A week or so ago (as I am writing this), I was driving in the car with my sons- the eldest is ten, the youngest is a mere toddler. I was exhausted from a preceding difficult week and a lack of sleep (thanks to back discomfort- old injuries reminding themselves that they are still with me). Needless to say, I was a little more on the grumpier side than usual, and was quicker to impatience with a few instances of careless drivers. Instead of using the opportunity to exercise charity and reserve, I was annoyed and grumbly to put it mildly. While I wasn’t screaming and flipping anyone off, I mumbled less-than-charitable thoughts to myself in the circumstances that arose -or so I thought (to myself), anyway.
A few days passed, and in talking with my wife, she made mention of my mumblings. As it turned out, the utterances that I thought were between “me, myself, and I” were in truth overheard by my eldest (who, after all was sitting right next to me), and he had spoken of it to her in the course of passing conversation. I was embarrassed- she and I had a brief discussion about it, which closed with her words that I used in the title of this post: “(don’t forget), your sons are watching you”.
We are all human, we are all fallen by nature, and no matter how straight the course for which we strike, we are going to veer, stumble, or fall down a time or many. None of us are perfect, nor will we ever be in this waking world. On that same note, we can never be Christ, but should always strive to be Christ-like. It doesn’t matter how often we veer, stumble, or mess up. What matters is that we keep trying, that we keep moving forward.
Your sons are watching you.
So too, are your daughters. Your children are watching and learning from your example. While we may have our less-than-spectacular moments in life, we should always try to keep that fact in mind, to let it be among our guiding thoughts. We need to be as best an example of what it means to be a Catholic man / father / husband as we are able to be. There is plenty out there to tempt our children away from their Catholic foundation, to set lower bars of expectation, and to form the groundworks of base behaviors and behavior patterns. We need to be the light in the darkness, to be a shining -Catholic- example to which our children can aspire. Can we expect a sense of charity and caring for our fellow man (friend and foe alike) to awaken and live within them if it’s not what we ourselves are demonstrating in their company? Can we really expect them to put any stock in even being a Catholic (over the long haul of years) if we aren’t living out the joy of our faith and resting in its strength? Talk is cheap. The proof is in the deed, in how we actually conduct our lives. We must always do our best to be the Catholic role model(s) on which the standards of our children are founded. We need to be a “constant” and actively lead our children to Christ in living example, through not only our actions but also in the manner of our expression(s). We can’t expect them to cleave to that which we seemingly do not adhere ourselves. Always remember: your sons (and daughters!) are watching you.
Life is full of disappointments. Some, we readily shrug off and forget. Others seem to linger, or even to take deep and firm root within our hearts. In one regard, this is only natural- we look back on our lives and smile at the moments and choices that resulted in satisfactions, but we also regret those certain decisions we’ve made or perhaps had failed to make. With this latter especially, we may set our minds to wondering about “what might have been”, “if only…..” and other such ponderings that leave us mired in our disappointment(s) and longing for an imaginary present (stemming from an imaginary past)- This is particularly true when things aren’t going quite to our plans or in line with our efforts, or when we’ve hit a notably rough patch of road on the going.
The real problem isn’t being disappointed. Rather, it is in our lingering or dwelling upon our disappointments where the problem lies. When we dwell on the fantasies of “what might have been, if only……” or we concentrate so much of our time and emotional energy on the situation / person / thing of disappointment, we not only lose the moment which God has given us (and one, I may add, we will never have again once it passes from the present), but we lose our sense of peace. We lose any manifestation of the inner stillness with which we are blessed when we are otherwise concentrated on regrets. We miss out on the real beauty of the lives which God has given us, and we lose touch with the mere joy of living. Granted, it doesn’t mean that we are always going to be leaping and dancing, laughing, and full of smiles as in some dreamy, utopian sort of “heaven on earth”. Instead, the joy we have within is a gift of God, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit that allows us the strength of spirit to accept the challenges, difficulties, and even pain that will come our way in this fallen world. It allows us to experience these things, and have the conviction to move through them in faith, fully trusting in God’s mercy.
The enemy of our souls would love nothing more than for us to lose our focus on God, to disconnect from the knowledge and trust of his mercy, to lose sight of the greater goal for that which occupies the immediate. Every bump in the road is a chance to become misled into that dim forest of despondency, wandering among the underbrush of our disappointments, which tear at our clothes and flesh like the sharp thorns of tangled briars. Life is all too short and it is easy to waste what little moments we are afforded in clinging to regrets. We must remain watchful and focused, giving but a fleeting notice to a moment of disappointment or regret- these moments will come and will naturally catch our attention. However, we must not tarry there, but instead engage our will by the grace and mercy of God to let such moments go. Otherwise, we blindly fall into the enemy’s trap, and are led astray in the bleakness of our bitter thoughts. We are then made more vulnerable to his urgings, to be more easily turned from the love and grace of God. In this, we are robbed of our joy, and kept from the wholeness of heart and mind that keeps us on the path to salvation.
I tend to be a bad listener. I want to fix things, and I have this inner need (apparently) to help, to give answers to questions when they are asked- after all, aren’t questions put forward to gain answers? Well, not always. Sometimes, people are merely expressing anguish or voicing frustration in the ‘asking’….they aren’t really looking for a proper response, but just want a listening ear other than their own to hear their words. This is something I understand, but can’t seem to put into practice with any great measure of success.
I would say that to be an effective listener is a bit of an art- but in all truth, it is really much more of a self-discipline than art. I find that it isn’t always easy to keep silent and simply listen. My inclination is to discuss and to offer advice. It takes a particular awareness on my part, a true state of watchfulness to keep my desire (to help or advise) in check. It’s a deliberate focus of the will to purely listen and be present for another, without giving in to the idea that somehow I need to be more than a listener, more than one to whom a friend, partner, or spouse can confide.
When we listen in attentive silence, we not only show the person in need that we care enough to be fully present for them, we also communicate peace in our silence. This peace can provide a healing comfort to those who are afflicted with cares, and can foster the presence of stillness and peace within their own unsettled hearts. This is far better than any advice-unasked-for or other manner of banter that interrupts another’s sharing of troubles or concerns. Certainly, if we are asked for our advice, we should give it- the key is to refrain from jumping at the chance to offer it, from blurting out the seeming ‘gems of wisdom’ and advice that well up within our minds. But more often than not, it really is enough to just be still, fully present, and attentively listen.
For me, having that attentive ear to which I can unload is one of the blessings of the Mystery of Confession. While so many may look upon Confession as being undertaken merely out of a sense of guilt or only to seek forgiveness of sinful deeds, it is in fact one of the many medicinal cures offered by the very “hospital for the soul” (the Church of Christ) for the broken heart and afflicted spirit. We can confide our sins to our Father Confessor, unloading the burdens that weigh heavily upon us and keep us chained to our anxieties and frustrations. And in so doing, we are not only sharing them to the Confessor, but through him to the most perfect of listeners: Jesus Christ, Himself.
It goes without saying that Christ is ever present and ever attentive to our needs. In some small way, we follow his example by lending an ear, by offering ourselves in being present and attentive for another. None of us are as perfect as Christ, but as devout Christians, we do strive to be Christ-like in our words and deeds -in spite of our many failings and in spite of just how far from that goal we fall. But try we must, no matter how imperfect our earnest efforts may be. I am far from being Christ-like, and fail at the practice more than I succeed. I’m also a bad listener, as I’ve already mentioned….but as I strive to live more by Jesus Christ’s example, I’m also striving to be a better listener.
Life in the modern age is one that is full of activity. It seems that every moment of our waking lives can be accounted for in some manner of work, chore, or distraction. Every space in time is occupied by something, with little to no room for pause. We can duly expect our work and / or school weeks to be packed with laden schedules- but how many of us start our week on Monday wishing we had a weekend to recover from the weekend? We are constantly on the go, even when we should otherwise be at rest. Accustomed to such busy-ness, it is small wonder that so many of us tend to be ill at ease, restless, or bored when some bit of down-time does in fact manage to crowbar its way into our agendas. There’s a creeping sense of emptiness that brings about a state of mental discomfort, one that presents a need to be filled. And with what do we fill that emptiness? Distraction.
Distraction becomes a balm on the mind to soothe a restless soul- it fills the cracks, the gaps, the emptiness….it gives us a temporary (and artificial) sense of wholeness, whether or not we are actually aware of it doing so on a conscious level. If we are constantly seeking to fill the empty moments with some manner of activity or distraction, we are playing into the hands of the enemy of our souls. This may seem to be a bit of an extreme claim, but it is true nonetheless. In filling every possible moment, we aren’t so much driving away a mundane sense of boredom or restlessness, but are in effect dulling our inherent sense of need and hunger for God and His mercy. The enemy of our souls uses such situations to entangle us in the worldly, and to intoxicate us with the material so that we don’t actively seek the spiritual. We become so overindulged with distraction that our spiritual hunger and longing is artificially alleviated, and so we no longer seek true sustenance in God, in His Word, or in His Church… it’s analogous to filling up on junk food right before a proper meal (and so, no longer wanting or needing to eat that meal). But it doesn’t truly satisfy our need and so we are soon hungry again…we indulge in more junk or another distraction, instead of fulfilling that need with what will truly satiate it.
In our fallen existence, God allows for emptiness and longing- not so that we can be made to suffer or feel some manner of being punished or mentally / spiritually tortured, but so that we would realize our need for His presence and grace in our lives. God didn’t create us to be puppets, nor does He compel us against our will. Rather, He desires that we seek Him with our hearts and minds, fully and completely. Our longing for God draws us closer to Him. The emptiness we feel makes us aware of our connection to Him and our need draws us closer to Him (and so, we can be filled with His love and grace). Does this mean that we should exclude hobbies or exploring interests from our lives? No. Rather, we need simply to slow down a little (or in many cases, a lot), open up our daily agendas a bit, and allow for quiet, empty moments. These breaks allow us a bit of pause and reflection, and provide some “space” for us to not only feel our longing, but to truly understand that longing for what it is and so seek the right and true sustenance for it: God and His mercy.
The time we are given in which to live our lives is a precious gift from God. We move through our days mostly unaware of the passing moments, and often unaware of the hours that we squander in pointless pursuits and petty trifles. I would argue that it is an extraordinary person indeed who can account for *every* moment of his or her life in grace-filled productiveness, contemplation, prayer, or other manner of activity that is wholly centered on God (if such a one even exists!). All of us waste some amount of time. But to squander our days utterly in a wholly unaware state, in the assumption that we will have a wealth of future moments, days, weeks, and even years to follow is dangerous folly at the very least, and truly sinful at worst.
When we are ill-attentive and devoid of a sense of deeper purpose, we edge into complacency- and this can take shape in the everyday or mundane, but it is especially perilous in regard to the spirit or “spiritual”. When we slip into this state, we no longer focus on moving forward in any regard, and we cease in our striving toward God in any meaningful way. Our spiritual development and growth is arrested and ultimately stagnates in stasis.
When we lose a deeper appreciation of the preciousness of the moments with which God has blessed us, we become forgetful of religiously meaningful endeavors and motivation, and we easily slide into neglecting the role that church and prayer serve within in our lives. Here, we gradually shed (or perhaps even throw off outright) the armor of God’s grace, and open ourselves to being vulnerable to the enemy of our souls. And this is exactly what he would want of us. After all, his slow needling is far less effective when we are applying the means to repel such attacks. The means of the enemy are far more effective when we are in stasis, when we are without that which protects us, without those exercises and habits which keep our focus honed, and our senses sharp. Rarely will he seek a blatant, full assault- his preference is the slow, imperceptible pricking of his poisonous darts.
Strive to live an attentive life, work toward spiritual growth and make the effort to sustain a regular prayer rule. Remain watchful, that you may avoid the snares of complacency and forgetfulness of God and His grace. Our lives are fleeting, and the store of hours at our disposal is not only finite, but uncertain. None know the hour at which our Heavenly Father will call us from this life and it is of the greatest importance that we remain aware of the manner in which we spend this small portion of treasure that He has shared with us.
If there is no joy in your witness, what then would compel me to follow you along your professed “path”?
This is a question I initially raised to a non-Catholic, non-Orthodox friend…a great guy, a great family man, a devout Christian- but one so full of anger in his arguments. Over time, I began to wonder where in his soul does the joy of Christ reside? There seemed to be too much bitterness over the issues discussed or debated to allow a sense of joy to rest within his heart or to be expressed through dialogue. Granted, it sounds as if I’m being judgemental and implying my friend has anger issues- no, that’s not it… but his frustrations over injustices and the growing unrighteousness of the secular world seem to overshadow his message, and this came across more noticeably to me in the period before my coming back to the Church, when I was more apt to debate from my own distorted positions. In the end, it wasn’t any of his valid points of discussions / truth of his arguments that really convinced me to come back, but the very living example of my girlfriend (now, wife)- sure, she would get and gets angry and may express her frustrations, but there is an unshakable faith and joy that permeates her very being, and is at the core of that from which she draws in the challenging moments life throws at us.
Perhaps similarly, I far too often see the first example come to the fore on social media, especially Facebook. I belong to a number of discussion groups- these days, my workload prevents me from being active or as active as I really would like to be….none-the-less, I see a lot of (frankly speaking) bitterness and anger- snipes, unfriendly arguments, and all such manner of unpleasantness that is quite a turn-off. It wouldn’t be so much an issue in more mundane groups, but these are *religious* discussion groups of which I’m writing- and Catholic / Orthodox groups at that! Granted, one may make the legitimate point that we cannot base our opinions of things-religious (groups, communities, etc.) on what we read on social media, but I would like to posit the position that if one were seeking (information, to get a feel of members of a particular Church or expression, etc.), it’s likely such a one would turn to this means of communication as a first effort to establish contact, raise questions, and make the first efforts to learn…… is the immediate face of that Church or expression rife with bitterness, arguing, insult, and a clear lack of charity and joy? What manner of impression would that serve to create?
There is nothing wrong with disagreement, debate, or even spirited discussion- but we must maintain to our Christian principle of charity, we have to keep in mind that our manner of expressing ourselves may be a seeker’s inspiration to explore and learn further, or it may very well be the drive which pushes him or her away, meandering lost on winding and confusing roads that lead not to salvation, but to a complete separation from God and his Holy Church.
Again, and in closing, If there is no joy in your witness, what then would compel me to follow you along your professed “path”?
Are We Seeking God or Self-consolation?
-Some Thoughts Inspired by a Saying of Elder Macarius of Optina
I wish I had come across this bit of wisdom many years ago, while I was drifting away from God and His holy Church…. It definitely applied to me, and in the course of man’s shared brokenness, I think it is true for many others as well. How many of us equate the love or presence of God or God’s healing / healing mercy with immediate consolation and feel-good vibes? How many of us mistake or have mistaken the lack of a sense of emotional comfort or a lack of being at ease within our hearts as the absence of God or the lack of “getting something fulfilling” out our faith, church, God, etc… “it just isn’t doing it for me”….
Perhaps it isn’t “doing it” for you- but that’s not for the absence of God or the seeming failings of the Church. Rather, it is because in our brokenness, you and I may be looking for an immediate emotional gratification or a bit of pleasant escape, instead of the real, deeper salvific healing that we should otherwise be seeking. One may argue that if God’s Church were the hospital of the soul (a truth of which we are often reminded), shouldn’t we feel better, more joyful, more at peace, more……… in our distorted thinking, we not only fail to see things clearly and we mistake temporary happiness and a “feel good” moment for true, deep joy.. we mistake the consolation of our self for true spiritual healing and a bigger picture of seeking salvation and the ultimate union with God.
One point that many of us (yes, I’m admitting guilt here) may have failed to consider in the grand scheme of things is a simple truth that no one promised us an easy, emotionally comfortable life. In our distorted thinking, we somehow think that our religious path should free us from the bitterness of the world, or the effects of its fallen nature -the pain, sorrow, disappointment, etc. But why are we so entitled? Did not Christ himself suffer in his humanity….did not / do not the countless martyrs of the past and today? Why would we then think we are so entitled to uninterrupted bliss? Our distorted thinking is at the very root of that. After all, our Lord himself tells us (Matthew 16:24), “if anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.”
Where are we to follow Him- to a picnic? …to a relaxing day of sunbathing by a beautiful, tropical sea? No. We follow Him into hardship, into suffering, into that which brings us through the morass of the world and into salvation….a far cry from a temporary, immediate, and artificial sense of joy, comfort, and the narrow perspective of a worldly consolation of spirit. In many western circles, suffering is all too often erroneously mistaken for God’s punishment or a withdrawal of His grace and blessing. But this is a gross departure from the teachings of the true Church which reminds us that suffering is not a punishment at all, but a way of overcoming that which afflicts us in this fallen world- we “crucify the flesh” in overcoming the passions that would sever us from God’s grace, threaten to keep us mired in our brokenness, and joined to that which separates us from Him. We need to resist the urge to gain the temporary consolations of the immediate, lest we forsake the eternal joys of our salvation and ultimate union with God.
The quoted scriptural passage was taken from the New King James Version ©1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
We are dynamic people, living dynamic lives. As a Catholic man with more than a few decades under my belt, I have made the acquaintance of a large variety of folk, and have developed an assortment of friendships over the years- not every person with whom I’ve come to know (to whatever degree) has shared my same outlook or religious beliefs, but there has mostly been some level of mutual respect or appreciation for what one or the other held to. Really, you cannot have a true friendship if you need to hide a part of yourself, or if something that you find as part of the core of who you are is such an affront to your companion(s) that there is an unhealthy tension or some manner of disdain. It just won’t work- and if it does for a time, it won’t last for long.
Friendships are integral to life. Generally speaking, we can’t go at it completely alone or isolated from one another (in typical social settings). We are meant to live and thrive within a community. That, necessarily, takes us beyond the microcosm of immediate (or even extended) family, and into macrocosm of society, where we develop connections of all manner with others outside of the scope of kin. While it can be argued that not every person with whom we connect needs to be on the same footing in every regard, it does remain essential that our closer circle of friends (at least) are on that same footing- especially where moral or religious outlook is concerned. In other words, it’s important for the devout, Catholic man to have the friendship of other (likewise devout) Catholic men.
Let me briefly share an example that I feel illustrates this need rather well:
When my family first moved to Florida, we were very lucky to find a great neighborhood of folk and would all quickly become good friends. Our kids played together, and we adults shared enough common interests to enjoy many fun times, lively talks over a couple of beers, and just simply hanging out with one another. We could count on each other in times of need, and we all shared in keeping an eye on the kids when they were outside, playing…. you get the idea.
One evening, we (adults) were enjoying laughs and companionship, as the setting sun painted the sky in brilliant hues. One of the guys suggested a quick run for a bottle of wine an a twelve-pack of beer (we weren’t looking to get hammered, just share a few adult beverages between four or five couples). So, I and a few of the guys jumped into one of the cars and set off for a nearby supermarket. As soon as I shut my door, my friend (who was driving) turned and informed me that we weren’t heading to the market straightaway. Rather, that errand was just the excuse for setting out on the real quest: the nearest strip joint. I politely excused myself, and went back to those of the group who had remained behind.
I am no man’s judge, so I’ll leave it at that. The point to which I would rather return is that Catholic men need to have the friendship of other Catholic men. We need to know that those guys in whom we place our comradeship and trust will not be a catalyst for temptation or for falling into serious error and grave sin. We need to be able to be fully relaxed in the security of friendly trust- in a world in which we must be constantly guarded, we need to have companions with whom we can enjoy true leisure, free from the cares and worries that otherwise gnaw at our souls. Troubles will find us easily enough in this life- we don’t need the guys we’d otherwise rely on for support to be inviting such in our down-time. Having the friendship of other Catholic men ensures against falling into such snares. So too, it gives us the firm reassurance that men of like mind and moral outlook really do “have our back” in our times of distress and need. We know we can turn to our Brothers in Christ in trust, and not be led astray or along the dark road into sin. We are after all, the company we keep.