Friday, December 2, 2016

The (Passive) Pursuit of Happiness

I'm not happy.

I don't expect my religion to make me happy, either. That isn't the purpose of religion.

C.S. Lewis wrote once that he didn't become a Christian to become happy -- he always knew a bottle of Port would do that much for him. I can appreciate the sentiment. I know what will make me happy. Sex makes me happy. Being drunk makes me happy. Getting high off pills makes me happy. There are some things that make me happy. God isn't one of them.

But still, sex and drugs and drunkenness are things I've sworn off in order to form a right relationship with God. (Well, except that I still get pretty drunk on occasion. Whoops.) Because I love God, and that's what he expects from me. Not because he needs me to be a certain way. He doesn't need anything. He only wants what's best for me. And right now, what's best for me does not include my happiness.

It's hard. Most of my friends are doing things "the wrong way." I'm not saying that in judgment of them. It's more of a mental contrast I have. I try so hard to do things "the right way," the chaste way, the sober way. Plenty of my friends live with their significant others. Plenty of my friends have sex outside of marriage. Plenty of my friends regularly drink too much and party too hard and get too high and don't have a care in the world to show for it, it seems. I can't help but notice. And that's hard.

In every chastity talk I've ever heard, in every Come To Jesus testimony I've ever listened to, doing things the right way is supposed to make me happy. But it doesn't. And I'm not really afraid to say that; not anymore, anyway. I used to be. I used to be so afraid of contaminating my own witness to the Truth by telling the truth. That's dangerous. Jesus doesn't want us to lie for him. The truth is, I have given up a lot of things that made me happy for the Truth, and in turn, have sacrificed a lot of my own happiness. I have to learn how to be okay with that.

People tell me all the tired cliches: don't compare your life to others', don't expect so much out of life, don't do this, don't do that. Okay.

So I don't. Instead of looking at other people's lives, I try to take some time to look at mine, which looks nothing like I wanted it to look when I got to be the age I am now. And I'm not happy.

So I choose to expect nothing out of life. Which, by the way, is depressing. And I'm not happy. I offer a Rosary every day. I go to Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation. I'm consecrated to Mary. I have a devotion to the Divine Mercy. I go to confession nearly every other week, if not every week. I am careful not to use God's name in vain. I don't have sex with my boyfriend. I don't live with him. I don't do drugs. I don't drink to excess except on the rare occasion that I forget to pace myself at a holiday party or other type of gathering. I try to be a good Catholic. I try hard.

And I'm not happy.

I am quite certain I am where God wants me to be in life right now. I think I'm observing his will. And I'm not happy. The tug-of-war that creates in my prayer life is between me and God, but most things are. I love him. I want to be his and be with him forever. I trust him, even when I don't feel like I do.

Maybe someday I'll be happy. I don't know. Maybe someday, I will feel the glorious delight of contentment and be okay.

For now, I'm not happy. God be praised in all things.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Burning

When I was a teenager I would walk up and down the streets of the neighborhood a few down from mine and smoke cigarettes. These walks were typically accompanied by conversations on the phone, or listening to music, or just watching the clouds pass slowly in the sky. I would usually leave the house within an hour or two of getting home from school and stay out until the sun started to set itself low across the trees. I soaked up the silence and the smell of a sort-of rural-suburbia, letting the sharp incense of a day too long flow slowly down my throat, burning. As I walked, the sky would change from a bright blue scattered with white fluff to a grim orange and purple, and sweat would roll down my neck as gently as I strolled along the pavement in my holey Chuck Taylors with loose, checkered laces. Click-click, inhale, hold, sigh. Repeat.

These walks were leisurely, if only for the fact that they were away. I didn't always get along with my parents, but even when I thought I hated them, I felt within me a deep eagerness to never disappoint them. And still, I disappointed them often, I think. I didn't care for school and I slept til 4PM in the summer and stayed up until 5 (AM, that is). I wore jeans with tears that revealed my sometimes-shaved legs to accompany the eyeliner that revealed nothing of my eyelids. I cussed. I didn't like church. I hung out with people who did drugs. My room was always a mess.

For everything my parents knew and disliked, I couldn't stand for them to know that I smoked cigarettes. There was a stigma against cigarettes in my home -- my grandfather had died of smoking-induced sickness and my father had to quit when his life was nearly threatened by his own body, too. It was a silent pact they knew nothing about -- I would smoke to relieve my stress, and they wouldn't know, to spare them anymore stress.

And so, there I found myself, every afternoon. Up and down the streets of a little lake community where everybody knew everybody. I was hidden, but hidden in plain sight. I somehow didn't mind this, though. I would pass by and wave an older couple with a dogwood tree in their front yard nearly every day. One little boy rode his bike back and forth along one of the streets I walked most frequently. Vehicles would come in and go out according to the same rhythm every day. No one ever said anything. Even if they had, I wouldn't have cared. They weren't my parents.

I lay on my bed tonight staring up at an image of the Sacred Heart that hangs above my pillow, remembering those scattered ashes in the wind that carried my cares behind me and away, until finally nothing remained of my antidote but the spongey filter at the end. I would toss them on the ground and watch them burn, with my hands in my pockets. After a few moments, if they didn't die out on their own, I'd twist my foot over them, checking again to make sure the delicious orange glow had stifled into a black, ashy scuff. Sooner than later, cigarettes burn out, and then the next one, and then the next four, and then the whole pack. And you have to go home and hope no one passes by too closely as you make your way to the bathroom to spray on way too much perfume, your palms nervous with sweat and your forehead burning.

The image of the Sacred Heart which hangs above my bed now hung in my room at my parents' house during those times that I would leave and come back hours later faking innocence. It belonged to my grandpa, and for years before it was my own it overlooked my cousins and me as we made a mess of the playroom at Grandma's. His face is serious, but soft; his eyes are piercing, but not threatening. He holds up two fingers on one hand while the other points to his heart, which is burning.

He watches me now as he watched me then -- and I'm afraid my imagination hasn't gone too far away. I still play pretend before his very eyes -- I still fake innocence and act dumb as I pass him by, day and night. I lay my head to rest under his watchful care, all the while pressing away the thought of how much he sees and how much he knows.

I can't cover the scent of my sins and I can't stomp out the blazing ashes I heap on my own head when I inhale the empty yet deadly promises of the world. There is no walking away from the Almighty -- but, praise God, he also never walks away from me.

So maybe I'll keep up this pattern, or maybe I won't. I pray for the grace to be alert and vigilant, and to stand back and let God fight off the temptations I struggle with. But I can't guarantee that the next chance I get, I won't find myself mindlessly wandering away, to burn up some of my soul in exchange for a few moments of feeling alright. I can try. But I can't know.

I can only hope that when I return home, and try to make my way to the shelter of my Savior, that the Light will still be burning.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Tattered

When I was in high school, every student was required to meet regularly with a guidance counselor to make sure they were staying on track and making the best decisions for their academic career. Your guidance counselor your freshman year would be the same guidance counselor all four years of high school, so that the one who helped you adjust to high school life would also help you adjust to leaving it behind.

Unfortunately for my guidance counselor, I had a lot of issues that stretched well beyond my schoolwork. Fortunately for me, she had a degree in helping crazy people like myself live life.

I don't remember exactly when, or how, but at some point, it stopped being about how messed up I was (a term, of course, she never used), and started being about Jesus. I still remember how confused I felt when she held up a holy card depicting Jesus knocking on a door, and told me that he wanted me to let him into my life. I stared blankly and wondered why this was being discussed. I thought I had far more pressing issues than a lack of religiosity.

At some point, my guidance counselor gave me her Bible from a retreat she had gone to, and told me to keep it. I did. It came to me in almost perfect condition -- with the singular exception of "MEG - Tec 128" written in blue sharpie on the bottom and right sides. It didn't stay that way for long.

It gave me something to do in class besides daydream. Its pages are lined with doodles; the front cover and title page are filled with notes of homework assignments I didn't want to forget scrambled in alongside the name of a lover written over and over (I apologize for being a teenager at one point). The O's of the printed lettering of the title page are filled in with black pen, and a red squiggle makes its way across the bottom right corner.

At some point, I stopped doodling and started reading.

The Gospel of John is marked sporadically with red and black ink; entire Psalms are highlighted. There are notes in the margins and tabs marking the start of different books. Some corners are folded and some pages are ripped. It has been used and loved in a way that other religious books I own have never been. Religion fascinated me; the Bible drew me in.

This Bible which once accompanied me to all my classes and to sleepovers and even to events and situations that were in stark contrast to its commandments now sits on my bookshelf, one Bible among several. The binding is held together by purple duct tape. Some of the ratty edges of the cover have been replaced with clear tape. Some of the pages are wearied by a spilled Dr. Pepper. It isn't pretty, and wouldn't be taken by any thrift store anywhere.

I took it down tonight to see if I could go back. Back to a time when my soul was lost, but searching -- before it was found, and lazy. When my mind was dark, but hungry -- before it was busy, and tired. When my heart was blind, but open, reaching into the night and searching with eager arms for the course hairs of a face matted with blood spilled for me; for the strong arms outstretched and the feet as dusty as the road and the face -- the real face -- of the God of the ages. When I didn't see Jesus, but I knew him, and I wanted to feel him near me. Unlike now, when I know where to find him, and I turn my face away for "more important" things.

This Bible tells a story -- a love story. Of course, every Bible tells "the" story -- of God and man and salvation. But only this Bible tells this story: the story of a battered and broken me finding a battered and broken God in the wreckage of my life. Of the word of God which would tolerate a few minutes of misuse in exchange for a few minutes of teaching. Of the Spirit of God which patiently rested between the pages while I drank or smoked or hooked up or whatever. Of an interest which became a passion.

I have forgotten that this is where much of today began. I have lost the habit of studying the Scriptures for the purpose of knowing God, rather than the purpose of writing a paper. Where the door to my heart was once left propped open, it is not only shut, but the curtains are closed.

And someone is knocking.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

A Precious Daughter

God is good at surprising me. I always expect one thing from him, or maybe another, or maybe even this thing, but in the end, whatever he does comes so far out of left field I know he's the one behind it -- because it wasn't even the last thing I expected; it wasn't even on the list.

It was this subtle comfort I took with me as I began a 33 day preparation period at the end of which I will consecrate myself to Jesus through Mary. I have learned through the years that when faith and fear collide, only God will remain standing at the end, and because my Father stands, I remain on his shoulders. It is not as though I have nothing to fear; it is more that I have a lot to fear, but I am learning to trust even in the dark.

And so, throwing caution to the wind and letting that be what pressed the sails of my tiny ship, I set out on this journey. The first few days were expectedly trying: I learned that consecration to Mary meant belonging to Mary, and that by consecrating myself I would be surrendering completely my right to determine who receives the graces from my prayers and sacrifices. I thought of my family members, my friends, the unborn, the poor, the lost, and everyone else I take to prayer with such a weighted heart. I would be giving them up, it seemed, to follow this call I have heard for so long to let Mary take hold of my life. I didn't know it would be this extreme; I didn't know it would cost this much.

But I kept going. One of the first things I learned at the dawn of my reversion to Catholicism was Mother Teresa's way of doing it anyway. I take no credit for this grace in my life. It was wholly inspired by her and remains entirely the work of Jesus. When I don't want to go to confession, I don't want to amend my life, I don't want to go to Mass, I try my best to do it anyway. (If only I could carry this over to daily prayer and the Rosary -- Jesus help me).

And so, I pressed on, reminding myself that commitment wouldn't come until day 34, and I should at least try to do it anyway. I am so glad I did. After learning that consecration to Mary meant such a life of surrender and what felt like loss, I learned that what I receive in turn is well worth it: in exchange for my graces, I receive Mary's; in exchange for my heart, I receive hers; in exchange for my devotion to her and God's will in her, she devotes herself to me and my concerns.

I don't have to worry about the people I pray for who will not receive graces from my prayers at my will anymore -- instead, they will receive help from the Mother of God, whose child I am and who will never brush my heart aside. Even so, I can still pray for them, and simply trust Mary to do as she pleases with the graces that come. This sounded much scarier before I knew how much she loves me.

One of the biggest hurdles in my spiritual life is the constant nagging feeling that I can't be myself. I read the lives of the Saints and, while inspired by them, can't find it in me to do the same things they did. I don't feel the sort of person to abandon all and start a religious order, or to strip naked before my family and take on a life of utter poverty, or lead an army, or spend hours in the confessional. The Saints are extraordinary. The Saints aren't me.

But Mary...I can try to be like Mary. What is there at the heart of her life but to say yes to God and take him into my life? Obviously, there is so much more, but I can start there. I can strive to be more like Mary, who in turn will show me how to be more like Jesus. And it turns out, this doesn't mean I have to veil and cover my arms and resign to a shack in Nazareth doing laundry and cooking all day. It means I will become more like me.

When I first started the process of preparing to consecrate myself to Jesus through Mary, one of my fears was that I would have to change so much about who I am. To my delight and surprise, instead, as I near the end of this 33 day journey, I find that I have never been more comfortable, never felt more affirmed, listening to the music I like and taking naps and watching Netflix even when my scruples tell me I'm a heathen for it.

I also know exactly what I want, and where I want, my next tattoo to be. Would you believe it is Marian?

I realized this shift yesterday. The guilt I feel about being myself is beginning to pale, and I have been learning, without even knowing it, how much God loves me. As soon as I realized it, I began to reflect on it. All this time I thought God wanted me to focus on what is wrong in my life, what needs to change, and how soon. Could it be that he wants me, at this time, to know what is right about me?

And at this thought, I felt a quiet but gripping reassurance from the depths of my heart: God wants me to know who I am, and to embrace it, because if I don't start there, nothing else he asks of me will make sense.

And so, here I am, in all my pink-haired, tattooed, loud, obnoxious glory -- a beloved daughter of God, not in spite of who I am, but because of it. And also, a daughter of Mary, who has already shown and given me so much, before my consecration day.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Muted.

I've struggled with whether or not I should say anything about this. I am deeply uncomfortable criticizing priests or bishops without explicitly just reason (blatant heresy, or abuse of persons, for example), and even then, I hesitate. I have such a deep respect for the clergy, and the office they hold and the Person they make present in our midst. And that, ultimately, is why I feel this must be said. The more I think about the reasons I respect the clergy, the more it hurts.

I realize that priests are busy. I also realize that they are human -- and that humans forget. We are clumsy and wayward and all of us are just trying to feel our way through this dark world.

My world, and the world for so many others, was very dark on Sunday with the loss of nearly fifty lives, and the impact on countless more whose lives will never be the same, at the now well-known shooting in an Orlando gay bar. Tragedy drags my heart down often, regardless of who the victim or victims may be, but this one struck home. These were my brothers and sisters in the gay community -- targeted specifically because they were gay.

Writing this still now puts knots in my stomach. The youngest victim was 18, and had only recently graduated high school. Several of the deceased died with their partners, and one of the deceased was not herself gay -- she was the straight mother of a gay son, and she had beaten cancer twice and had ten other children (her son survived, by the way). Many were college students. Some were full fledged adults. All are loved by God.

Each of these people had a story -- one that was still being written, which was far from seeming over. Each was created in the image and likeness of God, and each was on Jesus' mind and in his heart as he hung on the cross. They loved and were loved. They had hopes, they had dreams, and they had plans for the next day.

This attack has been ceaselessly named the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history. And yet, somehow, I have lost count of the LGBT people I know, in small towns and huge cities, who went to Mass or a non-Catholic church service on Sunday seeking solace from the fear and sadness only to hear no mention of the shooting -- let alone that the victims were targeted for being gay.

I know and understand that several Catholic and other Christian public figures have decried the massacre, and condemned violence. This is wonderful. And yet, it seems that I have heard very little from Christian circles -- be it clergy or laypeople -- specifically mentioning that this was a crime against gay people because they were gay.

Certain public figures -- whom I will not name -- insist on avoiding referring to the victims as gay or belonging to the LGBT community, opting instead to call them "Americans" and to state that they are mourning as Americans who have lost Americans.

This is all well and good. But why is this shooting unique from other shootings? What makes these victims Americans who need no other designation while victims of other mass shootings are referred to as students, black churchgoers, children?

Perhaps it is that people genuinely think they are doing the LGBT community some sort of service by not referring to their being members of the LGBT community. This is possible, especially in a Christian climate that fears the word "gay" and fears even more its implications.

But please -- please -- don't mute our existence. LGBT people -- my people -- were targeted by the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history. Not because we are American. Not because we are people. The victims in Orlando were targeted and killed because they were gay.

To say so is not politicizing. It is stating a fact. It isn't succumbing to liberal ideologies. It's recognizing the reality before us. Again:

The deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history targeted LGBT people because they were LGBT people.

It is more than okay to say so. God is not offended by the truth. Please, I beg you, say so. And once you've said so, condemn it. Condemn homophobia. Condemn violence against gay people . Condemn violence in the name of God and proclaim for all to hear that God loves gay people.

If you haven't, please do. Please don't be afraid to talk about it. Please don't be afraid to say the victims weren't "just gays" as a friend of mine was told by his grandfather. Please don't be afraid to confront this mess with the love of Jesus Christ and the compassion and mercy which the Gospel requires of us.

And lastly, if you have gay friends or family members, ask how they're doing. They'll more than likely be relieved to know you care.

Friday, April 29, 2016

I am useless


I tend to accidentally stumble into nihilism when it comes to my thinking, and accidentally into utilitarianism when it comes to my choices. I'm constantly exhausted and depressed from doing so many things for what feels like no reason.

At the root of this issue is the fact that I see myself as useless, and therefore, worthless. I feel inadequate and my internalized response is to be excessively adequate. And then I feel it doesn't matter, it serves no real purpose, and it is all in vain.

Last night, I was at my friends' house holding their new baby girl. She's pretty cute, and holding her was my chosen method of therapy after the horrible day I had.

Watching her mommy hold her, though, became a sort-of therapy in itself. This child does nothing practical, personally, for her parents. She has taken much from them and has only been able to return it to them in the form of dirty diapers. Her favorite things to do are sleep, eat, and stare into space. And she does all these things fairly well. Apart from that, she contributes nothing materially valuable. She doesn't work, she doesn't provide, and she certainly doesn't clean up after herself.

But her parents do not see her this way. My friend, pictured, is clearly (sorry) exhausted. She's getting used to an irregular sleep cycle centered wholly on the needs of a days-old infant who is entirely dependent on her for food, which she needs every couple of hours, at least. Still, her joy hasn't faded. In fact, I would say, it has only increased, a hundred fold, with each day that has passed since the day she learned that her child existed.

And that, y'all, is this sweet baby's claim to fame. Joy. By her very existence, she gives meaning and purpose to the actions her parents take and creates a whole new and exciting dimension in their lives. She offers them no material benefit. She costs them money, time, and energy.

But she is so worthy, so precious to them, simply because she exists, that her parents are willing to give all this and more for no greater purpose than for her own sake. She exists, and this is reason enough to love her.

Her parents don't need her to do anything for them -- because by simply existing, she is already enough. More than enough. She exists, in these moments, as a perfect image of what it is to simply "be loved."

Her existence itself is meaningful -- speaking such long-forgotten truths as "love creates" and "love ignites" and "love begets love." We call babies "adorable," and by it we mean "cute." But the adoration in her mother's eyes, and her father's eyes, since they first saw her sweet little face and perfect poofy cheeks, is real. It is more than finding her cute; she inspires a deep awe in them, not for any marvelous capacity she may eventually possess, or because of any usefulness (or lack of) she poses, but simply because she is.

How much more, then, can a God who is totally self-sustaining and never tired love us whom he loved into existence? We are the physical embodiment of his love, made in his own precious image, receiving from him at all times a longing, loving gaze. He adores us, even while we offer nothing of any use to him. He is in awe of us, simply because we are.

I exist -- and that is enough to bring joy to my Father's heart. By the simple fact that I am, his world is somehow enriched, though he was lacking nothing before me and gains nothing for himself from me. I add nothing to his existence, but he would not think to call me worthless. For all he has given me, all I can return to him are my sins and my failures and sorrows. And his love and his gaze remain the same. God loves me for my own sake -- and nothing I can or can't do has ever been able to change that.

To put all that in very few words -- I am utterly useless to God, and his heart is filled with joy simply because he brought me into existence. He did not create me to be "useful." He thought of me and willed me into being, to be and to be loved.

This is more than enough for him. When will it be enough for me?

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Peter's Faith -- Alternatively Titled: The Future Of That Freak With Pink Hair

I dread being asked what I'm studying in college, because I know that as soon as I say "theology," I'll be met with a curious and pitying glance, followed quickly by, "Oh. What do you plan to do with that?"

And the honest-to-God truth is: I don't know. I have no idea.

For three years, off and on, I prayed about what I should do with my life. And this program at this school kept coming back to me. In 2014, I finally committed to it, and got started. I've enjoyed most of my classes so far, and my experience with the staff has been nothing short of delightful. And still, I'm tired.

I never planned to go to college growing up. It simply wasn't something I ever saw myself doing -- I hated school, and once I was out of high school, I relished in the freedom of work, having my own money, and free evenings.

And now, there's homework. Endless homework. Due to financial aid requirements based on my circumstances, I can't take a "break" without losing my aid. I finish one semester, and pick the next one up as soon as the following month begins. I don't get summer breaks. I don't get Christmas breaks. I don't get spring break. I don't have the option. I'll be following this pattern for the next four and a half years...at least.

So, when people ask, "Oh. What do you plan to do with that?" My response is dressed in a half-hearted smile, a shrug, and drenched in exhaustion: "Whatever God wants me to do, I guess."

It feels childish -- unbecoming of an adult, especially one so typically vested in planning and scheduling and organizing. It is unusual for me to hope, to dream, or to wonder (unless the wonder is the result of worry).

We hear sometimes that Peter's falling while attempting to walk on water to Jesus when He called was the direct result of his turning his gaze from the Christ and focusing instead on the waves. It seems like a clear-cut story: we look to Jesus, and we'll rise above; we look to the storm, and we'll sink.

But are those the only two possibilities? Faith and failure? Is it possible to look to Christ rather than focusing on the storm, and still feel the wind and the rain as they buffet against us, pressing us against our doubt and our clumsiness and the gravity which demands our submission?

Is it possible to keep your eyes on Christ and still feel so, so tired? Anxious? Drenched from the rain even if not swallowed up by the sea?

My answer is so typical of me: I don't know. Maybe I'm not supposed to know. Maybe it's not my job. Or maybe, Peter, being the coward he was that I so easily relate to, would not have even stepped out of the boat if he saw his denial of Christ, the responsibility he would have for the Church at its dawning, and his eventual execution under the sinister Emperor Nero.

Perhaps faith's only goal was not to keep Peter from looking around him; perhaps it was to keep him from looking too far ahead -- not only away from Christ, but beyond him, behind him. Even Christ, from a distance, appeared as a ghost, and the Apostles were afraid (Luke 24:37). Peter couldn't see into the distance -- not the distance of that stormy night, and not the distance of his life on earth.

What would Peter have said if asked what he planned to do when he made it to Jesus on the water? Maybe the same as me: "I don't know."

"What's out there?"
"I don't know."

"What's happening?"
"I don't know."

"What will you do if--"
"I don't know."

And yet, his Master beckoned. He calls to all of us the same. We don't always know what the future holds, or what we'll do if this, or if that. We can't always say what will happen if we step out and go to where Christ calls.

But, God-willing, we can echo Peter's sentiment toward his Master:

Where else would we go?