Spirituality in the Private Life

Undoubtably, we are all so glad to be in this Easter season and finally on the other side of Lent, as this was a Lent none of us would have imagined or chosen for ourselves. I might be wrong, but when people are signing themselves up for Lenten sacrifices I don’t imagine that anyone is telling God that they have decided to spend six weeks stowed away in one house with their spouse and children, with no social activities, and with food and supplies limited to what is left on sparse grocery store shelves in the wake of pandemic-induced hoarding behavior. I’m pretty sure no one came up with that one.

At the moment we are still living with this reality, but it is Easter now. We have the opportunity to give thanks with our families for the resurrection and the hope that is ours in this world—regardless of circumstances. Whether or not we can buy toilet paper, or whether or not we can return to a normal mode of life, God is in control and heaven is our home. And during this Easter season we also have the opportunity to assess what God has been teaching us throughout this very unusual Lenten journey.  

What God actually called us to this Lent was a completely private spirituality. And if you think about it, isn’t that really hard? It’s often a lot easier to participate in our normal public religious activities, and even add to those with more public Lenten rituals, than it is to let God work on our hearts in quiet, private places or practice charity with members of our household that are draining our already depleted stores of patience. 

As the coronavirus quarantine took effect and all public events were cancelled, we started to see an influx of virtual activities. Now on the one hand that was a huge blessing. My family has been able to watch Bishop Barron’s Word on Fire broadcast of the daily and Sunday Masses over the last few weeks; and it has been a wonderful experience to continue to pray the Mass and make a Spiritual Communion when we cannot leave our houses. But we can also see that the culture of overactivity and the tendency to avoid the gift of quiet found new ways to manifest themselves during a nation-wide quarantine. 

If we reflect on this past Lent from a perspective of divine providence, I think that we can come away with the conclusion that God meant to use this time to help us work on our private spirituality, to help us get better at the most simple and domestic expression of the two great commandments: “love God and love your neighbor.” So, if this was the opportunity that we were given this Lent, how did we do? Were we able to sit with the Lord and let Him open our hearts and convert them more fully to His will? Were we able to perform acts of service and love (seen only by God and our family) in the midst of a challenging home dynamic? 

We probably had some failures and some successes, and the beautiful reality is that every moment is a moment for conversion. If we mostly missed this unique opportunity during Lent, we can enter into God’s invitation during Easter. We can realize that God opens up these private opportunities, often ones we would never pick ourselves, because it is the private spirituality that matters most. God wants our hearts more than our sacrifices or religious activities (1 Samuel 15:22). 

In his 1923 essay “Turning Inside Out,” G. K. Chesterton wrote, “All tends to return to the simple truth that the private work is the great one and the public work the small.”[1] Let’s celebrate the call to spiritual renewal in our private lives as we reflect on God’s love and provision this Easter season. Are we loving well in the private life not on display to the public? Who we are in private is who we really are. If we let God transform our private lives, I believe that we will find ourselves dynamically transformative within our public ones. 

Copyright 2020 Jessica Ptomey


[1] Chesterton, G. K., Dale Ahlquist, Joseph Pearce, and Aidan Mackey. 2011. In defense of sanity: the best essays of G.K. Chesterton. San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, p. 163.

Our Circumstances in His Story

I write this on the Feast of St. Joseph, during the first week of our American coronavirus quarantine. A week ago yesterday the World Health Organization labeled COVID-19 a pandemic, ushering in a temporary (how long remains to be seen) halt to our normal routine and pace of activity. Unfortunately, we are already getting a glimpse of the devastating impact that such necessary measures will have on our economy and certain people’s financial and physical livelihood. Our prayers rise to heaven for the sick, dying, and dead, as well as all of those faced with economic loss and destitution. 

As we recognize these challenges and tragedies, many of us Americans are faced with a different reality. We are not missing paychecks (yet), we have plenty of provisions to keep us from starving (perhaps we are guilty of taking more than we reasonably need), and we and our loved ones are currently safe and healthy. Yet we find ourselves disturbed, frustrated, anxious or afraid. Some of us perhaps have legitimate reasons for anxiety and fear. Others of us may be struggling with more superficial disappointments, and we are failing to practice gratitude and be faithful stewards of the circumstances that we have been dealt and the time in which we have been providentially placed to live.

Some perhaps face the cancellation of events or travel that were long in the making; and being forced to relinquish those fondly anticipated plans has brought bitter disappointment. Others perhaps sorely miss human contact and the sustaining rhythm of social activities. Still others have become despondent at the disruption of daily and weekly public worship services. Certainly, all Catholics I know who are currently unable to receive the Eucharist feel great sorrow. Others just have a great deal of trouble sitting still and enjoying slowness and solitude. We could discuss the significance of these disappointments, argue over which ranks greatest in terms of loss, justify our feelings, or express frustration about how well or efficiently things are being handled. But ultimately, in terms of our spiritual response to a widespread crisis like this, we all have the same opportunity. 

In his morning reflection on today’s gospel reading, Bishop Robert Barron said this about St. Joseph’s response to his life-long interaction with crisis after crisis: 

“The little we know about Joseph is that he experienced heartbreak, fear unto death, and a parent’s deepest anxiety. But each time, he read what happened to him as a Theo-drama, not an ego-drama. This shift in attitude is what made Joseph the patron of the universal Church.”

As I sat with the gospel and Barron’s words this morning, I reflected on my own typical response to crisis or the disappointment of my plans. Am I living a Theo-drama or an ego-drama? My own personal crisis in the midst of our current social upheaval amounts to nothing more than the disappointment of my plans. But as I continue to reflect, I realize that this reality is only a slight amplification of my daily struggle to let go of what I want and resign myself fully to God’s providence. I keep wanting to write the story my way, in each daily detail. When God reveals a different narrative, I often don’t want to accept it. In my head I have written it all out, and the disappointment floods in when God says—either with a whisper to my heart or the booming voice of circumstance—that’s not the story. 

There’s a wonderful and deeply challenging little book that many of you have probably read and is worthy of continual re-reads: Abandonment to Divine Providence by Fr. Jean-Pierre de Caussade. The message is so simple—the circumstances of our life are God’s will; we need only to abandon our own will to His in that moment, realizing that where we find ourselves by divine providence is where we are meant to live, fully loving God and others. 

We have all heard many people remark recently that it’s no mistake we are living through these challenging times during Lent. Living abandoned to God’s will, according to His plan and His story means that we recognize the daily providence in our circumstances at all times. Our current opportunity is always our opportunity—saying “yes” to God’s story in our circumstances. The lie from the enemy is that circumstances that we don’t want are interrupting our story and disrupting our happiness. God’s truth is that our joy and peace is never disrupted when we willingly live in the only story there is—His.

Copyright 2020 Jessica Ptomey

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