The Voice God Uses

As we are within the season of Lent, we are expectantly listening for God to speak to areas of our hearts that need to be redeemed. I doubt that most practicing Catholics who approach this season with sincere intentions for repentance would be surprised to find that God has a specific message of conversion in store for them, but they might be surprised by the particular messenger He sends.

I don’t know about you, but when I imagine God speaking to me or I sit down for prayer desiring Him to do so, I have a good idea of what I expect Him to sound like and what I expect Him to say. Whether it be Lent, or any old time of the year, I often take for granted that I will recognize the sound of His voice and the tone of His message. He will meet my expectations exactly, right? I’m afraid that I have been proved wrong more often than not.

The problem with our expectations is that they are often rooted deeply in pride; they can be tied heavily to our emotions and formed from our deceitful heart condition. We expect the type of correction we feel we can tolerate, the one we have determined to be bearably fair. We are very good at looking just long enough to find a sin that isn’t too inconvenient or a means of conversion that won’t be too difficult. But Jeremiah 17:9 tells us: “The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse—who can understand it?” God, that’s who; and He’s the only one. His perfect comprehension of the state of our hearts and the root of our actions often results in His message sounding quite different from the pre-vetted ones we have conjured up for ourselves.

But it is not only His messages that often surprise us; His methods and messengers do as well. God is no respecter of persons, and He uses all kinds. He uses both the people from whom we have asked advice and those from whom we’d rather not hear. He uses both beautiful rhetoric and plain words. He uses brilliant minds and simple ones alike. He uses both saints and sinners.

I want God’s reproach to be palatable, and I want His messenger to handle my feelings with kid gloves. I want the corrections to be as sweetly worded as possible, so as to not trample my delicate emotions nor overlook my admirable achievements. Oh, pride. Oh, deceitful heart. In trying to place a protective hedge around it, I have blocked out the voice of the Father who wants to heal it and make it new.

And though the Father’s voice is one of love, he often uses sinners (just like you and me) in their sin to deliver his messages to us. He’s going to use the disrespectful child’s remark, the husband’s frank observation, the grumpy stranger in the grocery store, the gossiping woman in the carpool line, or the parent who never thinks you do anything right. I believe that it was Elisabeth Leseur who said that every time that someone offends you it is an opportunity for you to examine your own conscience. I think she’s right. If we are waiting for God to use perfect people to speak to us, then we will often miss the voice that He is using to show us where our hearts are deceiving us.

I’ve had to learn the hard way–usually kicking and screaming–that God’s going to get His message through to me one way or another. It’s truly a grace that that’s the case, that He doesn’t stop speaking when we are hard of hearing. Perhaps if I would listen sooner it wouldn’t be such a hard pill to swallow, but then again pride is always a hard pill to swallow. And isn’t it ultimately prideful for us to insist that had the message been more gentle we would have obeyed immediately? Our track records prove otherwise. What we require is humility to hear His voice, whatever the method or messenger. May we take to heart the Invitatory antiphon that we pray during Lent: “Today, if you hear the voice of the Lord, harden not your hearts.”

Copyright 2019 Jessica Ptomey

The Joy of Needing Others

I need help.

Those are three words that we usually only hear spoken in moments of high frustration, when someone has reached the max, the breaking point, or is totally overwhelmed. In fact, when I write those three words I immediately think of them punctuated by an exclamation mark. I don’t imagine them as I have written them above, with a nice calm period at the end.

If the words are spoken in a conversation, aren’t they often admitted with a sigh? With a heavy resignation that feels like surrender to defeat? Do you think of someone saying those three words – “I need help” – with a joyful tone and a smile upon her face? Probably not.

Why is it that needing help, not being fully autonomous, fills us with frustration rather than joy? Why is needed assistance an indication of something lacking in us? Why do so many women want to juggle, multi-task, and power through all by themselves? The truth is that we don’t really know ourselves or we aren’t really honest with ourselves.

Think about the last time that someone helped you out in a way that was life-changing. How would it have felt to ask for that help? How did it feel after it was given? In answer to the first, probably dread; in answer to the last, probably relief. We fight so hard to be self-sustaining; but, in the end, we welcome the arm that lifts the heavy burden off our backs.

I wonder if we realize that we have been so formed by a culture of individualism and self-reliance that we find ourselves in bondage to it. We see ourselves as our own individual boats, not part of a fleet. All of our endeavors, and the various tasks that go along with completing them, must be accomplished solo. With things big or small there is the drive for the self-satisfying completion of a goal. I folded four loads of laundry today…I wrote a blog post…I got to all of the most important disciplines…I ran all of my errands and handled everyone’s schedule changes with perfect execution.

We want to check-off all our boxes, and we act as if the checkmark only counts if we did the thing entirely ourselves. Even the idea of task lists is completely individualistic. This is what I am in charge of here; that is on this person’s list over there. I think we realize this mindset doesn’t work on a small scale. Perhaps with various jobs or projects we value the idea of working together to get the job done. But in our personal and overall perspective, we take on tasks and the job of living this life as “mine.”

Why this individualistic perspective that prizes personal achievement over collective effort? I think that, ultimately, we have created the wrong narrative in our heads. We view ourselves as the hero of the story, the leading lady, the main character; and all of the people in our lives are supporting roles to our overall narrative. Within this perspective, they quickly become accessories to us…objects in our story, rather than persons with their own.

It’s not that we don’t all have our own stories; it’s just that we have taken our own stories to be central. We have failed to realize that the grand narrative is God’s, and we are all supporting characters in His story.

We have started our hectic adults lives from the premise that we are people who must become something and make something of ourselves, that we have our stories to write and we better get started. We constantly hear this narrative spoken to us in the self-help genre: are you living the life that you want to live?

We have missed the point that we are already part of the best story. We have been invited into it, and no one is excluded from it. It’s a collective narrative that celebrates the communal nature of the gospel. Will we accept the invitation? Will we open ourselves to the joy of needing others and the blessing of being needed by them? There is immense freedom in recognizing that we are living – alongside of others – in God’s story.

Copyright 2019 Jessica Ptomey

“The Wonderful Time” — All Year

It’s the octave of Christmas – “the most wonderful time of the year.” I’m taking some moments these days to consider why this time of year is full of wonder…and also why the wonder is often overlooked. 

The thing about seeing the world with wondering eyes is that it has to be a habit for it to happen with any consistency. If we want to be people awake to the miracle and extravagant love of the Incarnation, then we have to be people who practice seeing evidence of it throughout the “ordinary time” of the year…and even in the midst of the less wonderful times in life. 

In fact, if we don’t know what we are looking for, if we mistake the flashy impersonators for the true beauty and goodness, then we will indeed have trouble spotting the wonder of the gospel message in the ups and downs of ordinary life, and possibly even at Christmastime. The joyful anticipation of Emmanuel — “God with us” — is written throughout history, is written on our hearts. He came to make us fully alive (John 10:10) and wonder-filled, to see the world with new eyes, to recognize truth, beauty, and goodness where it is present.

But think what might happen if we haven’t spent the months before December actively remembering and reflecting on the story of redemption history. We might very well — and often do — miss the most wonderful truth revealed to us in our nativity scenes. And even if we suddenly awaken at Christmas and our hearts grasp what we are celebrating most of all — God becoming man to be with us, to stoop low, to share our lot and raise us up in his glory — will we quickly fall asleep again to the wonder of the Christmas message as soon as the decorations are returned to the attic?

I truly believe that we can’t live in the wonder of Christmas if we don’t practice having wondering eyes all the year through. That is why I count the rhythms of our Catholic liturgical year to be such a gift. When we participate in the 365-day cycle of the Church — from Advent to Advent — we are practicing seeing wonder and the wonderful message each day. We are walking through our salvation story and the life of Christ over and over again, year in and year out.

The often mistaken perception of repetition and ritual is that they breed contempt. Oh, no my friend; they breed wonder. Humans never get it all on the first go ’round; we should know that about ourselves by now. But every year in the life of the Church anchors our hearts a little deeper; every return to each liturgical season cleans a little bit more mud from our eyes. So this year, if the hope and wonder of the Christmas season seems to disappear with the festive window displays, I encourage you to enter in more fully to the rhythms of the liturgical year. Mother Church — her feasts, prayers, sacraments, and traditions — will help you see with wondering eyes the evidence of the Incarnation through all of the other seasons. 

Keep wonder alive. Merry Christmas!

Copyright 2018 Jessica Ptomey