How To Survive Valentine’s Day When It’s Also Ash Wednesday

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It’s that time of year again. If you want proof that God has a sick and twisted sense of humor, look at your calendar. Not only does Ash Wednesday fall today, which is also Valentine’s Day, but Easter falls on April Fool’s Day.

For today, I want to focus on how you, fellow Catholics, can survive this day, whether you are single or in a relationship, because Valentine’s Day is hard enough as it is!

  1. If you’re in a relationship, be creative with what you cook for dinner tonight. If dinner is your “big meal,” try making a cheese pizza (no meat) or some nice salmon filets. Or make plans to eat out at a restaurant on Saturday and use today as an opportunity to practice patience!
  2. If you’re single, make breakfast your “big meal.” Having a healthy breakfast will help you have enough energy for the rest of the day.
  3. Drink plenty of liquids throughout the day: water, orange juice, vegetable juice, milk, or hot chocolate if you’re in the Valentine’s mood. Hot chocolate doesn’t count as a meal or a snack, at least not for me.
  4. Whether you’re single or in a relationship, spend time in Adoration today! Check if your local church has the Blessed Sacrament exposed or just spend time in prayer.
  5. Remember that all the Valentine’s Day candy will be very cheap tomorrow. But don’t be a glutton!
  6. Use today as an opportunity to practice charity, which is a higher form of love than just romantic love. Be kind to everyone you meet today, even the person who cuts you off in traffic.
  7. If you’re sick of the Fifty Shades hype, check out Fight The New Drug’s anti-abuse campaign!
  8. If you’re wondering what romantic-related show you should watch today, the 1995 version of Pride and Prejudice is on Hulu, as well as Sense and Sensibility (mini-series, not the Ang Lee version). You can’t beat the classics!
  9. Enjoy these penitential Valentine cards from Jason Bach Cartoons!
  10. #MementoMori: Remember that death is inevitable, even on Valentine’s Day.

 

Happy VaLENTine’s Day, everyone!

 

My Vampiric Spirit, Confession, and Conversion

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Author note: This is a guest post written by my friend Kristin from Austin and edited by me. Kristin will be received into the Catholic Church on Holy Saturday.  Please pray for her and all others who will be coming Home.

At the time I encountered Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I was fresh out of college, having laid aside my checkered Protestant past for a relativistic agnosticism layered in a pleasant self-deception.  I figured, if any action helped me out within the simple constraint of “not committing murder”, it was certainly without reproach, and I could still consider myself a “good person”.  Then, a pivotal episode in Buffy Season 7’s “Beneath You” tilted my worldview enough to make me uncomfortable—uncomfortable enough to eventually become a Catholic.

In the closing scene of the episode, Spike and Buffy are in an empty, lovely, moonlit church together, and Buffy is concerned that Spike has lost his sanity. Up until this point, the rakish ne’er-do-well vampire was forced by an implanted chip in his brain to do no harm to Buffy Summers, leading him to try and do good out of his love for the Slayer. Unfortunately, his attempts at being good were also mixed in with his complicated, tumultuous affair with Buffy throughout the latter half of Season 6, culminating in him attempting to rape Buffy in “Seeing Red.” His shock at what he was about to do led to him going on a quest to receive his soul so that he can be the man he thinks Buffy deserves. Now ensouled, Spike is uncomfortably, completely conscious and guilt-ridden over his innumerable sins. I realized that there was something true there being spoken about sin and the need for redemption.

It would take me several more years to make my way to the Catholic Church and the lesson I gained from watching “Beneath You” was a crucial reason to why I was becoming Catholic. However, I didn’t fully understand the importance of this scene until I went to my first Confession to prepare for receiving the rest of the Sacraments at Easter. For some inexplicable reason, I found myself terrified of this sacrament.

We are born vampires due to original sin.  Like vampires, we are driven into the black night of our sins and transgressions, subconsciously terrified of being burned alive by the pure light of Christ. Like vampires, we’re driven away from pain and toward hedonistic pleasure, largely propelled by the forces of fear, anger, hate, lust, and greed. We live entirely for ourselves and see others only as a source of food for us—emotional affirmation, physical pleasure, and social recognition—and we’d best eat them before we’re consumed ourselves. We drive our greedy jaws into others without a thought, a care, or a twinge of remorse, and suck them dry, all in a desire to quench our endless thirst, our neverending desire to fill the emptiness within ourselves with something.

In the midst of all this, the deep terribleness of the human heart, Christ the Slayer wants to kill our vampiric selves and ensoul us, which He does so well through the Sacraments. He calls us out of the darkness, and He watches us as we pathetically stagger out from the shadows, crouching, cringing away from the Light.

I spent my first Confession, sitting in very comfortable chair in a cheery, bright, well-lit office, feeling with every fiber of my being that I was about to go up in smoke as I rattled off my list of sins before the priest. And go up in smoke, my ego did. Like the newly ensouled Spike, I stumbled around, slowly realizing for the first time the depths of what I’ve done to Christ and Christ in others. My scarred heart, rife with manipulation, greed, carelessness, and selfishness, was laid bare before me in the harsh Light, no longer fancied up by the clever illumination of the night.

The priest gave me my penance, a single Our Father, and instructed me to meditate on the mercy of God. Not only did I meditate, I was sucker-punched by this overwhelming Divine Mercy toward me.  The emptiness inside of me was filled with the infinite waters that gushed from His Sacred Heart. It’ll be a lifelong process of torching my ego, repairing my heart, and fighting for my soul. I know that even after I am received into the Church, I’ll be in Confession again and again.  But like Spike at the end of “Beneath You,” I embrace the Cross which burns away my sins, and ask “Can we rest?”

Though the episode doesn’t answer the question, Saint Augustine does: “For You have formed us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in You.”

We can rest, brothers and sisters, in the arms of our Lord. As we celebrate Good Friday, let us hide ourselves in His wounds and fill ourselves with the endless fountain of His love and mercy.

Author’s note: If you want to know more about how the theme of forgiveness is seen in the Buffyverse, check out my post from last year.

"It Is Finished. Father, Into Your Hands, I Commend My Spirit." – Reflections on the Seven Last Words Parts 6 and 7

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I’m going to combine the last parts of the Seven Last Words because I feel like they go together.

“It is finished. Father, into Thy hands, I commend my hands I commend my spirit.”

Many people mistakenly think that when Jesus said “It is finished,” He was referring to his road to salvation. However, our redemption wasn’t finished at the Cross, but through the Resurrection. So what was finished? The act of the sacrifice. Scott Hahn goes more into this in “The Fourth Cup,” which I highly recommend you listen to.

Venerable Fulton Sheen said that there were only two other times that God said “It is finished”: First in Genesis. after He finished Creation, and then at the end in Revelation, during the creation of the new Heaven and the new Earth. Christ’s declaration of “It is finished” marked the halfway point of this salvation narrative.

Being the Shakespearean fanatic I am, I can’t help but compare the salvation narrative to a Shakespearean play. Act 1 was creation. Act 2 was everything that happened in the Old Testament. Act 3 was the New Testament, Jesus’s birth and death. I like to think that Jesus saying these last words was the cue for the curtain to fall. In Shakespeare’s plays, Act 3 was the climax of the narrative. It’s no coincidence that the Latin translation for “It is finished” is “Consummatum est.”

Jesus was the only one in history who had entire control over His narrative. He knew who would live, who would die, and who would tell his story. He knew exactly when he would die and He had complete control over it. When he said “Father, into Thy hands, I commend my spirit,” he cued for the curtain to be lowered in this third act of the salvation narrative. His resurrection and everything that happened afterwards would be the beginning of what is now Act 4. We are living in Act 4 and we don’t know when Act 5 (the end times) will come. But we all need to be part of the salvation narrative.

As we begin the Triduum, I hope that you reflect on all the 7 Last Words of Christ and count the cost of His sacrifice on Good Friday. Let us put ourselves into His narrative and devote our lives to telling His story.

 

"I Thirst" – Reflections on the Seven Last Words Part 5

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“I thirst.” – John 19:28

Out of the Seven Last Words, this one is my personal favorite. I know what it’s like to thirst. Millenials often joke about how “thirsty” someone can be, usually in the context of someone who is starving for affection. We are all thirsty for love, but we have no idea what kind of love would actually satisfy our thirst.

It was really interesting to me that Jesus chose to ask for something to drink as he was on the cross instead of before, when the Romans offered him a drink. However, Venerable Fulton Sheen pointed out that the drink the Romans offered was drugged with a sedative. Yeah, I wouldn’t drink that either. Instead, Jesus asks for a drink as he is suffering, reflecting the thirst that we all have for God’s love.

And what amazes me most was that Jesus was thirsting for more than just a drink. As Soon-to-be-Saint Mother Teresa said…

Hear Jesus speak to your soul:
No matter how far you may wander, no matter how often you forget Me, no matter how many crosses you may bear in this life; there is one thing I want you to always remember, one thing that will never change. I THIRST FOR YOU – just as you are. You don’t need to change to believe in My love, for it will be your belief in My love that will change you. You forget Me, and yet I am seeking you every moment of the day – standing at the door of your heart and knocking. Do you find this hard to believe? Then look at the cross, look at My Heart that was pierced for you. Have you not understood My cross? Then listen again to the words I spoke there – for they tell you clearly why I endured all this for you: “I THIRST…”(Jn 19: 28). Yes, I thirst for you – as the rest of the psalm – verse I was praying says of Me: “I looked for love, and I found none…” (Ps. 69: 20). All your life I have been looking for your love – I have never stopped seeking to love you and be loved by you. You have tried many other things in your search for happiness; why not try opening your heart to Me, right now, more than you ever have before.
Whenever you do open the door of your heart, whenever you come close enough, you will hear Me say to you again and again, not in mere human words but in spirit. “No matter what you have done, I love you for your own sake, Come to Me with your misery and your sins, with your troubles and needs, and with all your longing to be loved. I stand at the door of your heart and knock. Open to Me, for I THIRST FOR YOU…”

Just think, God is thirsting for you and me to come forward to satiate His thirst. Just think of that!

 

Behold Your Mother: Reflections on the Seven Last Words Part 3

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When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.- John 19:26-27

If there was one thing I liked about last night’s Passion on Fox, it was that Mary (played by Trisha Yearwood) played a more prominent role than expected, singing four songs throughout the show. With that said, one thing I wish they showed was a scene where Jesus asks John to take care of his mother.

There is a lot of symbolism and a huge breach of tradition within this scene. For one thing, it proves that Jesus has no biological siblings because if he did, those biological siblings would’ve had the job of taking care of Mary after Jesus died. Another important thing is how Jesus addresses Mary. He calls her “Woman,” the same title he used at the Wedding of Cana.

I’m currently reading Venerable Fulton Sheen’s Life of Christ and the awesome archbishop spends three and a half pages meditating on this particular verse from the Gospel of John. By calling Mary “Woman” at the Wedding of Cana, Jesus is faced with the reality that after changing the water into wine, He will set Himself on the road to the Cross. In screenwriting terms, Mary acts as the herald, giving Jesus the call to adventure. By saying “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come,” Jesus is acknowledging that eventually, his hour on the Cross will come and that Mary will be there with him.

When Jesus calls Mary “Woman” at the Cross, he acknowledges her as the New Eve, the new mother of all living. By giving her over to John, He gives her over to all his disciples and, by extension, us. In this small gesture, Jesus made Mary our mother.

Given that I did like aspects of last night’s Passion on Fox, the song I’m gonna share with you is the last one Trisha Yearwood sang as she held onto the illuminated cross:

Today, You Will Be With Me In Paradise: Reflections on The Seven Last Words Part 2

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During one of my college retreats, I underwent my first Ignatian exercise and imagined myself as the Good Thief. This meant that I imagined myself crucified alongside Jesus. I was hyperventilating and I felt a sharp pain on my back. I could’ve sworn that my hands and feet were pierced because I felt air blowing through them.

When the exercise ended, it felt like I woke up from a very vivid dream. I was still in the dark room, shaking in my seat. And yes, this is a typical experience of the Ignatian Exercises. Proceed with caution because, as someone I met on retreat said, “It’s  lot of Jesus coming at you.”

Aside from the overwhelming intensity, there are some things I remember about that particular Ignatian Exercise. When I was imagining myself as the Good Thief, I imagined Jesus’s face, all bloody and beaten. The image of the Crucified Christ has always made me uncomfortable. Images of the wounds on Jesus’s back make me uneasy. Saint Teresa of Avila had a similar experience with the image of the Crucified Christ.  But seeing the Crucified Christ isn’t exactly an experience that provokes feelings of rainbows and puppies. It hurts knowing that my sins contributed to Christ’s pain. But at the same time, knowing His suffering nature compels me to offer my pain with His own.

I think that people who are undergoing intense pain and loneliness can find themselves in the Good Thief’s shoes. They can unite their pain with Jesus and find a sense of renewal from that suffering.

Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.

Father, Forgive Them: Reflections on The Seven Last Words Part 1

Maarten van Heemskerck, 1550

Maarten van Heemskerck, 1550

 

“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”-Luke 23:34

Whenever I heard this particular verse from the Passion narrative, I always wondered if someone snarked “We know exactly what we’re doing.”  In the eyes of the Romans, they were eliminating a threat to the peace. In the eyes of the Pharisees, they were helping to eliminate a blasphemer, a false prophet. John 18:14 says “Caiaphas was the one who had advised the Jews that it was better to have one person die for the people.”

But I don’t think they really knew what they were doing. If they were aware of the fact that they were condemning an innocent man to death, that their Messiah was right in front of them…I think they would be like me and volunteer to take Jesus’s place on the Cross.

I don’t think I can undergo what Jesus went through on the road to Calvary. But the fact that He willingly went through all of it so that humanity can be reunited with its Creator compels me to thank Him and to ask for his mercy.

I often said before that forgiveness often seems like something unimaginable to do. It took me a long time for me to let go of all the pain and anger I held towards those who’ve hurt me. It’s an ongoing process and you never know how much you’ve let go until you look back and realize how little weight you’re carrying.

When I think about those who have hurt me, I don’t see them as evil monsters the way I used to. I realize now that they were all broken in some way and that instead of trying to work through the pain, they instead chose to break me. But they didn’t know what they were doing. I think that the pain they inflicted upon me was not deliberate, but just a symptom of some larger problem they had that I couldn’t fix. It’s why now I pray that they will become aware of that pain and try to find healing in God’s mercy.

Father, forgive them. They know not what they do.

 

The Hard Thing About Humility

Mutter Teresa, lachend, Dezember 1985

Since the official date of Mother Teresa’s canonization has been announced, I want to look into her insights on humility today.

Practicing humility is not an easy feat. It’s one thing to imagine the concept of humility, but actually living it out is hard.

“These are the few ways we can practice humility:

To speak as little as possible of one’s self.”

In this social media-saturated world, we always love to talk about ourselves. It can be as vague as a passive-aggressive Facebook status or as blatant as a duckface selfie. I’m not immune to this given that part of my job involves promoting myself. It’s one thing to promote one’s work out of necessity. We all have to make a living somehow. But when your conversations consist of constant whining or bragging about your accomplishments, you have little room in your heart for anything else.

Since we’re close to Holy Week, if you’re gonna spend time on social media, I hope that you can contribute more positive things to your feed instead of another selfie.

 

“To mind one’s own business.”

When we’re not talking about ourselves, America’s actual favorite pastime is gossip. It’s basically the only reason why anyone knows who Kim Kardashian is. I love learning the latest news in regards to my favorite actors and singers, but I try my best to limit things. I think this also applies to people who get too involved in political debates and office gossip.

Pope Francis had some harsh words to say about gossiping. His words are harsh and blunt, I know. But try going a day without gossiping and see what a difference it can make in your life.

 

“Not to want to manage other people’s affairs.”

How often do we try to micromanage other people’s lives? How often do we act like we’re somebody’s mother in the worst way possible through constant nagging and unsolicited advice? Unless we are given actual positions of authority, intervening in other people’s lives is usually best reserved for emergency situations.

It’s okay to give advice if you are asked and if you feel like you can give a sound answer. But what’s more important is to listen intently. You’d be surprised at how things can change when you actually listen to others.

 

“To avoid curiosity.”

This one is especially hard for me. I was given insatiable curiosity from the time I learned how to read. I always want to know the story behind something. But I understand why curiosity can be a bad thing. Not all information out there is worth knowing about. There are things people do behind closed doors that I’d rather be blissfully unaware of. Insatiable curiosity can open up the door to temptation.

Avoiding curiosity doesn’t mean to close yourself off from current events, though. It just means knowing that there are limits to what you already know and trying not to overload yourself with too much information. The main villain in Avengers: Age of Ultron became arrogant because of all the knowledge he gained and saw destroying the world as the best way to maintain order. Vision stood as a contrast to Ultron because he’s aware of his own limits.

 

“To accept contradictions and correction cheerfully.”

As a writer, it was really hard for me to accept criticism, even of the constructive kind. Writing this blog has helped to an extent, but I’m still learning how to take the feedback I get from comments and other writers. I really appreciate my local writing group because we’ve worked out a way to give feedback that mixes positive remarks with things that we all need to improve on.

 

“To pass over the mistakes of others.”

It’s not easy to overlook people’s little faults. It’s also not easy to look at the latest Buzzfeed article and wonder “where the hell do they find these people?”

This does not mean to excuse abusive behavior or just let bad things slide. I choose to interpret this idea as choosing what to get angry about. We can’t fix every little flaw in every person we see.

I totally get that “Judge not” gets taken out of context a lot. But the best way to actually practice the act of admonishing others while still being humble is to meet people where they are and treat them as friends, not as projects.

 

“To accept insults and injuries.”

Scroll around the internet long enough and you’ll probably find something insulting the Catholic Church. It’s even worse when people who claim to be Catholic insult other Catholics and injure others with their words or actions. Mother Teresa dealt with her own share of insults and injuries, but she never took them lying down. She always responded with a firm voice and a bit of sass for good measure. If you don’t believe me, there’s a story about her in Catholicism in which she tries getting some food for a poor child only to be met with a baker spitting in her face. She responded with “Thanks for the nice gift, now how about something for the child?”

 

“To accept being slighted, forgotten and disliked.”

Dear Aaron Burr should’ve learned a bit about dealing with always coming short of Hamilton’s success. Hamilton himself was almost lost to history, forgotten because of what the other Founding Fathers said about him. I also dealt with my share of being overlooked. But the thing is that we can’t take neglect personally. When one door closes, another opportunity comes around soon enough.

Whenever I serve on retreat, I go there knowing that I probably won’t be acknowledged for the work that I’ve done. But I see the results of my generosity whenever the retreaters talk about how much fun they had at the end. It’s enough for me to know that I helped contribute to their happiness.

 

“To be kind and gentle even under provocation.”

It’s really hard to maintain a kind attitude when people are acting nasty. I have no idea how these riots at Trump’s rallies happen and yet you’d think that a presidential candidate would discourage that kind of behavior. But if I could say something to Trump supporters, it would be this: If you really want to make America great again, try practicing kindness and actual generosity to those you don’t like.

 

“Never to stand on one’s dignity.”

There’s a line from a song in Rent that goes “Will I lose my dignity?” It’s part of a round that asks about the uncertainties of life. In a musical where the majority of characters suffer from AIDS, that question is a legitimate one. And yet, in the musical, we see all the characters lose their dignity in some way. In spite of that, the seven friends are able to find happiness. It just took them a long time to get there.

 

“To choose always the hardest.”

It’s hard to be humble. It’s hard to do all the things that Mother Teresa has listed here. But as my favorite TV show has said “The hardest thing in this world is to live in it. Be brave. Live.”

I hope that you take the time to reflect on the idea of humility and that you can practice humility in your lives.

Being on "God's Time"

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I never thought I would be so annoyed about setting the clocks forward. Since I already wake up earlier than usual as part of my Lenten resolution, I’ve lost a little more sleep now that Daylight Savings Time has started. And I really could’ve used some extra sleep since my retreat ended on Saturday night.

But as I’ve learned on retreats, you are never really on your own time, but actually “God’s time.” Retreats have schedules, but things rarely go as planned or go as smoothly as we want them to. The same thing applies to real life. We may have all these plans about how we want our day to go, but something always throws us off our schedule. It could be the kids crying, rush hour traffic, an unexpected request from a co-worker, etc. As Taylor Swift said “Life is full of little interruptions.”

One thing I struggle with is how to be flexible with my time while trying to stick to a schedule. I used to plan everything down to the minute to the point that one tiny distraction or interruption would throw me off completely. Now that I work from home, I have to make my own schedule and structure my day in small ways.

Another thing that I also struggle with, when it comes to God’s timing, is trusting in his providence. I have the very awful tendency to compare my life to other people’s. It seems like everyone I know is in a relationship, getting married, having babies, working full-time…and I’m stuck at home, waiting for my life to start.

It wasn’t until I watched Yulin Kuang recap how 2015 was for her that I learned the meaning behind the idea of “Don’t compare your behind the scenes to everyone else’s highlight reel.” She pointed out that she didn’t document her disappointments and that a lot of her year was spent waiting. “So much so that you couldn’t stand it.” It made me realize that everyone has long waiting periods at some point or another. Rome wasn’t built in a day and there’s no such thing as an actual overnight sensation.

I’m only three months into 2016 and I’ve already been on one retreat. I have plans for travelling next month as well as this summer. I contributed to a Bible study and am trying to be consistent with my goals and my prayer life. A lot of my blessings have been of the interior, both this year and throughout my post-college life. But all that waiting led to amazing things in the long run.

I am always on God’s time, even when I don’t want to be. After all, Romans 8:28 says “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”

So let’s hope that whatever God has in store for me this year was worth waiting for.

Advancing While Retreating

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Last weekend, I was away on a 2-day Ignatian retreat. This retreat was unique from all the others I attended or staffed in a few ways.

For one thing, the retreat was more contemplative, focusing on a series of reflections that centered on who we thought Christ was, forgiveness, and the idea of dying to oneself and rising in Christ.

I spent a lot more time in silence during this retreat than any other retreat. It wasn’t a silent retreat, but the contemplative nature of the retreat and the gorgeous almost-spring weather prompted me to forget about trying to make small talk and enjoy my surroundings. This was especially true on Friday evening, when I caught sight of the night sky as I was walking towards the Stations of the Cross. It’s true what they say, y’all. The stars at night are bigger and brighter in Texas. It was like seeing them for the first time. When there was a long break on Saturday afternoon, I walked around the retreat property, appreciating all the wildflowers and trees. But my favorite place was a small lake that was perfect for skipping rocks. It was so nice and quiet there.

One thing I learned in this retreat is that when you spend time in silence, there is nothing standing between you and God. During the times I spent in silence, I realized that I was still holding parts of myself back from God. I also had problems enjoying the moment because on the one hand, I didn’t want the retreat to end. On the other hand, I was already longing for the trip home and the promise of fries and ICEEs from Buc-ees.

I went to this retreat seeking out answers and came home with my heart and conscience clear, but my future still uncertain. In spite of the uncertainty, though, I feel like I found a starting point. My life with Christ starts with me dying to myself and letting Christ have all of my heart. I found detachment from a lot of things I was obsessing over, but I also missed my friends. I found a sense of balance.

I highly recommend that if you get the opportunity this Lent, go on retreat or spend at least an hour in silence with God. You’ll be amazed at what you will find.