417bk1a6bfl-_sx306_bo1204203200_The following is from St. Thomas More’s “The Sadness of Christ,” a meditation on the passion and death of Christ which he wrote while imprisoned in the Tower of London awaiting his own trial and eventual martyrdom. The immediate context is his thoughts about the apostles falling asleep in the garden of Gethsemane after Jesus had already asked them to stay awake, and what that means for us, who also have a tendency to fall asleep during our prayers:

“Nevertheless, such is God’s kindness that even when we are negligent and slumbering on the pillow of our sins, He disturbs us from time to time, shakes us, strikes us, and does His best to wake us up by means of tribulations. But still, even though He thus proves Himself to be most loving even in His anger, most of us, in our gross human stupidity, misinterpret His action and imagine that such a great benefit is an injury, whereas actually (if we have any sense) we should feel bound to pray frequently and fervently that whenever we should wander away from Him He may use blows to drive us back to the right way, even though we are unwilling and struggle against Him.

Thus we must first pray that we may see the way and with the Church we must say to God, “From blindness of heart, deliver us, O Lord.” And with the prophet we must say, “Teach me to do your will” and “Show me your ways and teach me your paths.” Then we must intensely desire to run after you eagerly, O God, in the odor of your ointments, in the most sweet scent of your Spirit. But if we grow weary along the way (as we almost always do) and lag so far behind that we barely manage to follow at a distance, let us immediately say to God, “Take my right hand” and “Lead me along your path.”

Then if we are so overcome by weariness that we no longer have the heart to go on, if we are so soft and lazy that we are about to stop altogether,  let us beg God to drag us along even as we struggle not to go. Finally, if we resist when He draws us on gently, and are stiff-necked against the will of God, against our own salvation, utterly irrational like horses and mules which have no intellects, we ought to beseech God humbly in the most fitting words of the prophet, “Hold my jaws hard, O God, with bridle and bit when I do not draw near to you.”

But then, since the fondness for prayer is the first of our virtues to go when we are overtaken by sloth, and since we are reluctant to pray for anything (however useful) that we are reluctant to receive, certainly if we have any sense at all we ought to take this weakness into account well in advance, before we fall into such sick and troubled states of mind — we ought, in other words, to pour out to God unceasingly such prayers as I have mentioned, and we should humbly implore Him that, if at some later time we should ask for anything untoward — allured perhaps by the enticements of the flesh or seduced by a longing for worldly things or overthrown by the clever snares of the devils — He may be deaf to such prayers and avert what we pray for, showering upon us instead those things He knows will be good for us, no matter how much we beg Him to take them away. In fact, this is the way we normally act (if we are wise) when we are expecting a fever: we give advance warning to those who are to take care of us in our sickness that even if we are to beg them, they should not give us any of these things which our diseased condition makes us perversely long for, thought they are harmful to our health and only make the disease worse.”

I have been reading this passage over and over, meditating on the combination of dogged faith and hope with cagey realism about his own human frailty, redeemed by his absolute trust in the providence of God working all things out for good, even imprisonment, public disgrace, sickness, false accusations, mock trial and death. This confidence was his, I believe, because he prayed for it. Unfortunately it was not shared by his wife or most of his family, but I sincerely hope they came to understand eventually.

St. Thomas More, pray for us.

 

Ruckmarching
Training must be about more than personal development in order to be a path to Holiness.

A little over a week ago Kathleen and I were sitting on the couch having a date night. We had already folded the laundry and finished watching Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, which meant that the festivities were winding down towards bed time. (Do we know how to party it up or what?)

 

I switched on my Relevant Radio app on my phone and we listened to a short, two-minute podcast from Father James Kubickia. I cannot for the life of me remember which saint he was talking about, and I cannot find the podcast now. I have tried quite a few times since then, because he shared a quote which shocked and challenged me, and which I have been trying to place ever since. Apparently, whichever saint he was talking about once said in a letter:

“Your desire for suffering has grown sluggish.”

If I had been tracking at the time, that quote would have stopped me in them. It reminded me of something a Special Forces guy said in my hearing when I was at Fort Bragg last year for “leadership” training:

“Our Special Forces ancestors spent years living and fighting in the swamps in Vietnam, and we can’t even get up at 5:00 AM to go work out in an air-conditioned gym.”

Both ideas get at something that has long eaten at me, the idea that we Americans, especially American men, are the lesser sons of great fathers. I thought about both these quotes later that week when I was at the gym in the morning, after finishing my squats and deadlifts. The next thing on my schedule was sprints, and I had planned on doing them outside on the track, but it was in the low 40’s and I really wanted to let the sprints go, and just do a couple miles on the treadmill instead. Half of me couldn’t believe it. “Really? It’s 40 degrees out and you are whining about it being so cold!? What a wuss.”

The other half of me wasn’t listening. It was just complaining: “It’s chilly out and my throat will hurt, and I don’t want to sprint because my legs are tired, and I have to work today and…” yadah, yadah, yadah, yammering uselessly.

I did go out and do some sprints. But I am not what I used to be. There was a time when I had a goal (being Special Forces) that consumed my waking and sleeping and made me hungry for suffering. That desire has grown weak and sluggish, crowded over by the cares of civilian life and an unhealthy attachment to comfort, routine and convenience.

It is right and just that Special Forces should fade out as my reason for getting up in the morning. As a life goal it was always small potatoes, looming large in my mind only because of the smallness of my mind at the time. Being Special Forces would have been a fine goal, if it had been more about taking care of the team and protecting people than about my personal program of self-improvement. Nowadays I have my family, a higher, nobler and worthier goal than SF could ever be. I have medicine as well, which, as long as I think about care of patients rather than the medical detective novel I have running constantly in my own mind, is likewise a worthier goal. And I have more of a relationship with God than I used to, which is the noblest, highest and ultimate goal.

The problem is that these are only intellectual goals. I acknowledge them as projects on my to-do list, and check them off every day, but I do not love them, in the sense that I do not forget myself in pursuit of them. Or at least, I don’t forget myself very often. They don’t draw me so far as to desire suffering in order to be like Jesus.

When whichever saint it was said, “Your desire for suffering has grown sluggish” I think he was using that desire as a measure for love, and what he was really saying was, “Your love has grown sluggish and it no longer drives you to make sacrifices for God or neighbor.”

His accusation rings true in my soul. WOF crucifixion

Thomas more
St. Thomas More, Statesman and Martyr, Pray for us

Give me the grace, Good Lord

To set the world at naught. To set the mind firmly on You and not to hang upon the words of men’s mouths.

To be content to be solitary. Not to long for worldly pleasures. Little by little utterly to cast off the world and rid my mind of all its business.

Not to long to hear of earthly things, but that the hearing of worldly fancies may be displeasing to me.

Gladly to be thinking of God, piteously to call for His help. To lean into the comfort of God. Busily to labor to love Him.

To know my own vileness and wretchedness. To humble myself under the mighty hand of God. To bewail my sins and, for the purging of them, patiently to suffer adversity.

Gladly to bear my purgatory here. To be joyful in tribulations. To walk the narrow way that leads to life.

To have the last thing in remembrance. To have ever before my eyes my death that is ever at hand. To make death no stranger to me. To foresee and consider the everlasting fire of Hell. To pray for pardon before the judge comes.

To have continually in mind the passion that Christ suffered for me. For His benefits unceasingly to give Him thanks.

To buy the time again that I have lost. To abstain from vain conversations. To shun foolish mirth and gladness. To cut off unnecessary recreations.

Of worldly substance, friends, liberty, life and all, to set the loss at naught, for the winning of Christ.

To think my worst enemies my best friends, for the brethren of Joseph could never have done him so much good with their love and favor as they did him with their malice and hatred.

These minds are more to be desired of every man than all the treasures of all the princes and kings, Christian and heathen, were it gathered and laid together all in one heap.

 Amen

computer-game-addictionsAt the beginning of this month I gave up video games.

Forever.

This was the result of about a week or two of soul-searching, during which I was playing video games in almost all my spare time (Sid Meiers’ “Civilization IV” if you want to know). Of course, as a college student, husband, father, blogger and National Guard Soldier I don’t have much spare time to begin with, and you might wonder, as I did, what the harm is in playing a turn-based strategy game on my downtime? Everyone needs to unwind, right? I was still making all my daily prayer times, getting to class on time, taking care of Evie, spending time with Kathleen, even getting all my papers turned in on time. Where is the harm in a few hours a week of video game?

And yet, during my prayer time I got the distinct impression that Jesus was looking at time spent playing that game with something resembling a frown. I didn’t feel that He was angry about it, or that He was regarding it as a sin. Rather, I felt He was getting impatient with it, sort of like, “When are you going to quit playing around with that and surrender your spare time to me? I have use for it.”

At the same time a fairly involved writing project was slowly taking shape in my mind, and instead of getting started on writing it, I was playing video games. Unexpected free time would come up, and with it the certainty that it was given to me so that I could start writing. I wanted to start writing. I had every intention of writing and… I would open up Civ IV instead of MS Word.

I was hesitating, I was delaying doing what I knew Jesus wanted from me. That was sin.

As I said, I wrestled against it for two weeks. Then my cousin started NaNoWriMo, and I decided that I had to do it too. The writing project is not just a fun hobby, but somehow a means of Grace that Jesus wants me to explore. I gave up video games, told my wife I was giving them up, and posted it on facebook. Now if any of my friends see me drifting towards the games again, they have leave to call me out on it and hold me to account. I set to work writing, and I am a little over 12,000 words into it so far.

Recently during a rosary or morning prayer or something where I was saying the Our Father, the line, “Thy Will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven” jumped out at me.

How many millions of times have I said that prayer, and that line has never hit me as it has over the last few weeks. Kathleen and I were talking it over when I shared it with her and we agreed that it was actually a terrifying prayer, when you really think about it. I mean really, we are praying that we be given the grace to obey God the way the saints and angels in Heaven obey Him. Kathleen described it as “Instant and complete obedience to absolutely every single little command.”

That is why I had to give up video games, not because they are bad. They aren’t necessarily bad. It is not even because I have other things that I can do that are better, like reading, writing, exercising, spending time with friends and family, or praying. I do have all of those things which will make me into a better person than gaming ever could, but that is not the reason. That is a consequence of the reason. The reason is that Jesus wants me to.

That’s it. There is no other reason necessary. Absolute and total obedience is a simple duty of the creature to the Creator, of the child to the Father, of the redeemed to the Redeemer. Giving up games is one step in the pursuit of that goal of perfect, total obedience, one simple, easy little step. The difficulty I had in taking it has more to do with my own lack of love than any inherent difficulty in that step. After all, obedience unto death is our model and our standard. As I am beginning to suspect, it is not even a special call reserved for the few, but a simple requirement for getting into Heaven.

But more on that some other time.obedient unto death

Celebrating signing off Active Duty, Aug 8 2014. Celebrating signing off Active Duty, Aug 8 2014.

Having been off active duty for a year now, I am looking back to think about what I miss most about it. I miss the training, obviously. It is hard to get that level of training in the civilian world, obviously. On active duty I was paid to come in to work and train, theoretically all day. In reality, of course, only about 10% of our time was actually spent training. The rest was jumping through bureaucratic hoops to plan, schedule, risk assess, troubleshoot, and grovel and beg for training.

I certainly don’t miss the missions. Some of them were okay. Teaching Advanced First Aid in Thailand was one of my favorite times in the Army. Working to sort out refugees in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan was my finest hour in the Army. If the majority of my time had been like that, I never would have left. As it was, I count 15 weeks in my almost 12 year career where I felt like the mission was worthwhile. 8 of those weeks were in training (Hospital rotations in Virginia and Arizona), 4 weeks teaching medicine in Thailand, 2 weeks teaching Counter IED in Thailand, and one week organizing refugees and relief efforts in Tacloban. 15 weeks out of 12 years adds up to about 2.5%. At that point, it is time to start looking for a new job.

This photo reminds me of my old buddy Stephen who walked for ten days in SFAS with no skin left on his feet. This photo reminds me of my old buddy Stephen who walked for ten days in SFAS with no skin left on his feet.

No, what I miss most is being surrounded by other Special Forces guys. Green Berets are hardcore people. This does not mean that they are always doing hardcore stuff, or that they despise comfort. Most of the Green Berets I know have a talent for enjoying comfort, luxury and convenience that I envy. What sets them apart from normal people is not that they don’t enjoy the ordinary things in life, but the fact that they know they can do without, because they have voluntarily done without. They have sucked at life, and if necessary they can bring that to the front again.

The experience of going through SFAS and the Q course changes you. It is not an unmitigated suck fest from start to finish, but there is enough heartache on the docket to ensure that everyone who goes through will have to dig a little deeper at some point. People who have the experience of digging deep are different from people who do not. They are more confident, less timid. They are more able to say, “Why not?” when someone says, “You can’t do that.” This is true of different people in different ways. Anyone who has gone through hardship and come out the other side has this quality at least latently, but it is more developed in those who voluntarily put themselves through hardship.

The downside of this quality is that those who have it tend also to be arrogant, cocky, insensitive, brash, close-minded, entitled, etc. When I think about my Special Forces friends and compare them to my Bible Study friends, I cannot help but acknowledge that the Bible study friends are:

  • Kinder
  • More understanding
  • More sympathetic
  • More intellectual, or at least interested in the life of the mind
  • More spiritually aware.

But my Special Forces friends are more:

  • Assertive
  • Indifferent to what people think
  • Willing to suffer hardship
  • Willing to stand up for what they believe (such as it is)

Which brings me back to my perpetual question, really the question behind the whole experiment that is this website: Why can’t we have both?

People tell me things like, “Well, if you build up one side of your personality it stands to reason the other side would be neglected.” People point to the great artists, poets and composers, the great scientists, all the greats really, in whom great ability in one area was balanced by crippling disability in other areas. You can’t be good at everything, they say. You can’t have your cake and eat it too.

To which I say, what the hell is the point of having cake in the first place if you can’t eat it? What use is anything if you can’t have everything? Anything is too small. Only everything can satisfy us humans, because we were made for God.

It doesn’t matter if you are a hardcore human being, you can survive in the wilderness for weeks, you can kick in a door and shoot every bad guy in the room in the head three times before any of the hostages can blink. If you are an unfaithful spouse, or even just a jerk, you will still be miserable and make other people miserable, and you will never be a Saint. On the other hand, it doesn’t matter how nice and sympathetic and understanding you are, and how much you would never hurt anyone, if you cannot stand up for the truth, cannot suffer willingly for the greater good. You will never reach your full potential as a human, you will eventually lie or keep silent to spare someone’s feelings when you should speak the truth, and again, you will not become a Saint.

That is what this blog is all about, this whole website, in fact my whole life is about, how to embrace every good thing as fully as the limited time we call life allows. In the final analysis it is the desire to love God as fully as possible from as many different angles as possible, and to know that under the multiplicity of interests the God whom I seek when I seek anything is everything and One.

Neither depths nor heights,
Neither length nor breadth,
Neither pleasure nor pain,
Nothing can separate
The ocean from its bed.
Nada

I shall not be perturbed,
I shall not be turbulent,
I shall not be disturbed,
Neither shall my soul be turbid anymore.
Nada te Turbe

Once I looked up to see the point
Of an iron spike in a sinister hand
Stabbing down upon me. I shook with fear
And thrashed and splashed away, but the spike passed
Through my heart and left not a single mark.
Nada.

And now I rest in limpid clarity
For well I know no evil in the world
Can harm me. No knife in the world
Can harm the sea.
Nada te Turbe.

I rest undisturbed, calm, at peace
Salt made sweet and ever filled
By water flowing from the Temple’s side
Opened by a Lance.
Transparent, the all but infinite sea He holds
In the hollow of His hand. And I drip
Through the hole left by the spike,
Mingled,
Lost in His Blood.
Nada te Turbe.

 

I remember a conversation I had with a friend at Bible study. We were talking about children and raising them and about jobs we would like to have and how much money we thought we would need. It was a general conversation among the group at first, but it turned into a one-on-one when my friend said that she wanted to make enough money so that her children could be comfortable.

I responded by saying that I wouldn’t want my children to be comfortable. Even if I made a million dollars and could afford to give them whatever they wanted, I wouldn’t do it.

Of course, people often say, “Oh, you can say what you like now, but you will change your mind when you have kids of your own. You’ll see.” That is an argument you cannot argue. It is like saying, “Oh, you’ll feel differently when you get to be my age. You won’t be so full of piss and vinegar then. You’ll settle down.” But, now that I do have a child of my own, I thought I would revisit my statement of a few years ago to see if I still feel the same way.

Push yourself! Push yourself!

As I sat typing the opening sentence of this blog, Kathleen came upstairs and asked what I was blogging about, so I gave her the synopsis. She shook her head and asked, “What do you mean by comfort? Because I want her to have opportunities, and courage, a passion for service, and all those virtues are great, but they have nothing to do with your opening statement.”

“I mean that I don’t want her to be addicted to comfort, or dependent on comfort. I feel like my mission as her father specifically (rather than just as a parent) is to encourage her and help her to push herself out of her comfort zone.”

Kathleen replied, “That was a better way of putting it, because the way you said it before people are going to wonder what you are talking about. Are you planning on making her live in a tent in the backyard for a year? Make her wonder where her next meal is coming from? She needs to have that security of knowing that there is always a roof over her head, and always a meal. She needs the freedom to be a kid. When you say you don’t want to give her comfort, it sounds like you want her to do without the basic necessities of life.”

Which makes me realize that when I jumped all over my friend’s statement at Bible study years ago, I probably completely misunderstood what she was saying. Apparently to some people “comfort” is synonymous with security which I agree is a right, and a basic necessity, for every child. How can I teach my children to be concerned about filling the needs of others if I refuse to fill their needs?

So let me be clear. By “comfort” I do not mean food, shelter, clothing, love, education, play time, spiritual guidance or emotional connectedness. The provision of these is a non-negotiable responsibility of every parent and social system.

What I mean when I use the word “comfort” (in a modern sense) is ease, convenience, and “things going my way.” To be sure, none of these are bad things, but neither are they the best of things.

What I mean when I say that I do not plan on making my kids comfortable is that when they are given a choice between greatness and convenience, I will encourage them to choose greatness. It means that we will be doing things as a family, such as serving the homeless, which might not be much fun. It means that I will be expecting effort and responsibility in schoolwork, that I will be rewarding initiative and imagination and discouraging laziness and blind conformity. That I will be teaching them to think and question the status quo, to push their own limits first and then the limits imposed upon them by a society addicted to mediocrity.

Of course it is early in the parenting game for me, but I find that, far from feeling less inclined to de-emphasize the value of comfort, I am even more inclined to do so, because now at least one of those children is no longer hypothetical. She is very real, and I very really love her, and that is why I am even more “anti-convenience.”

The greatness of God practically shines through her! The greatness of God practically shines through her!

That is, when I look at my baby girl, and I see her eyes all alive with the light of discovery, fearlessly gazing at the world in sheer wonder, and I think what she could become, I feel more determined than ever that she shall have every opportunity I can offer her to become great.

It is not enough for me that she is simply comfortable. It is not enough for her to be happy, even, although I certainly hope that she is. I certainly don’t want her to be unhappy. It isn’t that being comfortable is bad, it is that it is not good enough. Being happy is not bad, it is just not good enough. Greatness, true greatness, is the only thing good enough for my little girl, (and, by extension, for every little girl and boy in the world). Because I love her, I want her to receive the very greatest gifts that life and death, time and eternity, this world and the next, have to offer.

Comfort is not that gift.

Happiness is not that gift.

Holiness, that is to say, Divine Love, is that gift. That is what (or rather Who!) I want her to possess. That is what she is meant for, and God forbid I should put any obstacle in the way of her becoming who she is meant to be.

“Let the soul be aware that, in order to pray and persevere in prayer, one must arm oneself with patience and cope bravely with exterior and interior difficulties. The interior difficulties are discouragement, dryness, heaviness of spirit and temptation. The exterior difficulties are human respect and time; one must observe the time assigned for prayer. This has been my personal experience because, when I did not pray at the time assigned for prayer, later on I could not do it…”

St. Maria Faustina Kowalska

“Diary” Notebook 1, #147
 

Holiness? Maybe if we could be holy without being quite so O. C. D. about it?
Holiness? Maybe if we could be holy without being quite so O. C. D. about it?

I sometimes feel that there is an attitude in parts of the American Church in relation to the role of the saints as models. It is as if people say, “The Church doesn’t have enough saints I can relate to. Sure, all these monks and priests and nuns and missionaries and martyrs are great, but I’m not any of those things. I’m just an ordinary person. Isn’t there a saint that was, well, normal?”

So you point out Therese of Lisieux? Even I can’t possibly regard Therese as “normal” in any sense of the word. Sure she has her “little way” for “little souls” but have you ever read “The Story of a Soul?” She entered the Carmelites at 15! She had mystical experiences and she practiced heroic virtue and she wanted to be a missionary and a martyr and to die a million deaths for Jesus! How is that normal? I don’t do any of those things so how is she a role model for me?

Well, it turns out that her parents, Louis and Zelie Martin, are likely to be canonized soon (the consistory is scheduled for June 27 of this year). They were married people. Surely they were a normal sort of couple. I mean they were married! How weird could they be?

But wait, didn’t they have nine kids? Didn’t all five of the surviving children become nuns? And check out the biographical sketch for their beatification:

“The daily life of the couple, lived in a perfect harmony of mind and heart, put in the forefront a loving observance of the instruction of the Church: daily Mass, confession, frequent Communion, and the constant practice of the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. This fidelity to God opens the Martin spouses to the exercise of a charity without limits towards others: discreet alms to needy families, assistance to the sick and dying, intervention together to hospitalize a poor beggar. All these services are rendered in the greatest simplicity and discretion.”

“They go beyond the limits of their house and parish. They have an exemplary and generous missionary spirit, enrolling their children in the Work of Childhood Missions, making large annual donations to the Propagation of the Faith, and participating in the construction of a chapel and a seminary in Canada.”

Well aren’t they just the picture of a nice, normal, not-weird-in-the-slightest middle class family!

They did not see their marriage as a normal arrangement between two middle-class families of Alençon, but as a total opening to the will of God.

— OFFICE OF THE POSTULATOR GENERAL OF THE DISCALCED CARMELITES

Not!

So what gives? Is this your idea of “normal” saints? We ask for role models we can relate to and you give us this pair of goody-two-shoes? Is it any wonder the kids leave the Church if they think this is what they have to do to become saints.

Kids don't need heroes like this. That's just too humbling and discouraging.
Kids don’t need heroes like this. That’s just too humbling and discouraging.

It’s almost like trying to provide sports role models for kids. Kids want to admire the nice, normal Olympic gold medalists, the ones who don’t train obsessively everyday, the ones who don’t organize their entire lives around their sports. How do you expect them to be inspired by athletes who sacrifice everything in pursuit of greatness?

See where I am going with this?

The definition of a Saint is someone who gave literally everything for God. Saints are not comfortable role models. They are not meant to be, not in the modern sense of the word “comfortable,” anyway. They are meant to “com-fort” us by strengthening us (“com” is Latin for “together, with” and “Fortus” is Latin for “Strength, Courage”).

In fact, isn’t the truth that what we secretly mean by “normal” is really “worldly?” Convenient. Easy. Not too disruptive of our programs of entertainment. A saint who lives that kind of life is a contradiction in terms, like an Olympic champion who only trains for an hour every Sunday. Not only that but he shows up late or just barely on time, checks out mentally as soon as he gets there, and leaves before the cooldown. Yeah, that’s champion material right there.

My discomfort with the saints is not an indictment of their value as role models, but rather an indictment of the laziness and lack of dedication in my own life.

St. Therese of Lisieux, pray for us.