Messengers of Hope

While recently out of town visiting family in Charlotte, NC, I attended Sunday Mass at the beautiful St. Patrick’s Cathedral. (If you ever visit the area, you will enjoy the intentional liturgy and spiritual atmosphere of this parish.) To my delight, Fr. Chris Alar of the Marians of the Immaculate Conception in Stockbridge, MA was visiting St. Patrick’s that morning. He celebrated Mass and gave the homily. I expected a good homily, because I’ve heard him speak before. But I was blown away by the story he told.

While in another country, he had celebrated Mass in a Church of pilgrimage for thousands of people from many different countries, who spoke many different languages. After Mass, he exited the Church into the large courtyard, and he was going to turn left toward the blessed sacrament, but something was drawing him to go to the right. As he walked that way, he suddenly saw a woman standing apart from the crowds of people, and she was sobbing. 

He had no idea if she spoke English, but he approached her and asked if she was okay. “No,” she said. “No one loves me; God doesn’t love me.” And then she told him of her plans to take her own life. Fr. Alar told her that he had actually just finished writing a book on suicide, and he spoke confidently to her of God’s passionate love for her. “The mere fact that you exist,” he said, “is proof that God loves you.” After they had talked for a few minutes, Fr. Alar asked her where she was from. She said she was Ukrainian. He told that he was impressed by how beautifully she spoke English. She just stared at him. “Father,” she said, “I don’t speak English. I’m speaking Ukrainian.”

The whole time they spoke she was hearing Ukrainian, and he was hearing English.

Miracles like this actually happen all of the time. We just have to be open to witnessing them. What is so powerful about this story is that God, out of his deep love for this woman and compassion for her suffering, made an extravagant gesture to make the message of hope—ultimately of His undying love for her—real to her soul. He brought her into contact with the person that had the message that she needed. Fr. Alar was designed to be a beacon of hope for that specific person at that specific moment in time, and I’m sure that at many other moments of his life he has been the divinely appointed beacon of hope for many other individuals. 

Fr. Alar’s story, and the main point of his homily, left me with one clear message—we are all designed by God to be messengers of hope daily to specific people. We may not always know who they are or even realize that we have come into contact with them; so often God means for us to spread His message of hope through our actions rather than our direct statements. Yet sometimes he gives us words at the right time, intended for one of His dear children who need them. 

We are to be His messengers of hope every day; and if we don’t do it, if we don’t respond to His nudge in the daily moments of our lives, then who will? Who will reach the people who are living without hope? If only we can accept that God intends for each of us to deliver His message of hope to particular people every single day. If we live as ready messengers, imagine how many people might be rescued from despair and encouraged to live in the light of God’s love for them. 

The Difficulty Before Delight

I recently experienced a phenomenon in our homeschool that offers great parallel truth for our spiritual lives. “Handiwork” is one of our school subjects, and for this year I wanted to focus on knitting, with a lesson once a week. One of the goals of formal handiwork instruction is that in time the students are able and eager to pick up that work whenever they desire during their leisure time. I learned to knit a couple of years ago, and I have found such delight in the occupation. It is both relaxing and rewarding to be in the middle of a piece of knitting work, slowly seeing an object begin to take shape with the repetition of every rhythmic click of the needles. To me, this creative occupation is a delight, and it is one that I wanted my children experience for themselves.

However, as you would imagine with 8- and 6-year-old boys, it’s a skill that doesn’t come without effort…tedious effort in the training of fine motor skills. In fact, for the beginner, especially children, the delight is not immediately experienced. There is some pleasure in being able to “cast on” a few stitches to begin a project, but then comes the part that my boys found quite challenging–learning to make the knit stitch. It is the most basic stitch in knitting. In fact, there are many different items one can make using the knit stitch alone. My boys were eager to create their first project, but they couldn’t even begin until they had learned how to make this basic, yet vital stitch.

They quickly became discouraged–and rightly so! To be able to make this stitch, you have to make your hands do several things simultaneously: hold the needles steady in each hand, maneuver the right needle through a stitch on the left needle, pull the working yarn taut with one finger while looping it round the needle, then pulling the wrapped yarn back through the same stitch and slipping it off the needle while holding all the other stitches steady and preventing them from flying off with the one. If you watch an experienced knitter working away, this looks easy as pie. But for the beginning adult, let alone a child, it is extremely hard! It requires such attention, precision, patience, gentleness–all virtues we want to develop in ourselves and our children–but also things that require great effort to attain. In short, the delight of knitting is delayed by the great difficulty of training fine motor skills and practicing patience and perseverance.

We had been working at the knit stitch for a few weeks. I had them watch some videos of people doing it over and over. I also explained and demonstrated it several times. But there are really no short cuts. They had to have the work in their own hands and keep trying over and over again, until they would get. In the lesson this past week, I was sitting at the table with both of them, my hands over their hands, slowly helping them work through each step. Gradually (and with a great deal of testing to my own patience), I was able to let go and let my 8-year-old make the movements himself, until finally he shouted in triumph–“I made a knit stitch!” What satisfaction was his! The thing that had been incredibly painstaking for so long only moments ago had suddenly brought great joy to his heart. In fact, as I had hoped, once he had made a few more stitches successfully, he was eager to spend some of his free time working on it again.

I probably don’t need to draw the parallel for you. As difficulty precedes delight in many rewarding occupations, just so with our own spiritual growth. There are painful seasons of hardship when we have to learn or re-learn virtues, where trust needs to be renewed, or when faith needs strengthened. Delight comes in our spiritual lives when we are able to rest in the love of our faithful Father and abandon ourselves to trust in his divine providence at work in our lives. But we don’t get there without effort, without difficulty. We will experience the tedious work of the spiritual life throughout this pilgrim journey, but we can be assured of the delight that will be ours in the presence of our Lord, as we continually seek his face and surrender to his loving, perfect will.

Copyright 2019 Jessica Ptomey

Renewing the Domestic Church – Part 4

In this final post of this summer series on renewing the domestic church, I want to come full circle to answer the question posed at the outset:

Do we perhaps elevate the life of the family above the mission of the Church, making the Church subservient to the family rather than placing the domestic church at the service of Christ’s mission for His Church?

The answer is often–yes. We can easily get Catholic family culture wrong because we get the mission of the domestic church wrong. Domestic churches are meant to link arms with each other within the body of Christ to effectively be the hands and feet of Christ in this world. This is the mission of Christ’s pilgrim Church on earth; as we travel onward to heaven we should be trying to bring as many people along with us as possible.

Yet, often, we don’t see Catholic (or Christian) families living out this mission. In practice, we can act as if the family is a bunker or safe haven from the outside world and maintain a separateness that prevents the members of our families from collectively doing two things (which are really one in the same): serving as the hands and feet of Christ and His Church, and impacting those outside the Church with the Gospel.

Let’s honestly ask ourselves how we think about the Church. Perhaps we take from her rather than give with her and through her. Do we as Catholic families in America live like the Church exists merely to provide the sacraments to us and our children, or do we see ourselves as members of the Church with the responsibility to bring her sacraments to a broken world. Are we only interested in our own salvation from the world and preservation on this pilgrimage, or do we see ourselves as agents in the salvation of the world?

Let’s look at how we may be incorrectly viewing the sacraments and our role in bringing them to a world that desperately needs them:

  • Do we approach receiving the Eucharist as merely “a power pill” that gives us a leg up in our spiritual lives? We should be approaching the Blessed Sacrament with a much larger picture of sacrifice and salvation history in mind. After all, what we are doing in each Mass is uniting ourselves with Christ as an offering to the Father; we are participating in the salvation of the world.
  • Do we think of the sacrament of marriage as only something that we received from the Church? We should, in fact, be living marriages that transmit the grace particular to that sacrament into the lives of those we touch daily.
  • How do we think of our children’s Confirmations, or our own Confirmation for that matter? So many times people incorrectly describe it as “getting the fullness of the Holy Spirit’s power.” We received the Holy Spirit at our Baptism; we didn’t just get a little bit of Him. What many Catholics don’t realize, either in principle or in practice, is that Confirmation is about being “sent out” to fulfill the Church’s mission in the world. Do we live like that? More importantly, are our homes preparing our young people for that mission? Is life after Confirmation a continuation of insulating our child from the world outside our door, or does it involve the celebration of what great things he will do to help Christ’s Church redeem the broken world in which he lives?

What I’m coming to at the end of this series is this: do we accept our mission to bring others with us to heaven, and are we inspiring our children with that same life goal? Do we live and raise our families to serve Christ’s mission, or have we invented all sorts of programs for how His Church can serve our own designs? God help us, but I think there is a lot of the later mixed in. I know first-hand how easy it is to choose to stay in our spiritual comfort zones. We like to be served more than we like to serve; because service costs us something. But the truth is that the alternative costs us more. Christ tells us that “the first shall be last,” and quite frankly, I don’t know of a single saint that made it to heaven on that program. To get to heaven, it seems that we have to want to bring people with us–and not just the people we like or live with.

So let’s set our families on a heavenward path. Let’s start living with more intention to bring others to heaven with us. Let’s give ourselves to the service of Christ and His Church, and let’s give our children back to Christ. Let’s let go of our own designs and celebrate–above all else–the mission that God calls each member of our family to at Confirmation. We can have the kind of domestic churches that raise up generations of Catholics that do as St. Catherine of Siena said: set the world on fire.

Copyright 2019 Jessica Ptomey