Posted in musings

the virtue of hope

One of things I have learned from my depression is that hope, while certainly made easier by pleasant circumstances and positive emotions, is most emphatically a virtue. It is possible to cling to hope with raw and reddened hands, eyes blinded by night and storm, refusing to release that slender line though every fiber of one’s body and every echo in the tempestuous wind is shouting out the futility of holding on.

Hope is not a wish list for Santa Claus, or a fantasy of a perfect airbrushed future. Hope is a conscious choice to endure, a moment-by-moment fight to persevere, a decision to stay the course despite all odds and appearances.

Hope does not aim for a peaceful and indulgent future, where every want is satiated and every inconvenience eradicated: it could not derive its lasting power from such a weak and flimsy foundation. Hope is anchored in the everlasting love of God, looking towards a future in which every pain and sorrow will be redeemed, made beautiful, and given purpose.

Hope impels one’s feet forward through the valley of the shadow of death, to which no end can be seen.

Advent, in focusing our attention on hope, does not attempt to sugarcoat the suffering of the world with carols and cookies, but rather endeavors to give us the strength and the vision to press on through that suffering without giving in to despair or bitterness. With hope, we may be as small and weak as the one isolated candle flame that flickers in the darkness this first week of the season, but we are at the same time enervated by the raging and glorious power of unleashed fire. No icy cold can put out our light so long as our wick reaches deep into the wax that is Christ in us and for us.

In answer to the hope of the world, He came. To give us the hope to endure to the end, He came. In His coming, in the Christmas manger, in the weakness of a newborn baby, is all the strength we need.

Posted in book lists

Kristin and Antonia: learning from my literary sisters

Over the past month I read both Kristin Lavransdatter, by Sigrid Undset, and My Antonia, by Willa Cather, for the first time. I couldn’t help but mentally compare the two eponymous protagonists as I was reading, as both are Catholic women written by female authors, but are in temperament and circumstance very different.

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Kristin Lavransdatter, despite being raised in a noble and loving family, enters adult life unprepared and unwilling to battle her passions and bosom sins, pursuing her own whims regardless of the shame and inconvenience it causes the people who love her and sacrifice for her. It is not until near the end of her life that she is sufficiently humbled and matured to look back with repentance rather than mere regret, and to make the hard changes in her own life that following God and living rightly demand of her. I often found it difficult to read Kristin’s story compassionately or even patiently, because her struggles and misfortunes were so frequently caused by her own headstrong will and lack of self-control, when she should have known better than to act that way! But in that judgmental stance I was often rebuked by the gentleness and guiding love of her old village priest and a monk from a neighboring city, who lamented her sin, prayed for her peace, and offered their comfort and wisdom (and sometimes their correction) in her doubt. Love her, they seemed to say to me, protect and pray for her, do not judge her. Judgment will not help to restore her soul and heal her brokenness. And they were right; the scorn and shame of her neighbors stung, but she could ignore it, and it wasn’t that weight that in the end brought her back to God and taught her how to truly love another person selflessly and without resentment.

The book is written with a tempestuousness that matches that of the protagonist’s character – in the medieval Norway of the book (accurately depicted from what I can tell – the author did a lot of research), successions are contested, old folk beliefs fight with Christianity, famines strike, arranged marriages are disputed, childbirth is incredibly dangerous, miscarriages and depression and poverty hover beneath the surface, and epidemics sweep through society. Kristin is most definitely not the only fierce and passionate individual here! Her story and its setting draw the reader in from the beginning, and hold one’s interest captive through towering heights and plummeting lows.

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My Antonia, on the other hand, is one of the gentlest and most peaceful books I’ve ever read. Antonia’s character and life are sketched out through the eyes of a man who met her when they were both children in Nebraska (she from Bohemia, he from Virginia) and watched her grow up to full beauty and maturity with the affectionate eyes of an old friend. Where Kristin is blessed with beauty, love, and wisdom in the parents who raised her but squandered it in her own impulsive and passionate way, Antonia is struck with the incredible tragedy of her father’s suicide coupled with the small-mindedness and paranoia of her mother, and yet still manages to blossom.

And yet, Antonia is a passionate woman just as Kristin is, full of strong and rich emotions that carry her with them. She is by no means a weak or mild individual; she is strong enough to work the fields with the men, beautiful enough (in action as well as appearance) to turn every head, fun-loving and spirited, brave and opinionated. What makes her different is the direction in which her passions led her. Kristin’s passions were bent, misguided, uncontrolled, turned away from the good and praiseworthy; Antonia’s were, while not perfect, aimed in general towards truth and beauty. As Jim, Cather’s narrator, puts it near the end of the book:

She lent herself to immemorial human attitudes which we recognize by instinct as universal and true […] she still had that something which fires the imagination, could still stop one’s breath for a moment by a look or gesture that somehow revealed the meaning in common things. She had only to stand in the orchard, to put her hand on a little crab tree and look up at the apples, to make you feel the goodness of planting and tending and harvesting at last. All the strong things of her heart came out in her body, that had been so tireless in serving generous emotions.

Reading both books in close succession made me realize how the choices we make and the emotions we obey shape our lives and even our children’s lives, by painting two very different possible paths down which a woman of passion, beauty, intelligence, and potential could walk. Goodness does not remove all difficulties, as Antonia found through her suffering, but neither does repentance restore what all that is lost or heal all that is wounded, as Kristin found through her suffering. And the suffering endured with passionate love for the good, for truth, and for beauty will leave a much different mark on the people around us than suffering we bring down upon our own heads through our sin and poor choices.

Posted in sqt

{sqt} – what I learned from Lent

I’m linking up with Kelly at This Ain’t the Lyceum today for Seven Quick Takes! I couldn’t come up with an SQT topic at all this week so I’m thankful to her for suggesting this one… it turned out to be a good way for me to wrap up the season for myself and prepare for the upcoming long stretch of ordinary time.

  1. Lent is for us – it is something we need, as sinful people, not something God needs for some obscure reason. In Lent we willingly give up something good as a sacrifice to God, a way to tell Him, remind ourselves, and train our bodies to remember that He is more important than even the good things He has made and given us. So there is beauty in the intentional, thought-out abstinence from something meaningful during Lent. However, I did not do that this year, being caught in the throes of PPD for the months between Christmas and Ash Wednesday. So, all of that being said…
  2. God can still use Lent for your spiritual growth even if you don’t plan anything, or just attempt the bare minimum. The point of Lent is to grow closer to God by separating ourselves a bit from the pleasures and conveniences of the world. So if life is beating you over the head to the point where it takes all your energy just to get out of bed and pray, you don’t need to pile on more self-inflicted hardships. Just seek God in your suffering.
  3. As a corollary, God knows the Lent we need, and He’ll make it happen if we are seeking Him. An unplanned Lent, catching me in the midst of an illness that made it hard to do more than the Friday abstinence, was probably far better for the condition of my soul than one where I chose all these difficult fasts and followed my self-imposed sacrifice to the letter: because my deepest temptation is to pride, and the success of a “good” Lent (at least in outward appearance) would have fed that pride and self-righteousness. This Lent didn’t really look very devoted or disciplined at all, and that was hard for me to accept for a while.
  4. Speaking of pride, Lent is (ideally) a humbling time. We impose our fasts and determine our sacrifices, and usually fall short of our goals, and in so doing realize once again how very much we need God’s grace to actually follow Him in any real way! Our inability to hold fast to even a small sacrifice for the sake of drawing closer to Christ gives us the opportunity to confess our weaknesses and stretch our roots deeply into His strength as we try again to live for Him in holiness. When I realized early in the season that my Lenten sacrifice was going to be admitting my inadequacies and seeking help for my mental health, that was a seriously humbling challenge. That’s not the kind of Lent I had wanted; it seemed so small and pathetic, and it forced me to face my weakness head-on and leap blindly into the unknown, trusting that God’s hands would catch me.
  5. Another thing I learned this Lent was the intensity of the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary. To be honest, I had never before prayed through the Sorrowful Mysteries, and never even attempted a serious meditation on the Passion of our Lord. To think about His suffering, for our sake, for the joy of our redemption, was so uncomfortable for me that I avoided it as much as possible. But for Lent this year, I decided to pray only those mysteries in an attempt to prepare my heart for the seriousness of Good Friday and the joy of Easter Sunday. And it was unbelievably hard. To look long and hard at the suffering of another, when that person has entered into that suffering willingly and on your behalf, for your healing or life or freedom, is not easy. But it honors them and their sacrifice to take the time to remember it in its fullness, with reverence and gratitude.
  6. In the combination of these two main aspects of Lent (suffering in some way ourselves and meditating on the suffering of Christ) I found myself falling deeper in love with God and drawing closer to Him in dependence and prayer than I have been for a while. In the depths of my depression I remembered how Jesus faced the agony of fear and emotional pain in the garden, and was comforted to know that He could understand my emotional distress and stand by my side through it. When I wished that I could fight the depression on my own and overcome it without help, I remembered how Jesus Himself was unable to carry His cross, but needed the help of another man’s strength, and realized that needing the help and support of others is part of being human, not a sin or a cause for shame.
  7. Finally, I learned that the spirit of Lent – the desire to draw closer to God, and the willingness to sacrifice certain good things towards that end – shouldn’t end when the season of Lent and its specific sacrifices end. It just takes on other forms. If in Lent I learned how to draw near to God in my suffering, through Christ’s suffering for me, in Easter and beyond I can learn how to draw near to God in my joys and in my boring, everyday routines. He is there also, inviting us to walk with Him through suffering into endless joy and eternal glory.
Posted in musings

on Mary

“And Mary said,
‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
‘And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
‘For He has regarded the low estate of His handmaiden.
‘For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed.'”
– Luke 1:46-48

“And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary His mother,
‘…a sword will pierce through your own soul also…'”
– Luke 2:34-35

It’s an interesting juxtaposition. In the first passage, Mary has just arrived at her cousin Elizabeth’s house, and Elizabeth has just proclaimed upon seeing her (and upon feeling the unborn John leap for joy) that Mary is blessed among women. In response, Mary enters into what is known as the Magnificat, praising God for His work in her life and in the world through the coming Messiah. She has been chosen for an incredible and unique role in God’s plan of redemption, and is realizing how blessed she is.

In the second, Mary and Joseph have taken Jesus to the temple for his ritual purification/dedication, and Simeon in the Spirit greets them with rejoicing and prophesying. And in the midst of his praise for the Messiah who is finally come, in the midst of his joy, he comments to Mary that her position as Jesus’s mother will bring her great pain and sorrow.

The two – the blessing and the sorrow – are far from mutually exclusive. They are intertwined, twin fruits of one tree. In entering into God’s redemptive plan, in taking up the role He has offered her, Mary receives both the blessings and the sorrows that come with it. She is given power, responsibility, purpose and calling, and the joy of knowing God so deeply and intimately as Jesus’s mother; she has to endure the scorn of those who think she has become pregnant illegitimately, and the greater pain of watching her people reject their Messiah and murder her son. Because the world is broken, because we are scarred and stained by sin, even the highest calling and the most blessed person will experience pain and suffering; because God is entering into that brokenness to redeem and renew all things, even the deepest pain and the greatest sorrow can be woven into the beauty and joy of His plan.

Posted in musings

thoughts on suffering if God is good

The suffering of the innocent is one of the most emotionally compelling arguments against the existence of a loving and powerful God. If He is able to intervene in our world, why doesn’t He stop more of the atrocities that poison it? Why do we seem to see Him act at some times and at others seem to be so conspicuously, unavoidably, alone? Why do some people receive supernatural visions or material comfort, while others suffer abuse and feel that heaven itself is blind and deaf to their prayers?

I will never be able to answer those questions. When my atheist friends bring up the dilemma, I have no short answer to satisfy them, no list of possible divine plans or actions that could make those evils ok.

But what I can tell them, what I do try to tell them, is that Christianity solidly agrees with them that the suffering of the innocent, the oppression and abuse of the vulnerable, is most definitely evil and is never “ok.” I don’t worship a God who is on friendly terms with evil. He hears the cry of the oppressed and avenges the innocent. Why He doesn’t just prevent the evil from occurring in the first place I don’t know for sure, but I would argue that it is because He gave us free will, and for that free will to be meaningful it has to be able to actually affect reality. If love and creativity and courage and honesty are to be authentic, then there must also be the possibility for hatred, destruction, cowardice, and deceit. And the greater the potential good, the greater the corresponding potential evil. It is the beauty and the horror of humanity.

And what does God do, faced with humanity’s evil choices? He gives us a moral standard to understand the difference between good and evil, justice and injustice. He calls us out of darkness into His light, offering us the chance to be forgiven and changed. He promises to punish those who commit evil, either in this life or the next, establishing His justice as a judge in court. And He enters into our suffering alongside of us, offering us the comfort and strength of His presence, giving us the opportunity to use our suffering with Him for the redemption and re-creation of the world.

Posted in musings

suffering and the music of the church

I wonder if much “early” Christian music (well, it lasted long past the early years of the Church!) was some variation of chant because the Church was so aware of the brokenness of the world, and the chant allowed worshippers to lift up their voices in lament, in solidarity, in supplication, and, ultimately, in a hope devoid of false optimism. The tones of traditional chant are so haunting, so melancholy, and yet so natural to sing to – almost as natural as speaking – and I think those qualities reflect the way in which early Christians saw the world. They were close to its pain, suffering with it and for it and because of it, oppressed and persecuted, a misunderstood minority, laboring for the vulnerable and cast out, weeping with Christ for a world that they saw destroying itself. One cannot simultaneously be saving babies from abandonment to the elements and skipping around like nothing is wrong with the world; one cannot see friends and loved ones tortured and killed for their faith and still think that this life is a fountain of roses and rainbows.

So their music was born of the pain they saw (pain stemming from unredeemed sin in the world), the pain they felt (pain born of their own jarring disconnect with the culture around them), and the pain they remembered (pain that Jesus had endured on their behalf). It should be no surprise that it was a sorrowful and melancholy music, a music of prayer and supplication, of lament and mourning; we should expect that even their joy and hope would be colored by the sorrow they felt for a broken world and the pain they knew at their own persecution and suffering in that world. I wonder how we could re-introduce this spirit of worship (not necessarily the style) back into our Christian worship today, which (at least in the Evangelical circles I’m familiar with) tends to be buoyant, cheerful, excited, and positive. I don’t think those are bad things by any means – I think the church has much to be thankful for and much reason to give praise to God – but I do think that it tends to be the focus at bit too much of the time. Our constant obsession with the positive leaves us isolated when suffering comes, because we have never seen our community mourn together over the simple, everyday, sorrows and struggles of life in a fallen world. Instead, we see that the “Christian” thing to do is to give praise no matter what, to focus on the blessings no matter what, and to deny the pain and the brokenness.

There’s obviously a balance that’s needed, on a theological as well as a musical level. It is good to be reminded of the larger purpose and beauty of God’s plan when life is hard and things hurt; it’s not so good to feel like the worship service is a pep rally and our pain is out of place and unheard even by God. It is good to enter into the sufferings and laments of those who broken and hurting; it’s not so good to be left feeling that there is no cause for hope or joy or celebration in this life. But maybe if we learn from the Church throughout the ages, in all her many traditions, we might find a way to better balance the tendencies and weaknesses of our own age.

And now just for something incredibly beautiful and uplifting, even if you don’t think chant is your type of thing 🙂

(I’ve been learning a lot more about chant tones, notations, and how to chant prayers from David Clayton through his website The Way of Beauty and especially through his talk to the Institute of Catholic Culture, which, incidentally, I would highly recommend as a source of information about the history and theology of the Church from Biblical to modern times.)