free love. Tonight cannot be explained in any other way: it is purely grace. Everything is grace. The gift is completely free, unearned by any of us, pure grace.
— Homily on Christmas Eve