I’ve been thinking and praying

I feel… restless and dissatisfied with myself. I don’t spend a lot of time talking about my interior life, largely because I fear and distrust readers, in particular the Greatest Catholics of All Time, who have never missed an opportunity to inflict cruelty in the name of the Purity of Orthodoxy when I expose my heart.

But the thing is, you have to expose your heart if you are serious about the gospel:

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.” – C.S. Lewis

So I’ve been thinking about how well–and even whether–I love. I think I do. I hope do, to some degree. I love, as all Normal people do, people who love me. I love my wife, my children, our grandchildren, various friends. But that is pretty low-hanging fruit.

“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same.” (Luke 6:32-33)

One time, a couple of years ago, I was out for a walk (my typical venue for prayer, and/or reading) and I was noodling this question of my attitude to people who lie to me, hurt me, slander me, and hate me. Suddenly (and fittingly enough, at a crossroad) it seemed to me that the Holy Spirit said clearly, and without an ounce of condemnation, but simply with loving clarity, “You don’t love them.” I have thought about that moment a lot.

I have also been given to see that my fear of those hateful people is something in which, strangely, we are linked: they hate because they are afraid. I felt, oddly, a strange empathy and pity for them. That’s not love, but it is, perhaps, a semina verbi: a “seed of the Word” in my soul that might germinate into love if I don’t screw everything up.

Another time, a confessor said something that I found helpful as I confessed (for the umpteenth time) my struggles with hatred and contempt for MAGA folk and their detestable antichrist religion. When I remarked that I could not lie to myself that they were not filthy liars, he said, “What they are is beloved children of the Father–who lie a lot.” (He also was strangely consoling when he said that confession of the same endlessly besetting sins is better than confessing new and different sins every week since that helps confessors pinpoint where the wounds are while a chaos of brand new mortal sins every week would reflect such interior chaos that it would be much harder to diagnose what is going on. I never thought of it that way.)

Any way, I found that observation about “beloved children of the Father who lie a lot” helpful because it really is true. God’s love for us does not depend on what we do.

“God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)

It reminded me of something a very important priest in my own formation used to say: that sin is the mask and Jesus is our true face, not vice versa. I have a terrible time holding on to that for myself and so, unsurprisingly, I don’t hold on to it for others either. It is deeply ingrained in my psycho-emotional hardware that I cannot be trusted to do the right thing. So why should I think others–especially those who chronically don’t do the right thing–are anything but sons of bitches and will never change?

Usually, if I mention this, anti-Christian polemicists leap into the fray to tell me this outlook is due to Christian doctrines like original sin screwing me up.

Thanks anyway, Dr. Freud. But the reality is that I was not raised in a Christian household and came by self-loathing long before I ever became a believer or a Catholic. Indeed, one of the most powerful forces for healing in my life has been the sacrament of confession. If I had known I could go (free of charge!) and unburden myself of all the guilt and shame and self-loathing I carried around as a teenager and then, at the end, not only be completely forgiven but walk out of the room with grace to do better in the future, I would have grabbed it with both hands. I am enormously grateful to God for it. The mercy of Christ is the sweetest thing I have ever tasted. If you’ve never experienced igt, you just don’t know what you are missing.

And one of the things that the priest I mentioned earlier told me was that one of the great satisfactions he felt as a priest was seeing people take off the mask of sin in the confessional and walk out wearing their true face: the face of Christ. Certainly in my own case (and with others I have known) the experience of the mercy of Christ has always felt like coming home and finding my true self, not burdensome or shameful.

I think of that and wonder how often I, by my lack of love, force people to wear the mask of their sins and block their own experience of homecoming. How often does my lack of forgiveness imprison people in their sins? I know there are times other people have done that to me: locking me into sin I repented and telling me I will never ever change. How often do I do it to others? A lot, I fear.

Another thing I have failed to do is feed people, I think. I was at Mass once and they had a string quartet (I think it was Christmas time). I don’t remember what they played, but the music was transporting. I felt fed by that Mass right down to my toes. I remember telling God I wanted to be able to do that for people: feed their souls. Make them know they had encountered God in all his love and mercy, I thought about Jesus’ triple command to Peter at the end of John: “Feed my sheep.” I think about the prayer of Zechariah in Luke’s gospel, in which he blesses his son John the Baptist at the beginning of his life:

You, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
in the forgiveness of their sins. (Luke 1:76-77)

I think those are God’s words to me too. I set out to do that, but I feel like I derail myself. I am horrified by the witness of MAGA antichrist religion and the lack of trust it inspires in those who do not share my faith and, more, by the victimization of the innocent that it inflicts. I feel a responsibility to speak against it since it is my fellow Catholics who so often do such harm. But in trying to provide a counter-witness, I find myself increasingly sucked into a sort of spiritual vortex in which I speak less and less of the goodness of the Lord Jesus, his love and his mercy and the forgiveness of sin and more and more of the badness of this horrendous counterfeit religion masquerading as the gospel.

The trouble with that is that, in the end, that does not feed people. Sure, people who have been hurt by this evil false gospel need to feel heard and seen and I think that telling them you do that can be a balm. But people need more than that too. You can’t build a life on protest against evil. You still need the food for the soul that only Jesus can give. And that is where I think I drop the ball.

So I’m pondering what to do instead or in addition.

Recently, I was at Mass and had a small moment of clarity: a cloud no bigger than a man’s hand. It was a typical morning Mass during a weekday with a bunch of people characteristically timid about singing. (Catholics are terrible singers as a rule, especially when there is no choir or anybody to direct us.) The lady who normally belted out the intro hymn and recessional was not there that day, so people were sort of mumbling their way through the recessional. As it happened, it was a song I knew pretty well. And soince people were mumbling along, I decided I would be the loud one so people would have a leader to follow. Sure enough as soon as there was one voice taking the lead, everybody else pitched in.

After it was over, this lady came up and thanked me and, for a moment, I though to myself, “That’s what I want to do: be the guy who helps people hear the music of God in the world and join in.” (No. I am not going to join the choir. I’m speaking metaphorically.)

Anyway, all that is to say that tomorrow, I hope to initiate a conversation in my comboxes (whether on the blog or Facebook/Twitter) on what things I might do to help feed my readers.

So: More tomorrow.


16 Responses

  1. One way in which you feed me is letting me know that I am not out here alone, with a flawed love for Christ and an intermittent rage (the first thing of yours I read was “Mea Culpa”), and I have since thought of what Lewis says about friendship; that I had thought I was the only one.

    Thank you for that, and for the notion that I am probably much better off with my familiar sins than a whole new set.

  2. Mark that is great. You have come to the same conclusions I have thought about your writing but never voiced to you. It’s posts like this that make me stick to reading your stuff. I think your material is top rate first class Catholic writing but gets married by constantly being mad at MAGA folks. I encourage you to stick to the path your laying out in this blog post. Also my suggestion is look to others who feel the same as you do but don’t get caught up in negativity. Deacon Steve is a great role model. Also Jimmy Akin spreads alot of good and never attacks his opponents. Emulate good role models who still feel passionately about the same type of stuff but don’t get too entangled it makes them too upset. I pray you keep serving the Lord and thanks for responding to the graces of God. This was a great article.

  3. Thanks Mark to be vulnerable and keep our hearts open daily can and is often painful and brutal if I close it up ill miss Jesus walking by

  4. Mark, thank you for sharing your heart. I used to read your articles on conservative Catholic media and missed you when you disappeared from there. During the pandemic I found your blog and started following you. I was put off by the vitriol but stayed for the information. You led me to Phil Vischer’s race videos and the Holy Post, which I love. You told me what EWTN did to Gloria Purvis. I was glad to find that we were still kindred spirits. I identify with so much of your faith journey. I’m a cradle Catholic but a lot of my adult formation was from Evangelicals and Southern Baptists and then I turned very conservative Catholic. The one thing that bothered me about your posts was the name calling and anger at the “other side”. It sounded too much like the very people you were speaking against. I too struggle to love them well, but it’s what the Lord is calling us to do. As Fr. John Riccardo says, they’re not the real enemy. Satan is the enemy. I’m glad the Lord is showing you a better way and you’re responding to his leading. Please keep up the good work. You’ve helped me find intelligent reasonable Catholic and Christian thinkers and return to center and away from the far right voices that seem to have lost their way.

  5. I’ve probably referenced this before, but I find this quote by the late Michael Brooks to be rather apt:
    “Be ruthless with systems; be kind to people.”

    I think you would’ve liked him. From what I’ve seen and heard, he seemed to be the kind of person who walked that fine line between charity and moral clarity that you strive for.

  6. Love … I think of the time, two years ago, when – well, someone who is a fairly high-maintenance item in my life – was going to be involved with me for a time. I thought to myself, well, you can’t love just by willing it…

    Hmm… I don’t know, it just came to me that I can’t love except by willing it. To be sure, willing it isn’t enough – but you have to start. I decided that I would intend to love this person, intend actually to enjoy being with this person – after all, wasn’t it true that this presence in my life was willed by God?

    It wasn’t miraculous – but … I actually did enjoy this time much more than usual – and stopped myself moaning to myself about the more difficult things.

    I think of C. S. Lewis’s “the virtue that is half hypocrisy, the hypocrisy that is half a virtue” – not the exact words, but what I remember of it.


    1. Thank you for voicing this. I have been working on this same issue over the last many months. I started by praying for my “enemies.” Praying to God to open the eyes of extremists, soften their hardened hearts, enlighten them of your will and the true nature of the Gospels. I mention many of these people by name. I remind myself that God has loved me through my sins and has had mercy on me. I try to follow that lead. I agree with someone, who in their Reply to this, that sometimes we need to love by “intent.” “Feeling” love is a gift. Some of us struggle with “feeling” love. But we can “intend” to love and act with love. Love is not simply emotion or a feeling. It can be learned. Learned through acts. Learned through prayer. And if we can feel the love, we are lucky. Mostly, we will have to settle for doing and saying the right thing, even when, and especially when, we cannot feel the emotion of love.

  7. Beautiful, Mark! You certainly fed me. It’s amazing how the Spirit is able to seep through our cracks and deliver strength through our weaknesses.

  8. Thanks for that self reflection, Mark. It is what Ignatius Loyola I think, would call a consolation. I’ve been following Pope Francis’ general audience theme on discernment for the last couple of months and it really gets into your heart how vital and edifying regular self reflection is. We can easily fall into an addiction of reflecting on others and neglecting self reflection.

  9. Honestly I think the way you do, and should continue to feed people is to keep up the fight against the fascism and nihilism which is truly starting to own the brand of your religion and even our entire country and culture. That’s critical work. It’s righteous work. Though my own faith holds me to far different standards than your own, I still understand enough about yours to say that what you do is, arguably, a form of Christ-like love.

    On your best days, what you do is intervention work. You call out the poisonous lies of bullies and predators who willfully, repeatedly and viciously harm the most vulnerable people and justify all of that in the name of your own savior. That’s not just wrong, or evil. It is obscene. You cannot answer that kind of obscenity with a “kumbaya” happy clappy kind of love. You cannot answer it, at least not solely, by “turning the other cheek”. Sociopaths don’t have the tools to grasp that, and will perceive it as weakness and embolden them. You answer it with the kind of Irish two-fisted, fire-in-the-belly Boondock Saints fury that is you.

    That’s who and what you are. It’s a lot of who I am too, but your witness, coming from a Catholic and Christian background, can reach some of those same people in a way that I as a Pagan, or others as atheists, cannot. I think it’s a very safe bet that you’ve helped tip at least a few on the fence Catholics away from the MAGA cult. Those who are fully committed to that cult, probably not so much. You might never convert them, or break them from their predation, but at the very least, you can stand against their lies each and every day. The lies of MAGA, and any totalitarian system, aim to convert lies into truth by repetition, and depend on people going along to get along with those false “truths”. If nothing else, you get to be the one voice that says “no, there are four lights!”. I don’t think people realize how much that kind of small but unrelenting resistance is in times like this.

    You can hate a bully, and especially what he or she does while maintaining an underlying empathy for them. Many, if not most of these people who embraced evil did so out of some internal brokenness. Somebody – family, our society, failed to teach them empathy. Some were no doubt born without it through no fault of their own. You can pray for them, you can have pity on them. That doesn’t mean you have to accept their evil. I think you worry about righteous anger turning into the other kind and consuming you. That’s a valid fear, but the fact that you worry about that will tend strongly to prevent that from happening. Based on what I knew of you, or thought I knew of you, say, ten years ago, I would have said you had all the risk factors of falling into the MAGA cult. For all I know you may have been tempted to, but clearly you have a much different moral compass and refuse to buy into the lie that you can achieve righteous ends with amoral means.

    You want to feed people? Feed them something better than the enemy is. Feed them the bitter medicine they need. Love their humanity if you must, but hate the monstrous distortion of humanity they choose to become and propagate.

  10. “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.”

    Edit your articles before posting!

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