How Lady Gaga’s “Angel Down” Reminds Me of the Church Abuse Crisis

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I was never into Lady Gaga. Not that I disliked her or her music – I just didn’t think anything about her. But her outspokenness about her fibromyalgia and her latest album, “Joanne,” have made me a fan.

One of my favorite songs on the 2016 album is called “Angel Down.” Lady Gaga wrote the song about Trayvon Martin, according to an interview with Billboard, but while listening to the song recently, it struck me that it could be about the sex abuse crisis we’re experiencing in the Catholic Church – in particular, the layperson’s emotional response to it.

I confess I am lost
In the age of the social
On our knees, take a test
To be lovin’ and grateful

“We’re living in a social media storm right now,” Lady Gaga said in an interview, “where there’s so many augmented, filtered, perfect illusions around us that we can’t figure out what’s authentic and what isn’t.”

How are we supposed to know what to think or what to feel, surrounded as we are with gossip, rumors and downright lies about the Church? How can we weed through the endless stream of Twitter to find the truth? And, once we find the truth, how can we share it in a way that isn’t destructive?

Shots were fired on the street
By the church where we used to meet
Angel down, angel down
But the people just stood around

The people just stood around for so many years. We’ve had decades of silence from Church leaders in the face of the violence against so many children and young people – not on the street by the church – but in the church itself.

I’m a believer, it’s a trial
Foolish and weaker, oh, oh, oh
I’d rather save an angel now
I’m a believer, it’s chaos
Where are our leaders?
Oh, oh, oh
I’d rather save an angel down

It is a trial to be a believer. To be fair, Jesus warned us: “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily ..and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it” (Luke 9:23-24).

Where are our leaders? Where are the ones to whom the children of God are entrusted? Many of them, it seems, have been hiding.

Doesn’t everyone belong
In the arms of the sacred
Why do we pretend we’re wrong?
Has our young courage faded?

Jesus came for everyone – so, yes, everyone does belong in the arms of the sacred. But there is evil hiding in the Church, and it has been driving people out of the arms of the sacred for years and years.

But our courage hasn’t faded. In the months since the latest scandal hit the news, I have seen Catholic laypeople and religious stand up and say, “Not in my house.” I have hope that we will find every piece of filth in our Church and drag it out, kicking and screaming. Because this is Christ’s Church, and He will help us save it.

Why You Should Cultivate a Devotion to St. Joseph

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“Would that I could persuade all men to be devoted to this glorious Saint, for I know by long experience what blessings he can obtain for us from God. I have never known anyone who was truly devoted to him and honored him by particular services who did not advance greatly in virtue: for he helps in a special way those souls who commend themselves to him.

It is now very many years since I began asking him for something on his feast, and I have always received it. If the petition was in any way amiss, he rectified it for my greater good. I ask for the love of God that he who does not believe me will make the trial for himself—then he will find out by experience the great good that results from commending oneself to this glorious Patriarch and in being devoted to him” (St. Teresa of Avila).

Several years ago, someone close to me was facing a difficult situation at work. Without going into details that I can’t share, suffice it to say that “difficult” is an understatement. This person’s career and reputation were on the line. I began praying to St. Joseph for the person’s work situation to be resolved, and it was – no lasting harm done other than a terrible memory.

Why do so many people pray to St. Joseph for his intercession in their job problems, new homes (or sales of old ones) and other difficult situations? Known as the patron saint of workers; the person whose statue you bury in your backyard when you’re trying to sell your house; and, most importantly, the husband of Mary and the foster father of Jesus, St. Joseph is someone we don’t actually know a whole lot about – but who is a critical part of salvation history.

In his book “The Truth About Saint Joseph: Encountering the Most Hidden of Saints,” Fr. Maurice Meschler, S.J., shares four reasons for readers to cultivate a devotion to St. Joseph:

  1. Because he deserves it: “What Joseph did for Christ, he has done for us, God’s people.”
  2. Because he is virtuous: His “fatherliness, his purity, fidelity, constancy, unselfishness, humility, wisdom, and love … invite us to choose him as our counselor, our provider, and our father in all our necessities, even as Mary and Jesus trustfully placed all their concerns in his hands.”
  3. Because he is helpful: He understands how difficult life can be. He knows what it’s like to suffer under “want, poverty, and persecution”; he knows both “matrimony and virginity, life in the cloister and in the world, the contemplative and the active live, and has crowned his existence with a most blessed death.”
  4. Because he is modern: The “monster” of our times is “unbelief, materialism, revolution, anarchy, class and racial hatred.” Who better to help us then St. Joseph the Worker?

I fell in love with St. Joseph when I first saw the movie “The Nativity Story.” It’s not a perfect film, by any means. But Oscar Isaac (now famous for the new “Star Wars” movies) was superb at showing St. Joseph’s silent dedication to his wife and foster son/Lord. My favorite scenes involve his sacrifice of food to save some for pregnant Mary and her washing of his dirty, bleeding feet when he is asleep on their journey.

“My child,” Mary says to the unborn Jesus, “you will have a good and decent man to raise you. A man who will give of himself before anyone else.”

It’s a beautiful understatement describing the man who was chosen to be the protector of God and His Mother. He can protect you, too – all you have to do is ask.

Note: This blog post contains affiliate links to products on Amazon.com. As part of the Amazon Associates program, I will receive a portion of any sales made from these links. Thank you for your support!

I’m an Extrovert? Why Labels Are Both Good and Bad

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“You are such an extrovert.”

No one had ever called me an extrovert until my boyfriend, who does it pretty frequently. Until recently, I’d passed off these comments as a statement of just how introverted he is, but I’ve come to realize that he’s right (don’t tell him I said that). I love being around other people. I love talking. If I’m alone too much, I get depressed and tired.

I’ve always called myself an introvert, because being with other people is sometimes exhausting, and sometimes I would rather be alone than with other people. But these things have been true not because I am an introvert but because I have social anxiety. When I compare being alone and being with friends, family and/or my boyfriend, there’s no contest: I’d choose the other people every time.

Recently, I attended the FemCatholic Conference. Surrounded by strangers all day, I nonetheless found myself chatting them up and ended the day feeling excited and energized. My boyfriend informed me that feeling energized after a day surrounded by people is exactly the definition of not being an introvert. So even being with strangers is less exhausting now that I’m managing my social anxiety well*.

But this is all semantics, right? Why does it matter whether whether I call myself an extrovert or an introvert?

It’s a good question, especially for a self-righteous “But I have a bachelor’s degree in psychology” person who regularly goes on rants about the over reliance on the Myers-Briggs and similar personality assessments. (The Big Five is obviously better, amirite, psych majors?)

It’s true that judging other people or ourselves based on whether we’re an INFJ or an ENFJ is not good. But I do believe that these labels can help us understand ourselves and other people – and relate to ourselves and other people – better.

Why is it important for me to understand that I’m an extrovert? Because when I know I’m going to have a few evenings alone, I can plan ahead of time to schedule a girls’ night or a date with my boyfriend that week. Why is important for me to understand that my boyfriend is an introvert? Because when he tells me he needs a night to myself, I understand that it’s not a rejection of me or of spending time with me – he just needs to recharge.

In his encyclical “Fides et Ratio” (“Faith and Reason”), St. Pope John Paul the Great wrote, “God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth—in a word, to know himself—so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves.” He continues, “The admonition Know yourself was carved on the temple portal at Delphi, as testimony to a basic truth to be adopted as a minimal norm by those who seek to set themselves apart from the rest of creation as ‘human beings’, that is as those who ‘know themselves’.”

So, while I will continue to argue against an over-reliance on the Myers Briggs in the workplace to anyone who will listen to me, and while I will never introduce myself as an ENFJ (I did re-take the Myers Briggs, or at least a free one on the internet, and my I turned to an E), I will always encourage myself, the people around me, and the one or two people on the internet who read my blog to learn about ourselves. Having the language to describe our personalities and our preferences is helpful in learning about the person God made us to be.

So, I’m an extroverted, socially anxious Catholic/writer/public speaker/editor/musician/friend/sister/daughter/aunt/godmother/girlfriend who loves to be with other people but sometimes is impatient with them and wants to curl up on her couch and read a book.

Who are you?

 

 

*Most days

5 Takeaways from the First Annual FemCatholic Conference

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Full disclosure: I am about to rave about a conference held by a website for which I am a contributing writer. Hopefully, that doesn’t diminish my credibility; the only thing that would have changed had I experienced the 2019 FemCatholic Conference not as a FemCatholic contributing writer is that I wouldn’t have experienced the feeling of pride for being part of such an incredible event.

FemCatholic is a blog. At least, it started as a blog. It’s grown to be a website with many passionate contributors, a Facebook group with a diverse membership of Catholic women, and a live (hopefully annual) conference. It was founded by Samantha Povlock to respond to Pope St. John Paul the Great’s call:

I am convinced that the secret of making speedy progress in achieving full respect for women and their identity involves more than simply the condemnation of discrimination and injustices, necessary though this may be. Such respect must first and foremost be won through an effective and intelligent campaign for the promotion of women, concentrating on all areas of women’s life and beginning with a universal recognition of the dignity of women.

Yesterday was the first FemCatholic Conference. We started the day around 7:30 (I say “we,” but I know Sam and the rest of the conference team were there before I arrived!). I was one of the people working the registration table, which sounds like something not worth mentioning, except that it was so great to greet the women who had come to this conference. Students, young moms (with their babies, because why have a women’s conference if you can’t welcome babies?), married couples, moms with their teenage daughters, working women, stay-at-home moms, and even some religious sisters … These women (and men) came from a variety of walks of life and experiences. We were all there because we are passionate about women, we are passionate about the Church and we are passionate about Jesus.

I attended talks by Claire Swinarski (of “The Catholic Feminist” podcast), Shannon Ochoa (founder of Eden Invitation), Erika Bachiochi (a scholar and the editor of two books on women, sex and the Church), Meg Hunter-Kilmer (a “hobo missionary” and blogger), Gabrielle Jastrebski (of the FEMM Foundation), and Mary Hallan FioRito (a pro-life leader and University of Notre Dame scholar). There were several other speakers, too, but with the exception of Bachiochi and Hunter-Kilmer, each talk was given simultaneously with another talk, so I didn’t see them. At no point in any talk did I wish I were at the other one – not because the other ones didn’t sound amazing but because I was enjoying where I was so much.

It’s hard to distill a day of wisdom and fellowship into one blog post with five pithy bulletpoints. But I’m going to do it anyway.

So, here they are: my five main takeaways from the first annual FemCatholic Conference:

1. Sexual asymmetry exists, and we shouldn’t try to deny it.

Bachiochi’s talk was titled, “How the Church Beats Feminism at its own Game,” and that phrase really sums up the theme of the conference. Her talk was specifically about men, women, and our biological and sexual differences – and the implications of those differences on our culture and our relationships. We have a call to “authentic reproductive justice,” she says, which doesn’t define “just” as “same.” Authentic reproductive justice acknowledges that women do carry more of the physical (and, often, emotional) burden of sex and that this asymmetry isn’t inherently a bad thing. It does mean, however, that “just as nature has both gifted and burdened women with the capacity to bear children, culture ought to both gift and burden men with the duties that come with begetting them.”

2. The fact that women were the ones who stood at the foot of the cross means that we are strong.

Swinarski pointed out that remaining with Jesus until the end – even to standing at the foot of the very cross that killed him – was a really, really hard thing to do. I don’t think we acknowledge this truth enough: that most of Jesus’ closest friends and disciples were not with him at his trial, torture and death, because they were (justifiably) afraid.

But women were. Women were there to suffer with him, to be there in his last moments. And that wasn’t easy. If those women had that kind of strength, imagine what we can do now!

3. Being a Christian is “glorious and grueling.”

Another truth, spoken in this case by Ochoa. She is the founder of Eden Invitation, a ministry to young adults by “celebrating personal integration and promoting solidarity beyond the LGBT+ paradigm.” Ochoa shared her personal story – her experience as a Catholic who is attracted to women and her experience as a woman totally in love with Jesus. Her experience qualifies her to say that yes, being a faithful follower of Christ is hard. But it is glorious.

4. Saints come in all shapes and sizes.

FioRito gave a talk on Dorothy Day and Caryll Houselander. Neither of them has actually been named a saint. Yet. Day is a Servant of God, meaning that the Vatican has officially opened her cause for canonization, and Houselander was a holy woman whose cause has not been opened (yet). Day is famous for creating the Catholic Worker Movement, a group of communities practicing voluntary poverty and hospitality for “the homeless, exiled, hungry, and forsaken.” Both were complicated and inspiring and unique and human. Both took her own route to being a Christian.

Hunter-Kilmer’s closing keynote, “The Wild Diversity of Catholic Femininity,” shared story after story of female saint/Servant of God/venerable/blessed woman. Many were not women I had ever heard of. Each, again, was unique. There is no mold for how to become a saint, Hunter-Kimler said. Rather, each of us should strive to become a saint in the way in which God made us to do so. “Holiness is a project,” she said. “Holiness is a journey.”

5. Women’s health is, perhaps, the last great hurdle toward gender equity in the United States.

I emphasize “in the United States,” because there are appalling conditions for women in many parts of the world. Here in America, however, we have won legal rights. We go to school, we work, we live and pray freely. But the state of women’s health is a travesty. As Jastrebski said in her talk, it is a scourge.

I could go on about this topic forever. Ask my boyfriend; he’s heard my rant/sermon/soapbox speech multiple times (thanks, babe!). Suffice it to say that a common theme throughout the day was that our country treats women’s fertility as an illness, gives it a band-aid, and doesn’t treat the actual illnesses that drive women to the doctor in the first place. We have created a pill aimed at satisfying a male desire for sex on demand, without consequence, and we have encouraged the same desire in women, too. Women don’t know the details of their cycle, which Jastrebski described as the basic “report card” that tells us how our overall health is doing. We don’t know how to monitor our health, and if we do notice something that doesn’t seem right, our doctors prescribe us a pill to suppress, rather than address, that problem.

6. “The Lord wants to do something big, bold and beautiful with you.”

I said five takeaways, but here’s a bonus. And it really encompasses all the rest. Each speaker yesterday convinced me that she has a deep, intimate relationship with Jesus – not because she said so but because she spoke about Him as a friend. He is the truest friend, because He wants what is best for us, and because he actually knows what’s best for us.

For I know well the plans I have in mind for you … plans for your welfare and not for woe, so as to give you a future of hope. When you call me, and come and pray to me, I will listen to you. When you look for me, you will find me.

As a direct result of this conference, this morning at Mass, I was reminded so much of the actual presence of Christ in the Eucharist. I felt Him there, waiting for me.

And sisters, He’s waiting for you, too.

Quiet but Powerful: Watching “A Quiet Place” as a Pro-Life Catholic

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I finally watched “A Quiet Place” last night. I had heard good things about it, especially from a Catholic/pro-life perspective, but I am not a fan of horror movies – in fact, I don’t watch even the trailers for horror movies – so I wasn’t planning on watching it. However, I’d heard from a couple of people who also don’t like horror movies that they enjoyed it. So last night, I sat on the couch next to my boyfriend, hand ready to grab his when I needed something to hold, and watched it. And I am so glad I did.

First of all, I would not classify this movie as a horror movie, at least not in the way I think of horror movies. I didn’t feel that adrenaline rush of fear that so many people seem to crave but that I tend to avoid. It wasn’t a happy movie, certainly, and it was suspenseful, and there were frightening monsters. But I found the movie more thought-provoking than fear-provoking.

Frankly, I’m surprised that “A Quiet Place” made it to the big screen, considering how Christian its values were. This movie was pro-family, pro-God, and pro-life. The family prays before they eat. In a world where the smallest noise is a death sentence, they chose to continue a pregnancy (and pregnancies always end with noise). The parents are fierce – fiercely in love with each other, fiercely protective of their children, and fiercely defiant of the odds.

In addition to the more obvious pro-life thread of the mother’s pregnancy, “A Quiet Place” also emphasized the value of every human person – adult, toddler, fetus or disabled child. The oldest child is deaf, and the movie does not shy away from demonstrating the very real challenges that deafness presents. It also (spoiler alert!) ends up being the child’s deafness that saves the day.

Not every person is a superhero who saves her family from monsters. Not every aspect of a disability can be turned into an advantage. But, this movie shows, that’s besides the point. Each person has an inherent value, meaning that no one has to contribute anything extraordinary to have worth. We should, of course, try our best to be heroes. But at the end of the day, life matters – no matter what.

My First Year Post-Pill

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I took the birth control pill for over 10 years, starting when I was 17. I went on the pill, like so many women, because I had irregular and often unmanageable periods. I wasn’t told why I needed the pill – just that the pill would help.

And it did, for 10 years. It probably still would be, if I hadn’t gone off it last year. But after reading and listening to bloggers and podcasters who pointed out the problems with the pill (from both a physical and a spiritual perspective), this former birth control apologist did a pretty sharp 180.

I started hearing more about NFP (natural family planning) and its newer methods (i.e., not relying on a regular 28-day cycle when, in fact, most women don’t have a regular 28-day cycle), which (or so the bloggers and podcasters claimed) were much more effective in understanding your health and planning or avoiding pregnancy.

While neither planning nor avoiding pregnancy is on my radar right now, I did want to understand my health better. Why would I need to take birth control to manage my hormones? Shouldn’t I understand why my hormones were misbehaving in the first place? Shouldn’t I know if there was something off?

The answer, I now fervently believe, is yes. After all, if we have frequent headaches, stomachaches or coughs, we don’t ignore them. We go to the doctor, find out why and (hopefully) get treated. So why, when it comes to our reproductive health, are we given a band-aid and sent on our way?

I’ll save my hypotheses on that one for a later blog post. After a little bit of internet research, I decided the Creighton Method made the most sense for me, due to its focus on managing health in addition to fertility and its connection to NaPro Technology, which I figured I’d probably need at some point. I contacted a Creighton practitioner and started meeting with her to learn how to chart my cycle.

I was a bad student at first, but once I got the hang of it and became more consistent in my charting, it was fairly straightforward, and a pattern started to emerge once my body got off the lasting effects of the pill. Based on that pattern, my practitioner sent me to a NaPro gynecologist, who decided to investigate the possibility of my having poly-cystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS).

PCOS is caused by a hormonal imbalance that creates problems in the ovaries, including cysts (hence the name). There’s a variety of resulting symptoms. For me, they include a long cycle, hypoglycemia and other issues. It might even play a role in my social anxiety.

Many women with PCOS are automatically put on the pill. I am not a medical professional, so I can’t say that that’s not an appropriate treatment option. However, I wanted treatment that would avoid the pill; while I’m not married now, I want to learn how to manage my PCOS without the pill for if and when that day comes. I also don’t want to take a generic concoction of hormones, some or most of which I don’t necessarily need.

My gynecologist works at an NFP practice that does not prescribe birth control, so she is working with me on other ways to manage my symptoms, which include changing my diet and taking a supplement. (Continuing to chart with the Creighton method also helps understand my seemingly irregular periods.)

Going off the pill for the first time since I was a teenager meant having to learn my own body all over again – or, indeed, for the first time as an adult. There was moodiness, and there was cramping, and there was confusion (wait, what does this type of mucus mean?). But overall, it wasn’t nearly as bad as I expected it to be. And now I know what causes my weird periods, and I have a plan to manage them. What’s more, the anti-inflammatory diet I’ve started (no dairy, no gluten, no processed sugar … no fun) might help my fibromyalgia as well.

The understanding I developed last year about women’s health – and, perhaps more importantly, my health – is invaluable. The phrase “education is power” is a cliche for a reason. As trite as it sounds, it really is good to feel empowered in my health and well-being.

(Now, if only I can get myself on a good exercise routine…)

What the Little Way Means to Me

The Little Way, said St. Therese of Lisieux, is “the way of spiritual childhood, the way of trust and absolute surrender.”

For a child who wanted nothing more than to be a grown-up, it’s strange that, at the age of 13, I chose the doctor of spiritual childhood as my patron saint, my Confirmation name and my role model. For a child with such lofty aspirations as curing disease or writing the Great American Novel, it is strange that I chose a saint who died at age 24, virtually unknown, a cloistered nun in a Carmelite convent in France. But when I read her “Story of a Soul,” I was swept away by the total love and dedication she had to Jesus.

Since then, I have not followed perfectly her Little Way – not even close. In fact, it is only recently that I have revisited her words to re-inspire my own spirituality. As human beings, I think we can be so caught up in grand gestures that we forget the small daily acts we can take to love Christ and love His people. Our anxiety is so high that we forget, or don’t know how, to put our trust completely in God. Both of these things are certainly true of me. That’s why the two lessons I am taking from Therese’s Little Way today, on her feast day, are to love God and love others in small ways and to turn my worries over to Him.

Little Treasures

Therese writes of such small sacrifices she made in the convent to make her sisters happy and, therefore, please God – going out of her way to be kind to the nuns who were most annoying to her. Certainly, out in the world, I have a plethora of opportunities to meet others with patience and mercy and kindness. I take full advantage of those opportunities when they are easy or pleasant to me, but what do I do when faced with an annoying person or a difficult task?

When, during laundry, a nun kept splashing dirty water into Therese’s face, Therese writes, her initial thought was to wipe her face to show her annoyance and remind her sister to be more careful. “But I immediately thought I would be very foolish to refuse these treasures which were being given to me so generously,” she writes, “and I took care not to show my struggle. I put forth all my efforts to desire receiving very much of this dirty water, and was so successful that in the end I had really taken a liking to this kind of aspersion, and I promised myself to return another time to this nice place where one received so many treasures.”

When someone kicks the back of my seat on an airplane, do I make a show of moving around to demonstrate my annoyance, or do I remain still and silent, because that person didn’t mean to kick my seat? When someone cuts me off on the highway, do I honk my horn to let them know they were in the wrong – even though they are safe, and I am safe, and honking will not make us any safer?

I’m human, so I think you can probably guess the answers to those questions – and guess how I’d like to change my behavior moving forward.

The Way of Love

“Oh! how sweet is the way of Love!” writes Therese. “How I want to apply myself to doing the will of God always with the greatest self-surrender!”

Surrendering to the will of God can be terrifying: What if the will of God isn’t what want? Often, our wills are not the same. Can I trust that what I want may not be what is best? There is more than one time in my life when I prayed for something so much and was so disappointed – even hurt – when what I prayed for didn’t happen – and then, later, was so grateful that God didn’t answer my prayer. Now, when I pray, I try to ask God more for the grace to accept when His will is done, rather than for my will to be done. There are, of course, things I still want and pray for, but I usually add the caveat, “But if that’s really a bad idea, then please just let me know and accept that.”

Therese, who literally traveled to the Vatican to ask the pope for permission to fulfill her vocation and become a Carmelite, and faced disappointment before she finally joined the convent, can teach me a lot about patience and acceptance. (Her parents, for that matter, who discovered their vocation for marriage after being denied entry to religious life, and who lost four of their five children, could teach me the same.) Do I have the courage to take her lessons to heart?

Happy Hobbit Day! What We Can Learn From Our Halfling Friends

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Today is the birthday of both Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, also known as Hobbit Day. It’s a day to be celebrated with seven meals (first breakfast, second breakfast, elevenses, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner and supper – although I should note this tradition comes from the movies, not the books), dancing and singing, smoking a pipe (if you’re so inclined), and perhaps a Hobbit or Lord of the Rings movie marathon (I recommend the extended versions of The Lord of the Rings).

In some ways, I identify a lot with J.R.R. Tolkien’s most famous creation, the diminutive race of hole-dwellers who love to socialize with friends and family and sing, mature at age 33 (I still have four more years!), enjoy giving gifts, and don’t like to know about the bad news outside their circle but are moved to action when they do. I’m quite a bit shorter than most of my family. I actually enjoy British food, as well as a good cup of tea. I love a cozy home. I don’t like reaching outside my comfort zone, but when I do, I grow. (In that way, we’re all like hobbits.)

On the other hand, hobbits are humble and enjoy a simple life, two things that, like most humans, I struggle with. In fact, I believe that as Christians, we can learn a lot from the hobbits. Here are four lessons I’ve taken from the books (and, let’s be honest, the movies that I’ve seen again and again).

1. There is evil in the world, and we shouldn’t ignore it.

J.R.R. Tolkien knew this better than anyone. He fought in the brutal trenches of World War I, and it changed him. He began writing about Middle-Earth “by candle light in bell-tents, even some down in dugouts under shell fire,” as he is quoted in The New York Times, and he lost two of his friends at the Battle of the Somme.

The hobbits do not trust outsiders, and they do not, generally, keep up with the goings-on of the outside world, believing that what happens out there will not affect them in the Shire. Even before the epic battles of “The Lord of the Rings,” though, Tolkien takes his first hero, the homebody Bilbo Baggins, out of his comfort zone and into the dragon’s lair – literally. And Bilbo grows in the process. While, of course, conflict is necessary for a novel to exist, Tolkien could have created a breezy novel about the day-to-day conflicts among hobbit neighbors. Instead, he created an adventure story, a fairy tale – a hero’s quest. His heroes battle true villains, and he does not shy away from the evil they face.

I often feel that I would prefer to ignore the news, to stay inside my circle of friends or family and ignore the terror of the world. But there are two problems with this approach to living. First of all, each of us faces evil in our lives, regardless of whether we live in a war-torn country or a violent street. Subtler evil, like a small ring, can damage our souls if we let it. Second of all, as we see with Bilbo and especially with Frodo, if we can do something to change the world, we should. From prayer to volunteering to philanthropy, “even the smallest person can change the course of the future.”

2. Mercy will save the day.

In the end, it’s Gollum who leads to the destruction of the ring. The irony is that Gollum is a villain throughout the story, beginning in “The Hobbit,” and would keep the ring forever if he could. But, as Bishop Robert Barron points out, if Bilbo had not been moved by pity and decided not to kill Gollum, as he had the opportunity to, the evil of Sauron would never have been defeated. “That evil is best engaged through pity is a deeply Christian and profoundly counter-intuitive insight,” Bishop Barron writes.

Many that live deserve death. Some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them, Frodo? Do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. Even the very wise cannot see all ends. My heart tells me that Gollum has some part to play in it, for good or evil, before this is over. The pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many.

Frodo, then, also shows great pity and compassion for Gollum, despite Gollum’s obvious outward and inward ugliness. And, again, the fact that Frodo has shown mercy to Gollum is rewarded – when Frodo can no longer resist the temptation of the ring, it’s Gollum who, albeit inadvertently, destroys it for him. “His exercise of patience and mercy towards Gollum,” Tolkien wrote in a letter, “gained him Mercy: his failure was redressed.”

3. Value the simple things.

A chief antagonist in “The Hobbit” is not a person or a creature but a disease: Gold Sickness, or Dragon Sickness. It’s caused by exposure to large amounts of treasure, such as Thorin’s company find in Smaug’s lair. Its symptom is intense greediness, even to the point of violence:

Bilbo had heard tell and sing of dragon-hoards before, but the splendour, the lust, the glory of such treasure had never yet come home to him. His heart was filled and pierced with enchantment and with the desire of dwarves; and he gazed motionless, almost forgetting the frightful guardian, at the gold beyond price and count.

Greed, gluttony, lust, envy … We do not need to be face-to-face with a dragon and his hoard of gold to be stricken with these real forms of dragon sickness. Bishop Barron writes that dragon sickness “bedevils many people in contemporary society, those who know the value of everything and the worth of nothing.”

In the end, Thorin regrets his greed and recognizes, “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.” Bilbo returns home with some treasure but is content and happy in his hobbit hole with his pipe and his kettle.

4. Be a friend.

I’ve written multiple times here that Sam is my favorite “Lord of the Rings” character. He is a good friend – and by that I mean that he demonstrates self-sacrificial love for Frodo and, indeed, for all of Middle-Earth. Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D., points out that Frodo and Sam don’t know how the battles are raging outside of Mordor. They don’t know that Gandalf has returned. They have no reason to hope that, even if they destroy the ring, their friends and their home have not been destroyed anyway. Yet they continue on.

“In some sense,” writes O’Malley, “it is Sam that shows forth the greatest icon of self-giving love. He alone is unaffected by the power of the ring. Because, he recognizes that his sole desire is to be a friend to Frodo, whatever it may require.” O’Malley concludes that there is no single symbol of Christ in “The Lord of the Rings” because we are all called to love like Christ.

We each write our own story (some of us literally). We can write it without God. But, as in “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings,” it is harder, but infinitely more rewarding, to write it with God. To love like Him, to seek justice rather than treasure, the good of the other above the good of the self – this is our motivation as protagonists.

Will your ending be a good one?

Small Things, Great Love

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I have always wanted to do great things.

Yet, since childhood, my two favorite saints have ones who preached doing small things: St. Therese of Lisieux and Mother Teresa (who wasn’t a saint when I was a child but was a hero of mine). Therese is known for her “Little Way,” a practice that imbues great love into small acts. Mother Teresa (who chose her name in honor of St. Therese) is known to have said, “In this life we cannot do great things. We can only do small things with great love.”

I have always wanted to do great things – to write The Great American Novel, to impact thousands, millions of people. But that desire to do great things doesn’t come from a desire to share God’s love. It comes from pride.

Mother Teresa changed the world, but she didn’t set out to change the world. She set out to care for the poorest of the poor, and throughout her ministry, her focus was individual – person by person. “Do not underestimate our practical means—the work for the poor; no matter how small or humble—that make our life something beautiful for God,” she wrote. Like her namesake, Mother Teresa knew that what was important wasn’t how big an action was – what was important was how much love you put into it.

My favorite saints give me pause. I struggle to be mindful, to consider each moment and what its purpose is. I do not often think about how much love I put into my daily activities, but whether it’s writing a blog post here or collaborating with a co-worker in my “day job,” I can demonstrate my love for others and, above all, for Jesus through my work. Whether that work is successful by any typical marketing metric will be besides the point.

“We have only today,” Mother Teresa said. “Let us begin.”

On Not Giving Up the Quest

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Last Sunday at Holy Name of Jesus Cathedral in Raleigh, the deacon began his homily by describing Frodo’s journey to Mount Doom in “The Lord of the Rings.” I’ve written before about my love of “The Lord of the Rings,” so you can imagine my rapt attention as he started to speak.

The deacon compared Samwise Gamgee (my favorite character) to Simon Peter, who in the Gospel reading told Jesus, “To whom shall we go?” when Jesus asked the apostles, “Do you want to leave?” Similarly, no matter what happened to Frodo and Sam – and no matter what Frodo said to Sam – Sam never strayed. Even when Frodo told Sam to leave, Sam returned to his friend.

It’s not a perfect comparison; Jesus is God as well as friend. But it’s a timely reminder, as every day we face more grim news about leading members of our Church. It would seem that there are many, many places we could go instead of the Catholic Church – after all, there are many denominations that worship Christ and aren’t covering the newspapers in scandal.

But here’s the thing: If we truly believe that Christ is present in the Eucharist, then there is nowhere else to go. If we truly believe that Christ established the Catholic Church and that “the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18), then there is nowhere else to go. Because while it may seem like the gates of the netherworld are prevailing against our Church, we have God’s promise that they won’t.

“But I am going to Mordor.”

“I know that well enough, Mr. Frodo. Of course you are. And I’m coming with you.”

It might get worse before it gets better. We may feel that we are in Mordor, tired and aching and thirsting for light. But as Bishop Barron said in a recent video, this is the time not to abandon hope, not to leave. This is the time to fight.

He knew he would try again. Fail, perhaps. And try once more. A thousand, thousand times if need be, but he would not give up the quest.