Sunday, January 4, 2015


I'm out in Palm Springs, exulting in the (much-needed post-holidays) silence and solitude. Lots of reflecting upon the year past. Lots of praying for more integrity and wholeness in the year ahead.

To become whole requires constant discernment. One of my more glaring character defects is talking behind people's backs because I'm too chicken to confront them. You've seen some of this on the blog, I'm sure. But I may be making a little progress. There's a time, probably most times, to turn the other cheek. There's also a time to speak up.

I've been thinking about how very lucky I am to have come to Christ as I did: namely, as a Prodigal Daughter. Forever uppermost in my mind are two major facts: that I'm a sinner, and that I've been forgiven.

As a sinner, you  get to have a sense of humor about yourself and you get to have compassion for other sinners. As Flannery O'Connor observed, "The operation of the Church is entirely set up for the sinner, which creates much misunderstanding among the smug."

And having been forgiven, you can operate from a place of love, instead of guilt. Otherwise we tend to project our guilt on others. We want others to atone for our sins. I've noticed this unfortunate tendency in myself.

No human would have thought of such a setup, i.e. forgiveness. We only know how to make rules and punish. It offends our sense of justice to see another let off the hook (though we tend to consider getting let off the hook ourselves our due). The Gospels are full of parables illustrating how much we begrudge another getting "more" than us, whether it's money, love or forgiveness: the workers in the vineyard, the woman caught in adultery, the guy who's forgiven a huge debt and then held his underlings to their tiny ones.

But such begrudging is based on a very small world view: a view based on fear--which is by definition small.

"If you have seen me, you have seen the Father."
"Love one another as I have loved you."
The whole thrust of our faith, in other words, is a relationship. We love God and God loves us.  Out of love we will sacrifice more, adhere to a higher moral code, and in general be way more pleasant to be around than we will out of fear. We will follow the rules and then some although we won't think of it as following the rules: we'll think of it as fully living.

Christianity, among other things, is a stance toward reality. Without Christ, we are sentenced to see the world as the wrong kind of battleground. Everyone is our enemy, we spend all our time arming ourselves, issues and ideologies and movements become more important than the individual human being.

Christ blows all that apart. First, he establishes that we're all prodigal sons and daughters. Then he says "Forgive seventy times seven." He says, "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone." He says, "Love thine enemies."

This, too, is an idea that we would never, ever, have come up with on our own.

You can't be a Catholic for very long without noticing that there are people who are constantly concerned with other people's sins and utterly blind to their own. Their whole orientation of heart is based not on love but on punishment. They mistake their willingness to judge and punish others for religious conviction. There is no love in them and no sense of humor though, off on their little crusade, they are often full of victimized self-pity.

Christ's whole ministry was dead set against that way of thinking. No-one knew better than Christ that the most dangerous person is the world is the purportedly religious person whose thoughts and actions stem from fear, who self-righteously preens, and who is driven by the desire to punish rather than to love. No-one is more dangerous, more false, more annoying, more blind, and more intransigent in his beliefs than the man who is focused on the sins of another rather than his own.

In Jesus' time, these folks hounded him like gnats (before nailing him to a cross): following, circling, pressing in, trying to devise "clever" questions to trip him up. At least in those days they had the courage to show their faces. Now they troll cyberspace.

You can point out the Sermon on the Mount, the parable of the sheep and the goats, and the story of Lazarus at the gate to such people and none of it makes the slightest impression. Though they champion the liturgy, their hearts never seemed to have been opened by, say, a simple Mass. Though they fancy themselves the keepers of the faith, they seem never to have read the Gospels. If they have read them, they remember one thing: the cleansing of the temple, which they take as carte blanche to express their unworked-through hostility and anger. The internet allows them to do this anonymously, and against people they would never humiliate themselves by attacking in "real life," e.g. an "older" woman.

They do this with nary a twinge of conscience nor a scintilla of awareness that their orientation of heart prima facie makes them bigger sinners than the people they attack. Their gospel is never Store up your treasure in heaven, turn the other cheek, or love thy neighbor as thyself, but rather the "Just War Theory," which they trot out at every opportunity and use to rationalize insane amounts of vengeance-based hatred and violence. I once asked a person who regularly criticized my antiwar stance, "How do you reconcile war with Christ's commandment to Love thine enemy?" He said "I don't think you can" and just kept militating against my puny stand for nonviolence.

So trying to reason with such people is useless. You can only continue to look at your own sin, to pray for your own ongoing conversion, to tell stories. You can know that this battle between truth and error, the light and the darkness, is THE battle of the cosmos. It is the battle Christ fought and died for. It is the battle in which the victor--the most unlikely victor imaginable--is a child-like heart, quick to be hurt, quick to forgive, quick to wonder, slow to judge, forever amenable to correction.

I find it fascinating that the fear-and-punishment based folks are so often obsessed with abortion. Abortion is a concern, to be sure, but why not as well the related concerns--all of which also deeply affect the sanctity of the family--of poverty, war, human trafficking, the for-profit prison system, health care, and our general culture of extreme violence? But no--in fact, to even mention a concern other than abortion is suspect in these folks' eyes: conclusive evidence of a dangerously lukewarm and misguided faith.

Instead, they will bring every conversation, about totally unrelated subjects, around to abortion. And then they will attack Pope Francis.

These are often the same people who would pay single mothers with two kids and another on the way nine bucks an hour and condemn them for destroying their unborn child. These are often the folks who will march for the child in the womb and buy guns to kill people who have been born.

I don't want to be cynical but could it be this obsession stems from the fact that the unborn have no voice to rise up and say, "You've got it all wrong! You're making it harder for the many people who are for all of life, as we're called to be, to be heard."

"You're praying for me and I'm praying you'll quit putting my mother in jail, start paying her a living wage, and stop deporting her. You're praying for me as an embryo and I'm praying that once I'm born, you'll develop to the point where you can have an actual human conversation instead of taking potshots from behind rocks. You're praying for me and I'm praying you'll admit you're addicted to porn"...

You can tell such people till you're blue in the face, "I'm totally against abortion. I think abortion is absolutely not the answer and wrong." In my case, you can point to the zillions of articles you've written saying so; to the book you wrote about healing from your own abortions; to your love for all of life; to the fact that, in your way, you'll be doing penance till the day you die.

And they can't hear you because you haven't identified yourself SOLELY with and by their cause. Not Christ's sole cause, their sole cause.

We know it's their cause and not Christ's because they'll try to argue with you and bully you and tell you you're a scandal, while the whole time you're agreeing with them. We see this in their hatred, bordering on fanaticism, of Pope Francis.

When a cause becomes more important than the underlying stance and the love--or what should be the love, behind it--something is wrong.

Of course abortion is wrong, Pope Francis is saying.

And the way we live out our conviction that it's wrong is not just by saying so to other like-minded people but by living a life of love in every area.

It's to acknowledge that we can't force women not to have abortions. We can live our own lives, to their smallest moments, in such a way that our love radiates out to, and begins to transform, the whole Mystical Body.

It's by having the courage and the integrity to look beyond abortion as a bipartisan political issue; to acknowledge that no sin takes place in a vacuum; to examine the culture of violence; and our contribution to it, which makes abortion to many seem a sensible and viable option.

It's by looking at our own emotional/sexual behavior and wounds and we do everything we can to grow and heal. Because if our own wounds aren't on the mend, we will project them onto others.

None of that is to condone or justify or diminish the terrible sorrow of abortion. To observe the spirit of the law as well as the letter of the law is not to abolish the law, but rather to fulfill it.

That to address the socio-economic and spiritual causes of abortion is tantamount to condoning abortion is the fear of the Pharisees, who mistakenly equate awareness of our own sin and compassion for the sins of others with lax morality. They fail to see that their own one-issue mindset leads to such ghastly moral lapses as claiming to be for babies and, say, blithely dropping atomic bombs on the babies, pregnant mothers, children, teenagers, and old people of other countries. Clearly our concern for babies can only be as authentic and as deep as our concern for the whole family of man.

True morality is wide, not narrow. True morality never confines itself to one or two "issues." The truly moral person subjects every aspect of his life to the lens of the Gospels. True morality asks How do I make my money, how much of it do I need, how do I spend it, do I give enough of it away? How much stuff do I have? Why, for example, am I driving a gaz-guzzling SUV that takes up more than its share of space, uses more than my share of natural resources, and spews noxious fumes over my neighbors? Am I using people as objects--or allowing myself to be used as an object--to further my emotional, sexual or financial desires? How rigorously honest am I--with myself, with my fellows, with God? Who do I resent and why aren't I praying to see my part in the conflict, take action if necessary and if not, let go? What do I watch, what do I read, who and what do I listen to, how do I spend my time, what do I say? Who am I spying on, hoping they're doing badly? Who am I cravenly sniping at? Who do I need to forgive, who do I need to thank, who do I need to let have the last word? Who am I afraid of? Who am I jealous of? Who am I trying to impress? What am I doing with my holy longing? How am I treating my spouse, my boss, my employees, my co-workers, my fellow parishioners, my friends, the tech guy in India? What is the minute-by-minute orientation of my heart as I go through my day?

The effect of this constant examination of conscience and constant pruning is that our house comes to be built on solid rock. Our convictions are clear. Our compass points to the true North of Christ, his Church, her teachings. And because our house is built on solid rock, because we continually consent to subject every area of our lives to the Gospels, because we are committed to being responsible for every choice we make and don't make, we are able to speak about and write about Christ in a way that is most likely to convert hearts. We will always fall short but we consciously strive for consistency in thought and action.

Our actions may fall on deaf ears and blind eyes, but they will be seeds that bear fruit, even if we can't see the fruit. We won't convert most hearts, and we may not convert any hearts, but we will always open our own hearts to be converted further.

There is a loneliness to following Christ, but it is devoid of self-pity. Dorothy Day made it the theme of her autobiography: The Long Loneliness. It's a loneliness but it's also a fullness. It's to be accompanied, always.

Nothing forms a person more truly than being forgiven when she knows she doesn't deserve to be forgiven, than being invited to the banquet table, than against all odds at last being allowed to feel useful and wanted.

Sentimentality has been defined as having more tenderness for a person or thing than God has. But to have been formed as I have is to know that the tenderness of God is beyond anything we could imagine. It is to have the fault not erased, as if it had never happened--no, it happened, I did it, it was awful--but for God to bring glory out of it. That's the felix culpa, the happy fault, that we speak of at the Easter vigil.

By the grace of this paradoxical God who brings light out of darkness, who is forever being born as a poverty-stricken, exiled baby, and before whom the Magi perpetually kneel, my own three children have in some strange way been restored to me. I try to live like the mother they deserved, the mother who would be worthy of them.

They help me know when to keep silence and when to speak out. They go with me always: Fern, Swallow, Warren.

I couldn't explain it in a million years, But without them, I wouldn't be whole.


  1. Damn, I wish you'd stop calling me out, turning my self-satisfied, complacent world on its head! It's painful. Of course, it's also essential. Thank you for this one.

  2. Thank you, Heather. This is very well thought-out, and very well expressed. Christians have put so much energy and effort over the years into explaining why we should NOT do what our Lord told us to in (for instance) the Sermon on the Mount. We'd do better to put our energy into doing as much of it as we can manage.

  3. Fern, Swallow and Warren.I will never forget those names.

  4. Very well written. I particularly like your self examination questions, we all need to look at ourselves. I think because I am aware of my past great sins, it somehow makes it easier to have compassion on others. I wish I hadn't sinned as much, but I am just so grateful for the forgiveness of our Lord. I am always amazed when I can go to Mass and receive Him, really and truly present in the Host. How loving and forgiving He is! How can I not be forgiving to others? Maybe, some people don't have the same empathy, because they haven't fallen as far? I don't know, I have wondered the same thing myself. I personally can not get on the Abortion bandwagon, because I would rather offer to watch a single mother's child, or donate diapers to the local unwed mother home here. I like concrete help, even though I know that it has been important for many to call out Planned Parenthood and march with their signs. It just hasn't been my calling, although I am pro-life. I don't think it makes me less anti-abortion to do things my own way. I pray my rosaries and continue to support young mothers and give encouragement...we all have our different callings. Thank you for yours!

    1. Yes, beautiful, Laura. Of course we are pro-life: for life across the board. And there are many, many ways of showing that, of living it out. I don't go to the pro-life movement people's blogs and tell them they're doing it wrong--I'm too busy living!--so I cam never quite understand why they come to mine and tell me I'm doing it wrong. But onward! And thank you.

  5. The Catholics--indeed any Christian--who can only see other people's sins baffle me. I am 59 years old, a cradle Catholic raised by one Catholic parent and one non-Catholic parent and I can tell you there are smug people in every denomination who think that somehow they have been delivered from original sin. My mother was a single mom with a "past" who married a Catholic-Italian back in the days when being a single mom carried more of a stigma than it does today. The "good" Catholic ladies of our parish never let my mom forget where she had been, never welcomed her into their community even when she volunteered at our school. I remember being a third-grader and overhearing one of these church ladies refer to my mom as "that whore." I didn't know what that meant, but I could tell by the way it was said it couldn't have been any good. By the way, that same lady was caught in bed with another man by her alcoholic husband one afternoon when he came home early. These were the fine Catholics who made our lives miserable because of mistakes our mother made. When one of my dad's sisters asked mom why she didn't convert, she said it was because she didn't see how being Catholic made people any better than non-Catholics. I sometimes wonder why I am still in the church considering all that garbage. It gave me a different perspective. My little sister and I have always felt unworthy, and because of those experiences we learned not to judge. So, God has a purpose for everything. I don't judge anyone; but I'm still mad as hell about how my mother was treated. I guess my mission in life (one of them anyway) is to find my "mother" out there and welcome her into the church. The righteous ones still don't like me. The only difference is now I don't care. Keep writing as you do. It reminds me where I have been.

    1. Oh Elizabeth, that is a hard wound! You are just right to keep walking with Christ with a kind of mission to welcome others like your mother--which is to say like all of us--into the Church. Therese of Lisieux has a beautiful reflection about how if the Father sees a rock in the path and that your'e about to stumble and removes it before you can and do stumble, that doesn't make you any less of a sinner than the person for whom the rock isn't removed and who actually does stumble.

      I often think about how people who actually commit a punishable-by-law crime and are willing to risk bearing the legal/penal consequences for it are much more honest, much more desperate, and therefore much dearer to Christ than the rule-followers with black hearts. The Gospels are full of repentant sinners who Christ loved. The Pharisees are always afraid, or purport to be afraid, that that kind of thinking will lead to wallowing in sin. In fact, they're afraid of losing their power, property and prestige. The thoughts and actions that stem from that kind of fear--as with the "proper" ladies who shunned your mother--are the biggest sins of all.

  6. I love that you named your babies Fern, Swallow, and Warren. So beautiful.

  7. Re-reading, and re-reading. Another gem, Heather. Thank you for your passionate, powerful witness.

  8. This was so very helpful! Thanks once again for a great meditation. I will be printing it out and taking it to the quiet of my room and hiding it in my heart. It's that good!

  9. Recently while examining myself the Lord gave me this little prayer that put the focus where it belongs in my life. Lord please forgive me for my judging eyes. If left to my own devices, I will choose to view the world through my two-way mirror; noting each error and flaw in those around me, while believing my own actions remain hidden from all scrutiny. Lord, give me the grace to look into a real mirror longer eavesdropping on others, but only seeing a true reflection of my own sorry soul... finding my only hope in your grace. Amen

  10. This makes me want to throw my hands up in the air and go live like a hermit somewhere. It's very hard being a Catholic, if you are thoughtful and discerning about the emotional underpinnings of the group crusades.
    Heaven help us and protect us from the wrath of our fellow Catholics if we are not lathered up to the same fever pitch in the group think,
    I, too, am a convert and give thanks for the church but not for this whipping into line.

  11. I am a revert and have struggled with all of these issues addressed in this essay during my 15 years as a practicing Catholic. I am also pro-life and have prayed in front of the clinics but quickly gave that up because of the kind of people who were out there praying with me. Most were nice but a few were not somebody you would want a woman in a crisis pregnancy having to face. I got involved with an archdiocesan pro-life group that gives out supplies to families in need. I performed outreach to local (liberal) nonprofit agencies and they were impressed with this initiative of the Church. Finally, they said, they Church is putting its money where its mouth is (although this was a truly ignorant statement as the Church is world's biggest humanitarian organization but ... whatever). We did a lot of good work with these liberal, prochoice groups and I think some common ground was found. I stepped down due to health concerns but I am proud of my work with this organization.

    Every Catholic I have known has been prolife, but finds his or her own way of applying prolife to one's life. This has come up in voting. I know a few people who voted for Obama. A few people who voted Republican. And a few people who could vote for neither. Everybody had given serious thought for how they voted accorded with a prolife conscience. I can not argue with their choices. The internal forum is sacred, no matter what the Internet scribes and pharisees will tell you. No matter how many chapter and verses they cite of the law. In the end, we do what we can with the best information we have according to the dictates of our conscience. God will judge us accordingly.

    1. Paul and Anonymous, thank you so much. You have hit the nail on the head. We are firm on our convictions and carrying them out, living them out with love, interacting with actual human beings is messy, unpredictable and calls for constant, minute-by-minute discernment. I often go into the jails and prisons around LA to tell my story of recovery from alcoholism. Sometimes I'll be focused in the back of my mind on social justice issues. Sometimes I'll be focused in the back of my mind on how I and everyone around me needs to be more obedient to the teachings of the Church. And then sitting across from these men and women I realize all over again that they don't especially need to hear the part the U.S. government played in the dirty politics of, say, Honduras. They don't need to hear that their sexual morality leaves much to be desired. They need to be seen, heard, acknowledged, embraced as human beings. They need to hear my story and I need to hear theirs. They need to know what to do with their fear, their guilt, their anger, their love. Identification, forgiveness, repentance are universal needs and themes. Christ knew human nature well.

      I hope our faith and our paths are equipping us ever better to sit across from another human being, to tell of our own loneliness and pain, to listen to the pain and the joy of another. That's where conversion--ours and the other's--begins.

      As for Loneliest Place in Rome, I suggest you go to the blogs of other like-minded people and badmouth me there. Also I'm going to be in Rome in October. Feel free to give me a shout--maybe we can have a cup of coffee!


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