Category Archives: The Spiritual Life

Happy Easter 2014

My dear brothers & sisters in Christ, Happy Easter!  What a wonderful time to be alive!  How can I share my joy with you?

For the next 40 days, we will be celebrating the Resurrection of Our Lord.  On June 8th, Pentecost Sunday, we will remember how the Holy Spirit descended and gave power to the first apostles to proclaim the Good News.  Isn’t it amazing, my brethren, how the past 40 days of praying & fasting is now balanced with 40 days of thanksgiving & celebration?

Please share with me how the way you spent Lent is affecting how you will celebrate the next 40 days of Eastertide.  I think how we observe Lent is directly correlated to how we experience Easter.  Let’s see if my suspicion is true!

I can tell you, I will enjoy a nice glass or two of Scotch whisky, tonight.  There were many moments when I felt the temptation to break my resolution not to drink alcohol.  While I did drink a glass of beer on two social occasions, I trust I will have enough grace to be a better witness next time.  I didn’t really need to drink; people would have understood and respected my Lenten resolution.  I gave up coffee for Lent, but intend on not drinking it again.  I will enjoy coffee ice cream, though.  While I will try my best not to watch Netflix, again, at least I can look up documentary or shows that I can watch together with my wife.

Most importantly, I’ll get to pray the other Christian mysteries.  For the 40 days during Lent, I only mediated on the Sorrowful Mysteries (the Agony in the Garden, the Scourging, the Crowning of Thorns, the Carrying of the Cross, and the Crucifixion).  Now, I get to reflect on Christ’s Joyful, Luminous and Glorious Mysteries.  I look forward to seeing how the Holy Spirit will speak to me as I meditate on these other mysteries.

Oh, my soul, I love the Lord so much I feel like bursting.  This, I know, is due to grace.  There is so much horror and tragedy in the world, right now.  I read a headline today of a man who raped a baby and videotaped it on his cell phone.  I prayed an Act of Contrition for the man, but that will not be enough to help him.  The poor baby, the poor parents… God give them solace.  That’s just one tragedy.  Christ saw all the horrors he was atoning for in the Garden.  He probably saw the human error and incompetency that led to the hundreds of high school deaths in South Korea when a ferry that was taking the children on a field trip capsized.  This accident happened right before Easter, too.  The school vice principal already committed suicide (which sounds a lot like the despair that led Judas to his own suicide).  I’m sure the devil is having a field day harvesting souls for Hell.

There are so many other tragedies and reasons to be sorrowful, but I’m shielded for a time to enjoy the Lord’s Resurrection.  For this, I’m grateful.  It’s good for me to remember that only the living can praise God.  Although I did not see the Risen Christ in the flesh as the first disciples did, I do feel Him in my heart and can see with my eyes of faith how He has worked (and continue to work) in my life.

My brothers & sisters in Christ, I pray and hope you are doing well and have much to be thankful for.  If you are suffering or have experienced tragedy recently, I will pray for you this evening.  I’m praying for you, right now.  God bless you.

O God, I love you with my whole heart above all things because you are infinitely good; for your sake I will love my neighbor as myself.  Amen.

Ash Wednesday 2014

I’m excited about Lent this year.  This is unusual since Lent is a season of penance.  But, I’m excited because it will be the fifth year I’m a Catholic, and I finally feel like I’m on fire for God, again.

Where I Was

I don’t mean to blame it on my marriage, but being married did distract me for a while.  I also had a demanding assignment in Shanghai.  And, I became a father.  The daily prayer life that I had going during RCIA was disrupted.  I went from praying the rosary two to three times a day to just one decade a day to barely an “Our Father” and one “Hail Mary” before going to sleep at night.  My Catholic identity became a mere backdrop to marriage, family and work.

The work-life balance in Seoul has been a blessing.  I have been able to take a deeper look at the spiritual state of my soul these past two years.  Old sins had come back to haunt me.  I was fighting old battles and losing.  It became real clear that if I didn’t do something about my spiritual life, I would lose that burning love I felt when I first entered the Church.

It started with joining a small men’s group.  What brought us together was our love for Christ.  We all came from different Christian traditions (I was the only Catholic) and have different jobs in the Embassy community.  The spectrum of our spiritual states were expansive, too.  We were a motley group, but we all had one thing in common: we wanted to love God more.  Through them, the Holy Spirit held me accountable.  We were sheep coming together as a flock, and I was hearing my Shepherd’s voice.

Where I am Now

My prayer life is stronger and deeper than it ever was before, but still fragile, like a plant sapling.  I’ve knocked back my intellectual and spiritual pride a little bit, and can see that there is still a lot that I don’t know.  I know that as clean as I may appear on the outside, there are layers upon layers of unfertile and contaminated dirt buried in the field of my soul.  My prayer life is like the Armillaria Ostoyae fungus that stretches out beneath the soil’s top layer, building a lattice structure for my virtues to take root and grow.  Just as the Douglas-fir gives way to a diverse growth of pines, red cedars, alders and spruce, my worldly attachments and inordinate passions that once dominated the acres of my soul will decompose. My Faith, Hope, Charity, Prudence, Justice, Fortitude and Temperance will grow in their place.

Weekly confession and a deeper awareness of Christ when receiving the Eucharist have accelerated my spiritual growth.  I feel the love of God, now.  I can see the Holy Spirit using me as an instrument in the lives of my family, my work, and my immediate community.  My desire to love others have grown.  I feel more joy and peace in my life.  I am more patient with my wife and children, with difficulties at work and with difficult people.  I am more generous with my time and money, even with complete strangers.  My girls are so used to my gentleness that even using a firm tone of voice would make them cry, “Stop yelling at me!”  I feel more faithful to God.  I catch myself being immodest, now, whereas before I would find opportunities to boast.  I have more self-control over my impulses.  Amazingly, I know the meaning of chaste sex and still feel joy — and no resentment — when we are abstinent.

These fruits are only possible because of God’s grace.  Something good has taken root and I need to be vigilant in tending my garden.  It’s supernatural because no normal human being in the 21st century behaves this way.  I’m nobody special.  The only thing I do differently is pray to a Living God.

Where I Hope to Go

Where I go, other’s have gone before me.  I rest easy knowing that I can follow a map given by God Himself.  There is no need for me to reinvent the wheel.  I still have to walk the spiritual road myself, but the narrow road is well-worn.  I pray to find other pilgrims along the way.

Poverty, Obedience and Chastity in Marriage?

I know it sounds crazy.  Going into uncharted territory always sounds crazy.  I think it is possible to live out the evangelical counsels in marriage.  It’s not for everyone, just like the expatriate or Foreign Service life, but for those who are called to live out these counsels, they will bear much fruit for our brothers & sisters in Christ.

I started out writing about a contemplative life in marriage.  Quit Netflix, video games, recreational reading to simplify my life. Give myself more time to pray.  It is not natural, I admit, while my flesh is still stronger than my wounded soul.  My biology, my ego, and my passions are in alliance against the contemplative life.  My soul was once like a starved prisoner, shackled by years of habitual sin and charmed into compliance by the natural pleasures of the world (cf. Ps 106:14-15).  Christ freed my soul with Baptism on Easter 2009.  It’s like a mixed martial art battle with my body.  For the first few years, my soul lost battles more often than it won.  These past couple months, though, my soul has been winning more often.  Structured prayer and frequenting the Sacraments (especially weekly Confession and the Eucharist) have strengthened my soul.  The Holy Spirit has been the strength behind my K.O. punches.  The goal?  Total submission of my body to the direction of my soul and the Holy Spirit.  If I follow the spirit of the evangelical counsels, I believe I can achieve that goal.

Poverty

How can I practice poverty in marriage?  Easy.  Give all my money to my wife.  I need to ask her every time I want to buy something.  I should stop eating out at lunch and bring leftovers from home.  Her virtue of temperance is a lot stronger than mine.  So, I would benefit from her counsel.

There is a bit of irony, though.  My wife doesn’t like managing finances.  So, I still make our investments, do our taxes and plan for our financial security.  I have all the responsibility, but none of the (temporal) fun.  Ah… suits the spiritual life just fine, then, doesn’t it?

Obedience

As a Catholic, I obey God and His appointed leaders.  There is the Pope and his encyclicals.  There are the councils and its documents.  There is the Magisterium and its decrees.  These people and bodies are all divinely delegated authorities by Christ.  He gave them to me (for all of us, really) because he knows how frail I am when left to my own devices.  We all want to be pope and define right and wrong; few want to be slaves to the liturgy & doctrine.  Little do people suspect that there’s freedom in divine slavery!

As a husband and father, I obey my wife.  Obedience to my wife doesn’t mean I’m spineless or pusillanimous.  Just as Christ gave authority to his bride, the Church, to “bind and loose” on earth, so I give authority to my bride to bind and loose in the household (cf. Mt 16:19 and Mt 18:18).  I respect my wife’s domain, just as God respects His Church’s domain.  By obeying my wife, I am practicing the Catholic teaching of subsidiarity in the home.

As a diplomat, I obey many bosses.  They have rightful authority over me.  As long as I am not called to sin in the eyes of God, then I ought to obey my rightful superiors.  As it is in the divine order, so it is in the temporal order.  Obeying a command from a person I don’t like, or to perform a task I don’t want to do — again, as long as it does not lead to sin — would be good for my soul.

Chastity

Chastity in marriage is misunderstood.  Dawn Eden’s article “10 and a Half Reasons to be Chaste,” reprinted at Catholic News Agency, explains the difference.  It’s worth reading because most people equate “chastity” with “celibacy.”  It’s possible to have unchaste sex in marriage.  Practicing Natural Family Planning would be an act of chastity in marriage.  Abstaining from sex, or what spiritual writers call continence, seems impossible without resentment.  However, I can testify that by the grace of God not only is chaste sex possible, but even joyful abstinence is possible in marriage.  Is that too much information?  Well, “what is impossible with men is possible with God” (Lk 18:27; also Mk 10:27 and Mt 19:26)

I live in a culture where sex is pleasure divorced from creation, where everything is sexualized: men & women, young & old, animals, inanimate objects… everything.  Ignorance of sex’s divine power to create new souls creates a mentality where it’s considered okay to use one’s spouse for sexual gratification.  Even well-meaning Christians use the Bible to “prove” that spouses are supposed to have sex even when one of them is not interested (Eph 5:22-23).  We can see the error in that interpretation when we logically extend it to the whole passage.  Husbands are supposed to imitate Christ by sacrificing their own life to help make their wife spotless before God, just as Jesus died on the Cross to make His Church spotless in Heaven.  The Church obeys Christ because of that sacrifice.  Wives would obey their husbands, too, if men were so self-sacrificing.

Dear God, thank you for protecting the wealth of knowledge in your Church, handed down from generation to generation.  Fr. Garrigou-LaGrange, pray for us.  May your work reach out to other souls.  May it continue to guide me deeper into Our Lord’s intimate life.  Amen.

What are the Three Counsels?

In a previous post, I was writing about the possibility of living a contemplative life in marriage.  I got to a point where I wanted to talk about adapting something that religious people do for practice in the married life.  These are the three evangelical counsels: poverty, chastity and obedience.  What are they and how are they practiced?  How can I adapt them to my life?

The Three Evangelical Counsels

In Chapter 13 of Fr. Garrigou-LaGrange’s book on the interior life, he makes the case for why the three evangelical counsels are very difficult to observe in the married life.  The three counsels are poverty (cf. Mt 19:21), chastity (cf. Mt 19:11-12) and obedience.  As Jesus said in Matthew 19, the counsels of poverty and chastity are voluntary.  Obedience to God, of course, is a given.  However, the evangelical counsel of obedience means something different.  Obedience, in this context, is the voluntary submission to a person, like a spiritual director or the Superior General of a religious order.

These three counsels specifically counter the three concupiscences (cf. 1 Jn 2:16) that we all suffer from as a result of Original Sin: concupiscence of the eyes (greed), concupiscence of the flesh (sensuality), and vanity of life (power; independence from God and from each other).

Fr. Garrigou-LaGrange is careful to emphasize that these three counsels are not obligatory to all Christians to obtain eternal life, but “it is a most suitable means more surely and rapidly to reach the end and not run the danger of stopping halfway.”  So, while my justification for eternal life is made through my belief in Jesus Christ, Christian perfection is another matter.  If we seek Christian perfection in this life (in order to reach the Beatific Vision faster in the next life), then the quickest route is by observing these three counsels.  Fr. Garrigou-LaGrange contends that it’s easier to follow these counsels when a person lives in a monastery or convent.

While he concedes that some saints managed Christian perfection in the married state, they are the exceptions that prove the rule:

The Christian who lives in the world is often exposed to excessive absorption and preoccupation about a situation to be acquired or maintained for himself and his family.  He is also in danger of forgetting to some extent that he must advance toward another life, another fatherland, and that to reach it, something is needed quite different from the understanding of worldly affairs: in other words, the help of God, which should be sought through prayer, and the fruit of grace, which is merit.  In family life he is also inclined to dwell on affections in which he finds a legitimate satisfaction for his need of loving.

His next statement was difficult to read because I can see how I am often guilty of it:

He is also led to forget that he must above all things love God with his whole heart, with his whole soul, with all his strength, and with his whole mind.  Frequently charity is not in him a living flame which rises toward God while vivifying all other affections; instead, it is like a burning coal which slowly dies out under the ashes.  This explains the ease with which a number of these Christians sin, scarcely reflecting that their sin is an infidelity to the divine friendship, which should be the most profound sentiment in their hearts.

The dagger of his words go deeper still:

The Christian living in the world is often exposed to doing his own will, side by side… with the will of God….  Then faith seems at times reduced to a number of sacred truths that have been memorized, but have not become truths of life….  The great truths about the future life, about the helps that come to us from Christ, remain practically inefficacious, like distant truths that have never been assimilated and are lost in the depths of the heavens.

While I don’t disagree that it would be difficult, it is important to know that it’s possible and that there are couples who have succeeded.  My journey, then, consists in finding out how I can progressively grow in holiness without abandoning my wife and children.  Next question to answer: How can I adapt the three counsels to my life?

Contemplative Life in Marriage

Praying Hands on an Open Bible
Praying Hands on an Open Bible

Is it possible to live a contemplative life in marriage and parenthood?  The Catholic Encyclopedia gives a very profound definition.  To me, it’s about developing a relationship with God that rests on top of my visible, temporal life — like a spiritual blanket.  It’s about seeing God in every event in my life, in every interaction I have in the world, in every person that I meet.  This isn’t easy, but from what I’m reading, I think I can chart a path for a married man like myself.  I also recently posted some wise words from St. Francis de Sales that reinforce my belief that a contemplative life in marriage is possible.

Make Time to Think About God

I need to deliberately make time to think about God.  It should be part of my daily routine.  When I wake up in the morning, I should say a quick prayer, asking “God, give me the graces I need this day to do Your will and glorify You, Lord.”  During the 25-40 minute shuttle ride to the Embassy, I should read the morning Divine Office and contemplate what I’ve read in the time left over.  If I need to connect with another soul during the ride, then I should read the morning office first-thing when I get to my desk.  It takes a few minutes, anyway, for my computer to boot up and Outlook to update emails.  So, I can close my door for the 15 minutes it takes to do the morning office before starting my day.

At lunch, I should do some spiritual reading.  I should save the last 15-20 minutes of my lunch time to do the Rosary.  If the day is slow, I could take a 15-minute break and sneak in another session of reading.

On the ride home, there is another 25-40 minutes for spiritual reading or the evening office.  Both my wife and children are asleep by 9 or 10 p.m.  This is where I can do some serious contemplation of an hour or more.  Do the Rosary if I didn’t do it at lunch.

Just from my commute and lunch break, I can get in almost two hours of prayer time during my normal work day.  I have two to four hours at night while my family sleeps.  That’s four to six hours a day that I can spend with God in prayer and contemplation.  Season 2 of House of Cards is coming out in February.  So, maybe my time with God will be drastically cut back, then.

Seeing with the Eyes of Faith

Trade missions, VIP visits and family time on the weekends would preclude that much time hanging out with God.  But even then, if I look with the eyes of faith, I can maintain a dialogue with God.  During a trade mission, the fast-paced schedule and quick decisions needed for crisis management are opportunities to harvest the fruits of the Holy Spirit.  I can show my colleagues that, because of my faith, even in stressful situations I am able to be charitable… joyful… peaceful… patient… kind… good… generous… gentle… faithful… modest… self-controlled… and chaste (especially when there are a lot of beautiful women around!)  When I support high-level government official visits, these are great opportunities for acts of charity (service), humility, and obedience.  The less I like the task, the better it is for my soul (mortification).  All that time planting seeds of virtue during my normal days will come to bloom during these times of high activity.

I include family time along with the above two examples not because it’s a chore.  Quite the opposite; it’s what I look forward to every week.  However, it is easy to look at family time and taking care of the children as ordinary tasks instead of analogies to my relationship with God.  When Maya or Hana are slow to obey, or defy my authority, I can recognize that behavior in my spiritual life with God.  I am slow to obey the Holy Spirit’s gentle promptings.  I defy God when I sin.  Seeing that similarity, I am able to be more patient and merciful with my own girls — just as God is patient and merciful with me.

This post will have to be continued.  I need to explain what the three evangelical counsels are.

My Intellectual and Spiritual Pride

As I go through Chapter 28 of Fr. Garrigou-LaGrange’s book on the interior life, I find myself horribly exposed to my intellectual and spiritual pride.  I was aware that pride was my root sin, but I did not realize how badly I suffered from it.  It’s odd: I’m disappointed with myself, but I’m also filled with joy to discover this flaw.  I want to be perfect, as Jesus is perfect; but, I know I’m not, yet.  By His grace, I was able to remove the big rocks on the field of my soul.  My intellectual and spiritual pride is hidden, like garden cutworms, potato tuberworms and other soil-dwelling pests.  Now, with the light of the Holy Spirit shining on my wounded soul, I can see how these hidden types of pride have infested the garden of my soul and blinded me from seeing these truths about myself:

  • I believe that I have through my own efforts what I have received from God
  • I believe that I have merited what I have gratuitously received
  • I attribute to myself goods I lack, (i.e. great learning, strong faith, heroic charity), when I do not possess it
  • I wish to be preferred to others and depreciate them

I felt the loving finger of God pointing at me when I read this passage:

Some finally, who are theoretically in the truth, are so satisfied to be right, so filled with their learning which has cost them so much, that their souls are, as it were, saturated with it and no longer humbly open to receive the superior light that would come from God in prayer.  Intellectual pride, even in those who are theoretically right, is a formidable obstacle to the grace of contemplation and to union with God.

I thank the Holy Spirit for the grace and consolation in knowing this fatal flaw in my soul.  How can I grow in Christian perfection with these soul-dwelling pests eating the crops planted by the Holy Spirit?  So, while I am truly disappointed with myself, I am also happy to experience this grace.  What a mercy to know that I’m still a sinner!

St. John of the Cross, pray for me.  Your words have brought me to shame:

When beginners become aware of their own fervor and diligence in their spiritual works and devotional exercises, this prosperity of theirs gives rise to secret pride — though holy things tend of their own nature to humility — because of their imperfections; and the issue is that they conceive a certain satisfaction in the contemplation of their works and of themselves.

From the same source, too, proceeds that empty eagerness which they display in speaking of the spiritual life before others, and sometimes as teachers rather than learners.  They condemn others in their heart when they see that they are not devout in their way.  Sometimes also they say it in words, showing themselves herein to be like the Pharisee, who in the act of prayer boasted of his own works and despised the publican (Luke 18:11)….  They see the mote in the eye of their brother, but not the beam which is in their own.

If you are reading this, pray for me.  Pray that I do not imitate Christ in the wrong way.  Pray that I bear with the equality of our fellow men & women, that I do no wish to impose my domination on them.  Pray that I live with them in humble submission to the divine law.

The Beatific Vision

"Empyrean," by Gustave Dore, an illustration in Dante's "Divine Comedy"
“Empyrean,” by Gustave Dore, an illustration in Dante’s “Divine Comedy”

The whole point of trying to become a saint is to go straight to Heaven, right?  Skip Purgatory and see God face-to-face.  That’s what is called the “beatific vision,” a word I see coming up as the purpose of trying to live a life of holiness.  To confirm my deduction, I looked up the term in the Catholic Encyclopedia here and found its mention in the Catechism here.

I pray that I’m not causing scandal in others by asking this question: What’s so cool about the beatific vision?  I had been tackling this question for a while since I’ve accepted the universal call to holiness.  It didn’t make sense at first because I thought that in the person of Christ I was seeing God.  God the Father is abstract, but God the Son is visible.  Wasn’t looking at Christ on the Crucifix seeing God face-to-face?

The question went on the back-burner for a while as I pursued other avenues of the faith.  Now, that I’m back exploring the interior life and Catholic spirituality, I am seeing this term again.  Beatific vision.  Intellectually, I get that “seeing God face-to-face” should be awesome.  Yes, but what does that mean?  I get it up here (tapping head), but what does it mean here (pounding stomach)?

Praise the Holy Spirit for the gift of understanding (#2 of the Seven Gifts)!  One day, as I looked at Hana smiling back at me, I got the intuitive feeling of what it meant to have the beatific vision.  In her cute little mind, my face, my body… my person is, for her, a source of joy, happiness, mercy, comfort, and unconditional love.  My wife, her mother, is all that and more for Hana.  So, when the two of us walk into the home after a date, and Hana is squealing and simultaneously kicking both her chubby legs, it is as if she is besides herself with ecstasy.  Is my baby having a transcendental, mystical experience?  I don’t know, but I know she is REALLY happy to see both of us in person.  A photo of us won’t cause the same reaction.  It has to be either mommy or daddy in person.  Better, both.

So, I imagine her sudden burst of joy in seeing my face, multiply that by infinity and that’s the happiness I’d feel when I see my Heavenly Father face-to-face.  Beatific vision.  Gut-feeling.

A moment of contemplation made me consider that, in that encounter, I would also see every single person who has ever brought me joy and happiness, but I would see how that person was really an emissary of God.  I would learn how every event that gave me happiness was the result of a chain of people who made that possible.  I would meet these people and learn that they, too, were emissaries of God.  I would meet all the saints who prayed for me.  And then I would see God.

It’s kind of like one of those romantic movies where there is an elaborate proposal.  The girl coincidentally runs into all her good friends and then all of his best friends, one after another.  Each one tells her something nice about the man who is going to propose to her and then gives her successive clues to where she can find the man who has been after her heart all these years.  She finally sees him and they marry.  The thought of spending the rest of her life with this perfect man has her heart overflowing with joy.

In the beatific vision, I would be like that girl.  I would finally see God.  He’s the one who has been after my heart all these years.  I would spend my eternal life with Him.  And the party would be for an eternity.  And there are no limits to how many guests can come.  The food and wine, of course, would be endless.  I know that there is more to Heaven than endless food and drink (cf. Rom 14:17-19); this would be more like a welcome party followed by the hallowed work of saving as many souls as possible before the Last Judgment.  Still, I’ll have some time with my One True Love before that holy task.  I would turn to God and say, “It was you.  It has always been you.  Thank you.  I love you!”

Dammit, My Wife is Holier than Me

My wife had to go back to the U.S. to attend a funeral and I had to take care of our two children for five days.  It was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do in my life.  It was only five days for me, but my wife has been doing this for over three years.  The experience was humbling.  Now, I have a profound respect for my wife.  Single-parents — I can’t even imagine — must have heroic virtue just to survive day-to-day, let alone help their children thrive.

We are blessed to live a life where the cost-of-living permits us to have part-time household help.  Although I never brought it up to my wife, I always wondered why she would say she didn’t have enough time to do certain things when we have Lorie to help around the house for half the day.  The purpose was to give Anne Marie more free time, but she would claim not to have any.  Now I know.  Even with the extra hours that Lorie put in, I could barely check my emails once a day, let alone get any time to read, think or relax.

Taking care of one’s children full-time and going to work full-time are really not the same thing.  For one, I get breaks at work.  There could be a lull in demands and I could check the news.  I can go off to lunch by myself and read for a whole hour.  That doesn’t happen with one’s children.  Not my children.  Not with daddy.  I’m like a honey pot and they are like Winnie the Pooh times two.  To top it off, they’re jealous of each other.  Maya could be happily playing in one corner, but as soon as she sees me holding Hana, she’d storm over and complain about having a “tummy ache” and wants me to carry her.

Another difference between work full-time and children full-time is intellectual and emotional detachment.  Screwing up at work is one thing.  Screwing up with your kids has a different magnitude of consequences.  While I have pride in my work, I don’t love my work.  I do love my children and so the amount of self-giving is that much greater.  That’s the thing… it’s the self-giving that is required with one’s children that is not required with people at work (i.e. supervisors, co-workers, clients, etc.)  Caring for one’s children is physically, emotionally, psychologically and spiritually draining.  And that’s on the good days.  Even on the worst days at work, I only complain about being mentally drained.

These five days with my children has been humbling spiritually.  In “The Three Ages of the Interior Life,” Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange wrote, “The great sign of love of God is precisely love of one’s neighbor.  A saint who has little learning in theological matters but who has a very great love of God, is certainly more perfect than a theologian who has a lesser charity.”  I have more theological knowledge than my wife.  I never realized it until now, but I thought that made me more holy.  It’s not knowledge that makes one holy, but self-giving to others, especially the less fortunate and the helpless (like one’s children).  My wife has given a tremendous amount of herself these past three years for our daughters.  Just these five days gave me a taste of the cross that she continues to bear for our family.  Taking care of our girls is not torture (per se), but there’s a lot of self-sacrifice.  All the virtues are practiced (faith, hope, charity, prudence, justice, fortitude, temperance).  Many of the gifts of the Holy Spirit are exercised.  I’ve come to realize that despite all my book knowledge about God, my wife loves Him more than me because she gives of herself more than I, especially for our children.

If I am to pursue the holiness, I need to exceed the charity that my wife exhibits.  A little friendly competition doesn’t hurt.  The prize is the Beatific Vision.

The Field of Our Soul

I came across a wonderfully analogy for the pursuit of the interior life in Dan Burke’s book, “Navigating the Interior Life.”  He also maintains a website promoting the themes in his book.  I highly recommend the book to anyone whose prayer has led them to an awareness that a spiritual director is needed.  While you’re still searching for one, this book is a godsend.

When we begin the work of a serious commitment to holiness, we will discover that the field (the soul) that we desire to plow and plant is riddled with rocks (sins) that need to be removed in order to make progress.  At this point of discovery, the faithful farmer begins to remove these big obvious rocks (usually mortal sins).  At some point the farmer becomes satisfied with this effort, pulls the plow out of the shed and sets out to prepare the soil, but then is startled at a disconcerting discovery: Though all the big rocks are gone, there are many more rocks that are smaller (venial sins) that had not been seen before.  The big rocks had properly drawn all of the attention.  Now that the big rocks are clear, a more detailed and sometimes more rigorous effort is then needed to further prepare the field.  The same is true with the progressive nature of root sin identification and clarification as we grow in spiritual maturity.

Natural Good Used for Evil

The same weekend that I posted “Wanted: Spiritual Director” I went to Confession on Saturday to get spiritual direction.  I figured, “I have the priest’s attention, already.  Why not ask him a few questions?  There’s usually hardly anyone waiting in line.”  Sure enough, I had Fr. O’Brien for as long as I wanted.  God bless Fr. O’Brien.  He was the answer to my prayer.

As I had written earlier, I was trying to discern whether to get more involved in the Church, to volunteer as a catechist in addition to being in the choir.  If I was called to be a catechist, should I get an advanced degree so I could do a better job?  I felt obsessed about this question, especially the last one.  It got to a point where I was wondering whether I should leave the Foreign Service to serve God full-time.  Serving God equals loving God, right?

The priest’s answer surprised me.  After he confirmed that I was married and with children, he told me that I should focus on my family.  Being involved in various apostolates could be a danger because it would take me away from my wife and children, who deserve all my energy.  These apostolates have a way appearing more important than the humble services I give as a husband and father (i.e., going out on a date with my wife vs. attending RCIA to catechize eager souls; helping my wife bathe the children vs. preparing for a talk on the spiritual disciplines of the Church, taking my children to play in the park vs. counseling a young man from suicide, etc.)

These were the same words that my wife told me many times before: “You need to focus on the family.  You will become too involved; it will take you away from the family.”  And, it’s not like I did not believe my wife.  I still obeyed her and refrained from being more involved.  What she asked me to do was not a sin.  But, this desire to serve the Church persisted in my thoughts.  Am I disobeying God by obeying my wife?

So, the priest’s answer was Christ’s answer.  While it is good to serve the Church, it is not good to be motivated by spiritual pride.  My confessor helped me see my spiritual blind spot.  The moment he told me “you should focus on your family”, the Holy Spirit helped me exercise my Gift of Understanding to see that it was spiritual pride all along that motivated me.  It would be the devil’s irony that my own family would be weakened — even destroyed — because I would be so focused on “unselfishly” serving the Church.

"All is Vanity" by C. Allan Gilbert
“All is Vanity” by C. Allan Gilbert

God bless Fr. O’Brien.  God bless confessors and spiritual directors everywhere.  May they lead more souls to holiness.