From Darkness to Light

It’s been almost three years since I’ve talked about the subject of the Sacrament of Reconciliation (post) and I thought it might be worth following up on. During that time, I can probably count the number of times I’ve been to confession on both hands, maybe even one. That’s pretty infrequent, considering that most priests I’ve listened to, suggest that you try to go at least once a month, sometimes more frequently, depending on your situation. The last time I wrote about confession, it was a positive experience. So, what’s changed? That’s what I’d like to talk a bit about in today’s post.

Here’s an important lesson I’ve learned in the last three years: the longer that you stay away from confession, the more afraid you get internally about going back. There is (at least for me) an apprehension and fear of going to confession that feels like a massive weight that I’m spiritually and mentally carrying around. It’s exhausting, draining, I’m constantly tired, and weakened. I’m more susceptible to temptation and feel further away from God. Staying away from Confession, from the Lord and seeking His forgiveness and mercy…well, that’s exactly where the devil wants you. It’s one of his dirty little secrets. I’ll explain why.

When the devil speaks, he is loud, confusing, seductive, condemning, pushy, (to name a handful of techniques), but I think he really loves to keep people feeling isolated, alone, trapped, like whatever you’re going through, just keep those sins to yourself, keep it unspoken, silent, and you can’t tell anybody, let alone a priest. And you know why that is? Because, once you begin talking about a problem, you can start looking at how to fix it. You can go to confession. You can receive forgiveness. You can begin to heal, and experience freedom. And that’s exacting what the devil doesn’t want. He wants you in chains.

A while ago, I saw this illustrated beautifully by a drawing that popped up on my Instagram feed. There was man, depicted as kneeling in the confessional, separated by a screen from a Catholic priest, and around the man’s neck and body, chains were being broken. It’s a powerful image of absolution. As we receive God’s mercy and pardon, we place ourselves once again under Him, and are no more slaves to sin and death. We are once again, baptized and confirmed, sons (or daughters) of God, and if sons or daughters, then heirs with Jesus. And how powerful that redemption is! We are spiritually speaking, no longer bound to that darkness, but restored to God’s light, and that union with Him.

But how can you tell when you’re beginning to drift? What can you look out for — those early warning signs? This process requires developing a spiritual discernment on the movements of the spirit, the consolations and desolations we go through, as written about by St. Ignatius of Loyola. I’ve talked before about spiritual discernment (post) if you’re interested in learning more. The gist of it is — how is your spiritual life changing for the worse? Let’s briefly take a look at a few questions you can ask yourself.

— Do you feel further from God?

(This might be spiritual desolation God is allowing to help you grow, but could also be sin separating you from God). During a recent Examination of Conscience, I became more aware of all of my personal failings and the venial sins that I’ve clung to, that keep me from being closer to the Lord.

— Am I paying attention at Mass? Am I praying every day? Am I spending time reading God’s Word?

When we remove ourselves from opportunities to have communion and fellowship with God, to understand what He wants for us and from us (through His Word), it creates an opening for the cares and worries and other messages to stream in and crowd out the good.

— Am I experiencing an increase in temptations, or temptations to graver degrees of sin (ex: from venial sins to mortal sins) than I was before?

Sin separates us from God. Sin makes us weak. Some sin (grave matter) is a form of spiritual suicide. When the devil finds a weakness, he will exploit it. You may find yourself having thoughts you wouldn’t normally have before, temptations to do more serious forms of the same sins that you’ve grown accustomed to/accepted their presence in their life. The devil loves wooing us towards these mortal sins that destroy our soul. If you find these temptations present, it’s a big red flag to examine your conscience, and get to confession ASAP.

These were all red flags and if I’d been paying attention, maybe I would’ve spotted the problem sooner. It had been almost five months since my last confession (yikes!) and I’ve been in a period of spiritual desolation. My last confession was in September, and I thought about going around Advent, but it just kept getting further and further away from me, and harder and harder to come back again. It’s probably no coincidence that September was also when I last felt closest to the Lord. I’d been to confession. I was making resolutions to grow spiritually. I read a book of essays by C.S. Lewis and blogged about it (post). And somehow, things went into a deep decline and that led to this recent visit to the confessional.

The great news though is that, God was there, waiting for me. He’s still there, waiting. Waiting for me. Waiting for you. Waiting for all of us prodigals to come home. So let’s not presume on His mercy, or delay too long. Let’s journey together, and trust in His unfailing help. Let’s make time every day and every week, to cultivate our relationship with Him, and to spend time with Him at mass. And definitely, to be on the lookout for those warning signs when we’ve missed the mark.

From darkness to light.

From sin to grace.

From slaves to sonship.

God is waiting for you.


Experiencing the Eucharist For the First Time

This is a post that I’ve been putting off for several weeks now. After blogging of my first experience with the sacrament of Reconcilation, it seemed only natural that I would share with you my first impressions with the sacrament of the Eucharist as well. Including Easter, four Sunday masses have passed as well as two weekday (experimental) masses, since my conversion to Catholicism, and this post has remained unwritten. A blank.

Why this hesitation to talk of the Eucharist (or as my Protestant self would’ve called it, the ‘Lord’s Supper’)? It’s not from the human fear of being judged for somehow doing it wrong (although that’s definitely crossed my mind.) I am still learning this new faith and the last thing I want to do, out of ignorance or poor wording, is to cause less reverence for the Host than Almighty God deserves.

It seems to me that the experience differs from person to person, and there’s a retiscence to speak of it; that the act of receiving Communion is entirely holy, wholly intimate, and intimately personal. Even the act of discussing the physical elements of the ritual seems to fail to encapsulate the mystery of the experience, like trying to explain the love of a parent for their child, or the love of a husband for his wife.

For those undergoing preparations for receiving the Eucharist for the first time, you can learn by observing masses leading up to Easter of the appropriate posture for the procession to the front of the church, and for the recessional. You can (and probably ought to) ask for clarification on how to accept the Precious Body from the priest, deacon or the Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion, and how to likewise accept the Precious Blood. But attempting to adequately describe the physical sensation, or the mystical experience taking place is impossible. It’s a matter of faith.

What About the After-Effects of Communion?

I hope that every encounter with Christ in the Eucharist will be this way, and for everyone, but for me (so far), I’ve felt a profound sense of gratitude in being able to receive so precious a Gift, and humility that God would wish to give Himself to me through partaking of His Precious Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity. I’ve experienced an inner stillness and peace, like deep waters, in my soul that I know it’s okay to rest in, as well as what I can only describe as a strengthening to resist sin and a renewed desire to walk upright in the light of God.

For that brief moment, it feels like I am in Eden, standing hand in hand with my Lord. And the part of my soul that longs for mystery and beauty and majesty and peace yearns to be with Him through this sacrament. I’ve (almost) never felt closer to Christ than I have in the act of receiving Holy Eucharist. And like a child, I want to ask, “How soon can we go back?”

Four Little Words

Sunday’s Gospel reading was from the book of John (the twenty-first chapter), in which the writer has an epilogue wherein the resurrected Jesus appears to seven of His disciples at the sea of Tiberius.The homily spoken at my local parish was about knowing Christ better, and knowing Him in the Eucharist, which I’ll be posting about soon (I promise!). But for today, I wanted to expand on and add my own thoughts on the reading as I felt led to return to this story and meditate on it further. While doing so, I began to wonder, just what was going on with the disciples at the time of this story taking place, and how does that apply to us today?

board-close-up-dirty-602160Behind Locked Doors

Picture it. The disciples are in hiding, fearful of the Jewish authority who had just had Jesus tried and killed. Despite evidence of His resurrection, they have been living behind locked doors. Perhaps the enemy is at work in their minds, making them doubt whether they really saw Jesus at all, if St. Thomas saw the nailmarks and touched His side. Now, Simon Peter, called by God to be the leader of this new Church, decides that he’s going to do something to break the cycle of fear and uncertainty.

“Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” (John 21:3, NAB)

While St. Peter may have been motivated by physical hunger, I picture him instead, longing for a return of normalicy. He was a fisherman before he was called to be a disciple. Many of them were.

With Jesus’ absence, it seemed only normal to return to the profession they first knew. And then I began to wonder, how many times, when we lack direction, do we become (like the disciples), immobilized by fear and doubt? And how often do we, when God seems absent, begin to drift back into old patterns — that which we find familiar, safe even?

But by the mercy of God, He is willing to meet us where we are! And Simon Peter, with those four little words, makes a decision that doing something, anything, is better than remaining in a life of fear. He refuses to continue living behind locked doors and his determination inspires the others to respond, “We also will come with you.”

beach-boat-clouds-187927Encountering Jesus

As the story goes, they spent all night and found no fish. It calls to mind the times when I have attempted to force things out of my own strength, apart from God, and fail to bear any fruit. Earlier in the book of John (chapter 15), Jesus tells a parable about being the True Vine and they are the branches, and apart from Him, they can do nothing (Jn. 15:5). How often do we attempt things outside of God’s timing or provision, and fail? But Jesus, whom they don’t recognize as being present in their circumstances, is there waiting for them at the shore.

“Jesus said to them, ‘Children, have you caught anything to eat?’ They answered him, ‘No.’ So he said to them, ‘Cast the net over the right side  of the boat and you will find something.’ So they cast it, and were not able to pull it in because of the number of fish.” (John 21:5-6, NAB).

I love how abbreviated the disciples’ response is here: ‘No.” No complaining, it’s just almost a grunt of a reply, and maybe this is a little irreverent, but I almost sense a lack of charity in their voices. Perhaps they are thinking, ‘Can he not see that our nets hang limp and out boat is empty?’ They’ve been up all night, tired from their labors, feeling the frustration of failure and perhaps the pressure of being unable to provide for their families and anyone else they’re supporting. They will have nothing to take to market. They may even go hungry that day.

At this point, they still don’t recognize Jesus. Why not? Are they so caught up in their own problems that they are unable to see Him at work around them? It’s unspecified in the story but, I’d like to think, that maybe St. John the Apostle, the beloved disciple, had a head’s up that something unusual was at work here. Perhaps he was the one who encouraged them to give the stranger’s advice a try. Fruitfulness is always evidence of God at work in us. Immediately, when they reconnect with the True Vine, the whole situation changes. But only because they are willing to take this step of faith.

What steps of faith is God calling you to take in the midst of your situation? Where might you be encountering Christ and not recognize Him at work? St. John the Apostle — the one closest to Christ — immediately recognizes in this confirmation of fruitfulness that his Lord is at work. With four little words, he immediately tells Simon Peter.

“So the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord.” (Jn. 21:7, NAB).

I think it’s amazing that here again are four little words of faith, but how powerful are what they represent!

blue-nature-ocean-26681Recognizing Christ

I love St. Peter in this story; the other disciples are reserved, or at least, willing to wait until the boat is docked to see Jesus. Even St. John the Apostle, who I picture has a serenity and a burning longing in his heart to be with Jesus, is content to wait until they arrive.

Not so, St. Peter!

St. Peter, whose passions are known to run hot, comes across as impetuous here. Upon hearing that it’s Jesus, he tucks in his clothing and swims to shore. One hundred yards! (For the mathematically-challenged, this is the length of an American football field, minus the end zones.) I recognize myself in St. Peter, eagerly desiring to love and do good, to please Jesus and make up for the times when I’ve denied Him and chosen the path of sin. The hearts of those who love God and are called according to His purposes run towards Him (or swim in this case), even when we have offended Him. We must always turn back to God.

What must St. Peter have been thinking of during that swim? Could he have ever envisioned that those four little words the night before would result in them encountering Christ? Maybe, but I doubt it. I think he was full of a joy and anticipation that filled him so completely, he couldn’t do anything else but rush to meet his Savior.

In the time it takes the others to catch up, Jesus already has a charcoal fire, and bread and fish upon it, to meet their physical hunger and provide for their needs. Spiritually, we can take from this also the analogy of God meeting our spiritual hunger in partaking of the Eucharist. Where Jesus is, there is always provision for our needs. Jesus does not merely meet their physical hunger however; He has provided the fish for them to take to market (thus, meeting their needs to help others); and He’s about to provide even more.

freely-10204.jpgExperiencing Healing

After breakfast, Jesus asks Simon Peter, three times, whether he loves Him. Why does Jesus ask him three times — isn’t once enough? The Bible tells us that St. Peter is pained by Jesus asking him three times whether He is loved by him.

“[…] Peter was distressed that he had said to him a third time, ‘Do you love me?’ and he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ [Jesus] said to him, ‘Feed my sheep’.” (Jn. 21:17b, NAB)

Why was St. Peter in such anguish? Remember, that during the trial of Jesus, following His arrest, that Simon Peter was recognized as being one of His followers. When accused of being one of the disciples, Simon Peter rejected Christ three times. Despite Jesus’ resurrection, I think that Simon Peter was still living with the pain of those denials and needed addressing. He may not yet have realized it yet, but Jesus did! Like Simon Peter, perhaps we fail to recognize the areas where we are deeply hurt and still in need of those wounds being tended. What areas in our hearts need God’s healing today?

To be completely clear, Jesus didn’t need this confirmation from St. Peter for His own sake; this was totally about Peter. By asking Simon Peter three times, ‘Do you love me?’, He was undoing the work of sin in St. Peter’s life, and offering him this heartbreakingly beautiful, poignant moment of healing. One affirmation of faith and fidelity, for every denial made in the grips of fear. How great a God we serve!

When we learn to recognize Christ in our circumstances, we can choose to join Him in His work. When we act in faith, we can encounter Him, and He not only gives us the provision to meet us needs, He equips us, gives us purpose, and calling us back to Himself, offering restoration.

alone-beach-blue-skies-934718Focusing on Your Own Walk

The final verses of the chapter (Jn. 21:20-23 specifically), we see Simon Peter asking Jesus what His plans are for the future of St. John the Apostle. Jesus offers Simon Peter the following rebuke:

“Jesus said to him, ‘What if I want him to remain until I come? What concern is it of yours? You follow me.” (Jn. 21:22, NAB).

Poor Simon Peter, so soon restored to Christ, and he’s fallen again. I take encouragement from the inclusion of this passage because it confirms that we will continue to try and fall, even as we progress on our journey towards holiness and sanctification.

I am reminded too of an audiobook I’ve been listening to recently, in which Fr. Timothy Gallagher (who did that lecture on the Discernment of Spirits) talks about how while we should always strive to become as holy as possible, we should not become fixated upon the spiritual graces or giftings that God may reserve to give to others. And, I think, this is where St. Peter fell again. And so will we, fall that is, again and again. But God is always there to meet us where we are, and bring us back to restoration with Him. He is waiting on the shore, there at the Table.

Won’t you come and join Him?

A Formula for Epiphany

20 + C + M + B + 18

It sounds like a mathematical equation, doesn’t it? In fact, this is a house blessing, one of many traditions in the Catholic Church, and one of the earliest memories I have of my family. I remember early trips to see my grandparents and arriving to their door and in stark white chalk, these symbols (the numbers were different) blazed against the dark wood grain of their front door. But for the uninitiated, like I once was, what does it actually mean?

Saturday, January 6th 2018 marked the Feast Day of the Epiphany, the time in the Church when we celebrate the arrival of the Three Magi to the manger, and their gifts for Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus. The feast day, also known as Twelfth Night, was observed on Sunday and marks the close of the Christmas season and the return to Ordinary Time in the Church. This is why, for many Catholics (or for folks behind schedule), you may see the decorations and holiday lights lingering after the New Year.

The 20 and the 18 reference the current year (next year, it’ll be 20 + C+M+ B + 19) and the three letters represent the names of the three wise men: Caspar, Balthazar, and Melchior.

It seems almost counterintuitive that the Bible, which condemns astrology and all forms of divination, would remember and honor these foreign sages who believed that the Nativity Star was a sign in the heavens of the birth of a great ruler, and they came bearing gifts. But there is no question that the manner of gifts they brought was divinely inspired. Gold, a symbol of His kingship, and which I like to think was what Mary and Joseph used to supplement their income during their time in Egypt; frankincense, a symbol of His status as our High Priest; and myrrh, a symbol of His eventual death.

On the feast day of Epiphany, my husband and I received a piece of blessed chalk (now in fun, bold colors!) and said a prayer of blessing over our home (provided by our parish) that God would help us in this new year to remember the gift of His Light, Jesus, and nurture the gifts that He’s bestowed on each of us, to bring glory to His name, and to reach out to a hurting world.

As we struggle to find our way in the midst of the darkness and the Storm, may God’s light shine in our hearts and through us, the watchmen on the hill, so that we may be ready for His sudden coming.