Love in the Waiting: How to Live (a Vocation of) Holiness

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“You’re getting to be an old maid,” my dad likes to say now, “by St. Jo standards” (speaking of St. Joseph, MO). Up until a year ago he was giving me three options: he offered that I could marry a rich man, become a nun, or (due to my shin scars from falling kneelers and hard-edged theater boxes) marry a man who can’t see well. These were the futures he envisioned for me.

Apparently, in my 20’s, I’ve now reached the age of no return.

Waiting for God’s call is like waiting for Easter. We know He will call; we have faith He will speak to us and to our hearts. Yet at times we despair or question God’s timing. “I just want God to tell me what to do,” one of my friends said last week as we sipped tea in my living room. “I really want to know.”

This, on the heels of a conversation I’d had earlier that day with another young woman while she waited at an airport. She was feeling called more and more to marriage, though she recognized this wasn’t the time. God had yet to put a man in her path to discern marriage with. Until He did, she told me, she is praying for her future spouse—and working with God to heal from her wounds and mistakes.

She is treating this period in her life as Lent, though we just passed into the Easter season. She is letting God have this time to prepare her for whatever is to come. This period of preparation may be sorrowful or carry feelings of desolation, yet there is the hope of fulfillment one day. In other words Easter will come, though my friend doesn’t have the foresight of knowing what day God will invite her to love through a specific vocation.


 

Our specific vocations—be it single life, married life, consecrated life, or ordained ministry—are only pieces of a greater call. These vocations are the ways in which we live out the universal call. “The Lord called me from birth,” Isaiah 49 reads, “from my mother’s womb he gave me my name. He made me a sharp-edged sword and concealed me in the shadow of his arm. He made me a polished arrow, in his quiver he hid me. You are my servant, he said to me, Israel, through whom I show my glory.” God has a purpose for each person and destines each one for a great purpose. He calls each person from birth; He gives each man and woman a name by which they will be known, and lives by which He will be known. To glorify God and imitate Christ on earth is to live out the universal vocation: to live in holiness.

This universal vocation (which means ‘call’) begins at baptism. In baptism, Christians begin to know, love, and serve God—to live this is the reason for our existence, giving meaning to our lives. It is an ongoing call; it forever invites us to turn to God and align our will with His. While careers or professions allow us to support ourselves and contribute in some way to the good of society in a ‘horizontal dimension,’ our vocation involves the ‘vertical’ aspect of our lives. Living our universal call strengthens the spiritual relationship between each of us and God.

The meaning of a holy life differs for each person, though. Two women may both help children through social work, yet one may be a consecrated virgin living in a community of women while the other serves as wife and mother to three boys. They both are committed to loving God and people, yet this commitment manifests itself in two distinct ways. While God remains the object of their vocations, neither woman is living in a more holy way than the other.

Each woman is called in a special way, which is equal in importance for building God’s kingdom yet different from the other woman’s call. God speaks of a specific mission for each of us, one He imagines for us even before we are on earth. This is our vocational mission—out of our love for Him and His for us—to be husbands or wives, single laypersons or consecrated virgins, or ordained ministers. These vocations are unchanging. They are ones we can live out with hope, knowing that, ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you’ (Jeremiah 1:5).

Before we can love God through these specific vocations, though, we need a time of discernment. If our wedding day or day for profession of vows is our Easter, and our lives thereafter the vibrant Easter season, then our lives leading to Easter are the 40 days of Lent. The weeks of Lent are, at times, weeks of desolation or sorrow as the Church contemplates Christ’s Passion. During Lent the Church recalls baptism and encourages penance. It is by these ‘the Church prepares the faithful for the celebration of Easter, while they hear God’s word more frequently and devote more time to prayer’ (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, no. 109).

Lent, then, is a time of preparation. It is at time during which we give our sins to God and open ourselves to healing. It is a special time for prayer, sacrifice, and good works; Lent is a time of hope.

The period of singlehood before each person is given their vocation is the same. This time is a gift from God, through which He invites men and women to pray, fast, and let Him heal wounds. He offers forgiveness for past, wrong actions. He helps to forgive family members or friends. He takes twisted perceptions or expectations from former relationships and transforms them to trust and love of man. He helps in the practice of chastity (for, as St. John Paul II writes, ‘only the chaste man and chaste woman are capable of love).

This Lent, the Lent of the vocation journey, is one during which a person can learn to better love so that when God calls, at last, he or she can say yes. In this time of waiting he or she can practice sacrificing time and personal wants for the good of others. Each person, in this period, has the beautiful opportunity to grow in obedience, increase in fellowship with men and women, and better their ability to work in a team. Each person has the chance to ask questions and search inside themselves, as Christians do in classes and scrutinies to prepare for the sacraments. These are the ‘spiritual exercises’ of singlehood—these are the routine Stations of the Cross, penance services, fasts, and almsgivings before their Easter day.


 

 


 

In embracing this time and drawing close to God, each person seeking their specific vocation will open more to God’s will. Prayer is key. Pope Benedict XVI said, “To the extent that we teach young people to pray, and to pray well, we will be cooperating with God’s call. Programs, plans and projects have their place; but the discernment of a vocation is above all the fruit of an intimate dialogue between the Lord and his disciples. Young people, if they know how to pray, can be trusted to know what to do with God’s call.”

Here lies the answer to my friend’s desire: prayer. She asks that God tells her, soon, what she is to do on earth.

God will answer her, in His own time.

And to her anxiety—as well as countless others’—God uses people like ordained priests and one Holy Woman to communicate to us: ‘Be not afraid.’

In an echo of these three words, Fr. Mike Schmitz declared in one homily that ‘God won’t ask you to answer a question that He hasn’t asked yet.’ Cardinal Sean O’Malley reminded us that our vocations are particular and singular to each of us; he emphasized that the joy, happiness, and fulfillment of others depends on ‘getting your vocation right!’ Yet, the Cardinal added, this is a choice we do not make alone.

Though each vocation is singular to each person, a man or woman is not singular in his or her journey to discovering God’s will. Parents may aid on the journey, holy couples may set an example of the beauty of married life, religious orders may offer direction, a parish may become a second home, roommates may become siblings as each of them asks the same question of God—‘What am I to do for you?’ Above all of these helpmates is the Holy Spirit, burning and speaking in each soul.

God will fulfill His purpose for us in time—if only we say yes. If we are swords and arrows, as Isaiah 49 infers, then God will use us only when He is ready; the soldier uses these weapons only when they are needed, in battle, and keeps them otherwise in their sheaths. Like the soldier, God will draw us forth for our life mission when we are sharp and He deems it right.

Easter will only come when the time of preparation has reached its fullness.

Christ only rises when God calls him onward.


 

To all those seeking their vocation, or yearning for one vocation in particular, I say: imitate Mary. Keep in prayer. Say ‘yes’ to God with every day of your life.

Know, like Mary, that there is sweetness in the waiting.

Make this time of preparation. Practice patience. Pray for your vocation. Gather information, and experience each vocational life as best you can. Pray with these things. Listen.

In the silence of your heart, when your hands are palms up and you are completely open, God will reveal to you your soul. Your destiny.

We Want Barabbas: An Easter Reflection

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This year, during the reading of the Passion on Palm Sunday and Good Friday, I was singularly drawn to the words “We want Barabbas!” I began to think about why the people might want a guy like Barabbas over a guy like Jesus. Freeing Barabbas did not make sense on a number of levels and two inconsistencies are particularly glaring.

First, and most obvious, Barabbas was locked up for harming people. Apparently, harming people is not a big deal. Jesus, on the other hand, was locked up for being too good of guy and for using his unique powers to do good for others. He was making claims and doing things to confirm the truth of those claims, but the Jewish leaders at the time happened to not like it. (Note: Good guys always seem to have a hard time, but good guys should learn from Jesus that doing the right thing is ultimately the most thrilling and worthy way to live.)

Secondly, more than simply the quality of character between Jesus and Barabbas, the Jews were even more inconsistent in their arguments. While the Jews would declare they “have no king but Caesar,” they also asked Pilate to free a political radical whose goal was to drive the Romans and Caesar out of Judea. How does that make any sense?

The dichotomy of Barabbas and Jesus even has a deeper meaning when we think about the kind of liberator each of them represented. Barabbas was also a kind of messianic figure. He was more like what most Jews expected from a messiah. He was a political figure that would free Jews from Roman rule and establish a perfect, peaceful, and happy kingdom found in this world. Jesus was a messianic figure that professed that his “kingdom is not of this world.” In a way, the Gospels display a sort of messianic face-off. People have a choice: do I want a paradise of this world or do I want a paradise found in the world that Jesus preaches about?

 


 

Ultimately this reflection led me to think of myself. There so many Barabbai in my life. Why am I drawn to poor character qualities in myself and in others? Why am I so inconsistent in my thinking and acting? Why do I choose things that are obviously not good for me or for others, while I leave what is truly good to be left for dead? Why do I want Barabbas? Why do I yearn and long for complete and utter happiness in this life and in this world?

Barabbas personifies the lure of the world. Jesus personifies a more refined love. This love is sometimes hard to recognize especially with the more attached to the world we become. I easily become blinded because I get used to the way the world pleases me. I don’t want to be afraid or sad or lonely or broke or hopeless. The world has all kinds of promises of money, sex, attention, and success that will lead to some kind of ecstatic, unending joy. But ultimately, when pursuing the ways of Barabbas and trying to establish a worldly paradise, I only get filled for time and then emptiness ensues. When I continue to seek happiness in this world, I embark on a perpetual search to consume more.

Jesus wants us to pursue a more fulfilling reality. Experiencing this fulfillment actually requires detachment from some of the empty promises of this world. Sometimes I just want to be free from all sorts of shallow questions: How do I look? What do I own? Does anyone like me? Who do I talk to? Who do I not talk to? How well am I known? How much money do I have? How should I dress? Am I funny enough? Am I smart enough? Am I strong enough? Am I personable enough? Do people respect me? Does anyone love me? All of these questions and more come from a worldly perspective and, if I want happiness, I need to reject these Barrabai and choose a more detached, heavenly way that Jesus demonstrated. With that in mind, here are three brief and simple things to help us become more detached:

 

1) Focus on the goal of heaven everyday, starting in prayer and extending into the rest of the day

God wants to fill us with Himself. Practicing His presence and getting to know how much He wants to give us, will change our lives. The problem with my life is not that I desire too many things. Rather, I don’t desire enough. My desires fall short and my eyes land on worldly things. If I desired more, I’d desire God’s love more purely. Finite things can only fill me so much, I need to stop searching for them to fill my infinite desire for love that only He can fill. No car, bar, house, or spouse can completely make me happy in the way I desire, only God can. Ultimately this means I need to focus more on heaven, where God will completely and perfectly fill all of my desires.

 

2) Having true friendships based on authentic concern for the well-being of others

Sometimes we have friends that listen to us because they just really care about our happiness and salvation. Sometimes these friends are not people we would naturally be connected to unless it was an intentional decision to befriend the person. This is healthy. If we’re only friends with people that we are attracted to, we will find a harder time practicing love in our friendships. Rather, we are only exercising friendship based on our needs and selfishness actually forms the heart of the friendship. We also need some intentional friendships based on higher concerns of helping each other get to heaven. and given time, they will become deeper and more fulfilling.

 

3) Commit to being a servant of others

Instead of saying, ‘what can I get out of life?’ I need to learn the attitude of giving life to others. This is a more fulfilling way. How can I improve the life of others? How can I care for their physical, emotional, relational, and spiritual needs? Learning to care for other people is a huge step in learning to live a fulfilled life. One sign that shows that we’re attached to the world is when we wake up and start thinking about only ourselves. Learning to bring to mind the concerns of others as one of the first things we think about in the morning will give us a mentality of service. We can learn to look at people with eyes of love, no matter what their level of need, everyone in the world is yearning to be loved, respected, and cared for. Even if it begins with just one good deed a day, becoming a servant of others will give us deep satisfaction and happiness.

 

Conclusion

In the end, Easter brings to the fore the conversation between choosing Barabbas or Jesus, this world or the next world. Barabbas was known for harming people, and Jesus was known for healing them. Sometimes we get short-sighted and forget that Jesus’ victory was so much greater than Barabbas’! We choose Barrabai in our lives, when we choose to listen to worldly desires more powerfully than our desire for God.

Harrowing Hell: Eternal Inferno?

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Today is Holy Saturday. Today our world waits in stillness. For a great reflection, read the second reading from the office of readings also found here. In this stillness, there is a world that has been set in a fit of rage, namely, the world of those cut off from God and His love. This world is what Dante called the Inferno. Today, I want to take a look at Holy Saturday as it is found in Dante’s Inferno.

It should be first noted that Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy (which is a poetic telling of the reality of Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise) is remarkably short on references to Christ. I do not think this is because he believes Christ to be inconsequential to the afterlife. Rather, I think Dante wanted to reserve a certain reverence for Jesus. In fact, though they are few, he is also poetic in his references to Jesus, avoiding the use of his name (Jesus) or his title (Christ).

Near the beginning of the Inferno in Canto IV, while they are in the first circle of Hell, Dante asks Virgil if anyone has ever left Hell. Dante says:

‘Tell me, my Teacher…did anyone ever leave here, through his merit or with another’s help, and go to bliss?’ And he, who understood my hidden question, answered: ‘I was a novice in this place when I saw a mighty lord descend to us who wore the sign of victory as his crown.

He took from us the shade of our first parents, of Abel, his good son, of Noah, too, and of obedient Moses, who made the laws; Abram, the Patriarch, David the King, Israel with his father and his children, with Rachel, whom he worked so hard to win; and many more he chose for blessedness; and you should know, before these souls were taken, no human soul had ever reached salvation.

Virgil informs Dante that indeed people have left Hell and that this was done by a Lord who descended with a crown of victory. This was the first time any human soul was saved.

Later, in Canto XII, Virgil draws Dante’s attention to ruins of rocks in the lower parts of hell. These ruins were not there when Virgil entered the Inferno. He then describes the events that led to the rocks being ruined. Virgil says:

‘Now let me tell you that the other time I came down to the lower part of Hell, this rock had not fallen into ruins; but certainly, if I remember well, it was just before the coming of the One who took from Hell’s first circle the great spoil,

That this abyss of stench, from top to bottom began to shake, so I thought the universe felt love–whereby, some have maintained, the world has more than once renewed itself in chaos. That was the moment when this ancient rock was split this way–here, and in other places.’

Here we see Virgil describing the fit of rage that Hell broke into when Christ descended to free the captives. It is interesting to note that Virgil describes all of Hell, from top to bottom, shaking; yet, he does not ascribe this to a frightful thing, but rather he ascribes it to love. When Christ descends to free the elect who are enslaved by sin, Hell is thrown into an uproar. This is not because of hatred, anger, or malice on the part of the One (Jesus), but because of love. Hell is where there is no love. Hell cannot hold love. Hell is endless unlove. Hell is a place many people in our world probably should work much harder to avoid. If we only truly knew the reality of it!

The opposite of love is selfishness. In the case of hell, selfishness gets mixed with utter sadness and loss. That combination creates an existence of self-loathing which will never end. Yesterday, we commemorated the salvific act of the perfectly righteous man who paid the penalty for sin (the wages of sin is death; cf. Genesis 3). Today, we see that Jesus shakes the foundations of Hell with his love. Instead of being like those who are perishing, let us fall in love with Jesus who has perfect love for us and has saved us from our selfishness. When we fall in love with someone, we begin to live more like our beloved. When we fall in love with him, we will begin to live more like he did, selflessly and for the true good and salvation of others.

God bless you and have a joy-filled Easter!

 

In case you were wondering:

Dante did not invent the idea of Jesus’ descent into Hell. Here are some bible passages demonstrating Jesus’ descent into Hell was something his first followers knew about:

1 Peter 3:18-20: “Being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, he went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly did not obey.” 

Ephesians 4:9-10: “In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is he who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.” 

Note:  The phrase “Lower parts of the earth” refers to what would have been understood as the first of four parts of Hell common in that time.

Acts 2:24: Peter says, “But God raised him up, having loosed the pangs of hell, because it was not possible for him to be held by it.”

St. Cecilia: Patron of Music, Strength of Womanhood

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Although the story of St. Cecilia may be a myth, it is still endearing and inspiring. Two parts of her story are true: she was a real person in Rome and she was martyred there. The earliest appearance of her story comes from around the middle of the 5th century, and many of these hagiographic accounts composed in the 5th and 6th centuries were exaggerated and romanticized. Because of this, her story technically lacks critical historical value.

However, one thing I have learned in my personal experience is that when it comes to these kinds of myths, especially old myths, it can sometimes be hard to separate what truly is fact and fiction – and sometimes the most mystical parts of these stories turn out to be more true than they seem. In this case, there really is not much historical evidence to support the claims of the popular story of St. Cecilia’s life, but the story that we have of her is very beautiful.


Her Story

It is said that St. Cecilia was given to marriage by her parents, who were Christian, with a pagan nobleman named Valerianus. She did not want this. During her wedding ceremony, St. Cecilia was disinterested. Instead, in her heart, she sang to God. Because of this, she is known as the Patroness of Musicians.

After the wedding, when it came time to consummate the marriage, St. Cecilia informed Valerianus that she was betrothed to an angel who was guarding her body, so Valerianius was not to threaten her virginity. The implication was that if he did anything inappropriate he could face serious punishment, but if he respected her purity then he would stand well with the Lord.

Valerianus listened to her, but he wanted to see this angel. St. Cecilia told him that he would have to go to the third milestone on the Via Appia and meet with Pope Urban I to be baptized. Valerianus obeyed. After his baptism, he returned to his wife. Then her angel appeared to the two of them, crowning them both with roses and lilies.

Her influence did not stop there.

Even Valerianus’ brother, Tiburtius, was won over to Christianity. The two zealous brothers gave rich alms, and also buried the bodies of some confessors who had been martyred due to persecution from the local government. The local prefect, Turcius Almachius, condemned them to death for burying the confessors. But the officer appointed to execute them, Maximus, was converted to their cause, and he was martyred along with them.

Next the prefect sought St. Cecilia’s execution. Before her death she made arrangements for her home to be converted into a church. She was ordered to be executed by suffocation in her own bath. Her executors filled the room with so much steam that she could not breathe. But this attempt to kill her failed; she was not harmed.

Next the executioner tried to chop her head off with a sword. He swung through her neck three times, but he could not completely behead her. He ran away, but she continued to live for another three days before dying.

Pope Urban I buried her, along with all the martyrs and confessors mentioned in this story, in the Catacombs of Callistus. Today it is not uncommon to see music festivals pop up on her feast day, November 22, and one of the oldest musical academies in the world is still named after her in Rome, the National Academy of St. Cecilia. Her home is preserved in Rome, as a church, of course.


Reflection

Today many film and media critics praise stories which feature impressive female leads, stories which show that women can be strong and independent heroines in the same way that men are often depicted as heroes in popular stories. The story of St. Cecilia, then, might give us pause to consider what real heroism is. In this story our heroine is independent, and she remains convicted to her values, but she doesn’t seek anything grand in this world.

There is no wondrous adventure to foreign lands. There is no discovery that she is really the long-lost princess of some other country. She does not complete herself by marrying a charming man – in fact, the man is the one who learns from her. She does not experience great career success despite difficult odds and discriminatory social norms.

She is only strong in her faith – and you have to be very strong to deal with multiple attempts to take your life – and she is strong in her purity. Today many scoff at the idea that purity should be held as an ideal for women because it can seem repressionist and puritanical. In reality, true purity, which is purity of heart, is the ideal for both women and men and leads to true freedom.

As Jesus taught us, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”

So the next time you play an instrument, hear the church choir, or even turn on the radio, consider taking a moment to pray to St. Cecilia, patron of music who sang to God from the purity of her heart.

Dear Singles, Put Flirting in its Place!

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Isn’t it kind of nice to hold someone’s attention, to laugh a little at petty things, and make brief but suggestive eye contact that draws the other to you for a while? Yes, I mean to say, isn’t it nice to flirt a bit? Wait a minute, isn’t flirting harmful to you and the other person? Isn’t flirting wrong or misleading and selfish? Wait a minute, what’s so harmful about flirting? What could be wrong with just a little innocent fun? No one intends anything more than just a good time! Okay, now I’m confused (and I’m writing this!).

Is flirting wrong or not a big deal? Why do people flirt? Is there a point to it? Even the commonly used sources of quick information in our media today hold differing insights on this topic. Dictionary.com says flirting is “to court triflingly or act amorously without serious intentions; play at love.” While Wikipedia says that flirting involves “verbal or written communication as well as body language by one person to another, suggesting an interest in a deeper relationship with the other person.” In other words, our culture knows what flirting looks like, but like most people’s experience of it, we don’t know what it’s for or why it happens. Before we get into the nitty-gritty of flirting, check out this BuzzFeed video that shows some of the internal confusion that can come with flirting:

Often times Catholics are strong, rigid, and certain about what they profess. This is a trait that should never be disposed of because of the certain truths that our Church possesses. It can lead us, however, to believe that some things should never ever (ever!) be done when in fact they simply need to be ordered to their proper end. Flirting is one of these things. Flirting seems to be selfish and therefore it will impact other areas of our lives. In other words, if you let yourself be selfish in one area, you are sure to become selfish in other ways. For those of us familiar with human nature, we know this is certainly true. And selfishness is one of the more destructive and difficult vices to overcome when you let it root itself deeply in your life. So, for the hardliners out there, there’s a really good case for not flirting at all: flirting makes you become a more selfish person. And no one wants to be around a selfish person for years and years!



To me, however, this is probably a generalization that needs to be refined. Flirting is not okay if it’s purely for fun. I will stand with the hardliners on that. First, you’re making yourself a more selfish person, as mentioned above. When you become a selfish person, it’s generally not too noticeable to your acquaintances, but when people get close to a selfish person, the selfishness becomes a huge burden. Plus, flirting is a habit that is hard to break, even after you enter a relationship. In short, don’t flirt just for fun because it will become incredibly destructive to the deep relationships you desire to have in the future. Secondly, you’re probably leading someone or many people to believe that you are interested in them, even when you’re not. This is not okay. Who knows how many people’s hearts have been broken in silence thanks to “harmless flirting.” We’ll never know. But don’t be someone who does that to people! Being a good person means aligning your actions with reality. If you’re not interested in more than just being friends, don’t flirtatiously communicate to a person (verbally or non-verbally) just to get their attention for a while. If you don’t know what communicating like just friends looks likes, hang out with just your girlfriends or, if you’re a guy, just your bro’s for awhile and learn to have deep, self-giving friendships with people.



Okay, so now for the point of departure from the hardliners: Flirting is okay when it’s open to a deeper relationship with the other person (see the Wikipedia definition above). Go ahead and laugh at petty things, make somewhat extended eye contact, tell silly jokes (but only if you’re funny), poke fun at each other, say cute little compliments, and so on. Don’t make a habit of being selfish, but let yourself go a bit around someone you are potentially interested in. If more people did only this kind of flirting, think about the boost it would have on the dating scene. You could say, “Wow! It seems like so-and-so is interested in me!” or “Uh-oh! It seems like so-and-so is interested in me.” or “Yikes! So-and-so is not interested in me; I better back off.” and finally, “Yay! So-and-so is interested in me and it’s very mutual!” This would open the door to a Utopia of Dating of sorts. Unfortunately, in the current state of flirtation, things are not so easy to evaluate, and we will rarely be able to confidently say “I know that it’s mutual.”



But why not get there? I know that it would mean changing some of my habits. But I want to. I want to get there. I want my actions to align with reality. I want to be a good person, not someone who is selfish and misleading. So here is my challenge for all of us single people out there: flirt on purpose, not just for fun. Don’t confuse people that you’re not interested in, and make it clear to people that you are. One of the best pieces of advice I can give to a woman who is interested in having someone ask her out is to unleash all of signals. In other words, FLIRT and hold nothing back. Guys, if there’s a girl you’re interested in that is doing this, ask her out NOW! In the end, this is more than simply about being lovey dovey (though that’s really nice). This is about men and women entering their vocations and fulfilling God’s will for our lives. If we never flirt, we will probably miss someone that would have been a great spouse for us. If we always flirt, see above about selfishness and, worst of all, people that know us won’t be able to tell when we’re actually interested. If we flirt with purpose, we will be more open to moving into our vocation and therein God’s plan for our happiness, holiness and, most importantly, salvation.

So, let’s go! Let’s take back flirting and put it in its place!

Becoming: Beauty in Every Woman, and in Every Man

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Suddenly, I see them, Mother. All of the women, the women-to-be—coming and gazing, watching and waiting. They all gather around you. They flock and they gaze. They take pictures.

But do they know?

Do they know?

 

I see you, Mother. I see you in all of their faces. Young and old, whether they are on the eve of womanhood, married, or long-established on earth. They are seeking and searching, Mary. They are longing to be with you—to be you.

Mary, Mother.

They want to be beautiful.

But do they know?

They are already you. Made to be like you—these. These are your daughters.

 


 

I knelt in the caverns of St. Peter’s Basilica just a few weeks ago. In all of Rome, this was the church to visit. There were people crowding, clamoring, clashing together against the glass of a side chapel. They wanted to see Mary. When they did, they posed for a photo, checked that experience from their bucket list, and wandered the basilica for more magnificent statues.

How do they not see it? I wondered to God, the stone floor cold and hard against my knees. There I was in the great central church, in the throbbing heart of Catholicism. I was there, enveloped by sweeping ceilings, towering statues of holy giants, and echoing walls—walls echoing with a medley of tour guides, practicing Mass choirs, and footsteps.

There, in the bizarre space of travelers’ dreams. There, amidst hundreds of passing strangers, I prayed. There, I watched the ebb and flow of visitors.

I watched Her.

The Pietà.

They, too, had only eyes for her, Michelangelo’s masterpiece.

 

It makes sense many of us (we visitors and pilgrims) do not see what I saw while on my knees. Michelangelo’s Pietà is undeniably captivating. She was created to be the best sculpture in Rome, was the epitome of Renaissance sculpture, and was Michelangelo’s crown jewel. She and her Son were so significant Michelangelo hand-selected the Carrara marble for them; this marble was the most ‘perfect’ block he had ever seen. So precious was it, the Pietà in this splendid stone, that it was the only work Michelangelo ever signed.

The Pietà captures Michelangelo’s heart, and it captures the heart of every visitor in St. Peter’s Basilica. In the image of the Pietà is the dual emotion of our Mother: her sorrow at her son’s torture and physical death is combined with her calm acceptance of God’s plan. As at the Annunciation, Mary continues to say ‘Thy will be done.’

In this one composition, Michelangelo illustrates Mary’s pain and trusting resignation to God. He shows her at a moment in which she is grieving as a mother, yet maintaining joy as a handmaid to the Lord. This moment is not found in the gospels. It is not in the Stations of the Cross. This moment when Mary holds the broken body of her dead son in her lap is only in the imagining of the Church.

Christ appears in peaceful slumber, after hours of torture. Mary’s eyes are downcast. In their intimacy, the two figures (such a rarity in Renaissance sculpture) form a pyramidal shape: they are both stable and pointing upward. To God.

This occasion of Mother Mary with her Child is cause for reflection, which is the true purpose of the Pietà. Whether or not it was Michelangelo’s intention, or that of the French cardinal who commissioned it for his family’s tomb, the Pietà is meant to evoke compassion for our Mother and contemplation of Christ’s death. The image is more popular in French and German tradition, such as in the rough, wooden Röttgen Pietà from the early 14th century, which is why the French cardinal may have asked for this particular depiction of Christ.

The Pietà invites viewers to hold the body of Christ with Mary. It helps us to gaze, with Mary, on the gift of Christ’s face. At the same time, the sculpture helps us to draw close to Mary our Mother.

That is why I first stopped, why I paused in the middle of St. Peter’s side chapel not so long ago: I was encountering a tender moment. I was being drawn to consider Christ’s Passion. Mary’s demeanor was causing my thoughts to go silent—and to see only Her, to feel only with Her.

 

I stopped because there, in the Pietà, Michelangelo renders Mary’s character. The one we are made for.

 


 

Mary is our hope personified.

She is captivating, full of grace (Luke 1:28). She is obedient, humbled to God’s will (John 2:5). She bears fruit (Luke 1:42), which is every woman’s desire–be it physical or spiritual fruit. She is joyful with a desire to do God’s will (which is evident through all of Luke 1). She is also compassionate, and will suffer with the world for the promise of salvation.

She, as Fulton Sheen writes in “The World’s First Love,” is ‘what God wanted us all to be, she speaks of herself as the Eternal blueprint in the Mind of God, the one whom God loved before she was a creature. She is even pictured as being with Him not only at creation but also before creation. She existed in the Divine Mind as an Eternal Thought before there were any mothers. She is the Mother of mothers—she is the world’s first love.’

Mary is who we all yearn for. Mary, Sheen emphasizes in one chapter, ‘is the one whom every man loves when he loves a woman—whether he knows it or not. She is what every woman wants to be when she looks at herself. She is the woman whom every man marries in ideal when he takes a spouse…she is the secreted desire every woman has to be honored and fosters; she is the way every woman wants to command respect and love because of the beauty of her goodness of body and soul.’

Thus, thousands visit the Pietà every day. Mary invites us into her beauty: she is beautiful. Her manner is a mystery.

These pilgrims, who come and attempt to immortalize in two dimensions what Michelangelo does in three, see all of this in only a moment. They stare, they point.  Some of them flash a camera then turn away. Some pause longer, as if to absorb her majesty.

They see her, but they don’t see her.

They don’t see what I see.

They don’t see that she is in every one of them. The women with cropped gray hair and black boots, the three laughing teen girls, the woman clinging to her husband’s arm…

 

Mary’s beauty is not only in the Pietà, though.

Mary’s beauty is in every one of us.

 


 

How easily we forget that we are each made beautiful, each made good. We see the Smoky Mountains, the tops of clouds from the side of an airplane, the misty sunset over a foreign sea—and we wonder. We are in awe. We forget that if, in seven days, God builds toward His ultimate vision for the earth—then humanity is the climax. It is not the light, not the landscape, not the bird or woodland creature that is the greatest wonder: it is Man.

Man and woman are made as reflections of the Creator. Therefore, we are made beautiful. In the Catechism, the Church recognizes Man is made in an initial state of holiness and justice (CCC #384), endowed with a friendship with God from which flowed the happiness of existence in paradise. The Fall breaks this happiness and cripples man’s original state, but these are mended again in a man and woman the world meets two thousand years ago. Mary and Joseph work in cooperation with God. They are co-partners with the Creator: from this identity flows their joy and the hope of existence in a new paradise.

This is what each man and woman desires: paradise. Perfection. Mary and Joseph, as the two holiest and fully human examples we have, are who we are made to become.

If women are made in the image of Mary, men too have a model. Men, you have a saint who comes before you and paints and image of holiness. You are made to be like Joseph. Joseph, the man of faith and obedience who did as the angel of the Lord commanded him in the first chapter of Matthew’s gospel. Joseph, who was upright in taking Mary into the safe haven of his home. Joseph, who loved his family—and God—above himself, and doing all of these things played a part in our salvation (which is in line with some Medieval thinking in the cults and societies of St. Joseph, which honors Joseph as an aid to God in ‘trapping’ the devil by disguising Christ as the son of a man).

In an echo of Sheen, Joseph is the one whom every woman loves when she loves a man—whether she knows it or not. Joseph is the man every man wants to be when he looks at himself. He is the man whom every woman marries in ideal when she takes a spouse, when she unites herself with the man whom her children will call ‘father.’ Joseph is the secret desire every man has to be honored; he is the way every man wants to command respect and love because of the beauty, strength, and shelter found in his body and soul.

 

The potential to become Joseph is within every man, just as the potential to become Mary is within every woman. Each man is called to accept Mary into his home, to be a source of protection and strength for all of those in his life, to be open to God’s call in his heart or dreams.

We are in a constant state of becoming like Joseph and Mary—albeit in various ways depending on our temperaments—when we are open to God. St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, also known as the theologian and philosopher Edith Stein, writes in her ‘Spirituality of the Christian Woman’ that our lives are a process of striving for, succeeding in, and failing again at becoming more like God. ‘Our being, our becoming, does not remain enclosed within its own confines; but rather in extending itself, fulfills itself,’ she says. ‘However, all of our being and becoming and acting in time is ordered from eternity, has a meaning for eternity, and only becomes clear to us if and insofar as we put it in the light of eternity.’

Thus each human is a beauty to behold, for in gazing at another person we gaze a creature made by God, in the process of becoming more like God, and made to be like God.

 


 

Do they know? I wondered with God that day in Rome.

I looked at the women with high black boots and short gray hair, the three teen girls laughing, the gangly girl of twelve… My eyes traveled from woman to woman. Each woman was different.

And I smiled.

Each was the same.

Mary was in all of their faces.

Yet the hundreds of people passing by me to crowd at the stone rail and glass wall would only peer and point, flash a camera and leave. Oblivious. They peered at the face of Mary formed by human hands—Michelangelo’s—but they failed to see the face of Mary around them. They failed to see the Master’s work in themselves.

 

When we gaze at another person, we look at a stone being chiseled and polished—we see a perfect creation in progress.

When we gaze at another person, we gaze at the work of the great Master Artist himself.