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Confessions of a Prideful Idiot

Christmas in Ice with 30 preschoolers: another chance to make God laugh.

I live in interior Alaska and today was fairly brisk at 20 degrees below zero. So naturally, my daughter’s preschool teacher decided this was a good day for me to help chaperone 30 preschoolers at the nearby “Christmas in Ice” park, which is a showcase of ice sculptures, mazes, and slides carved by local artists.

As I ran around trying to keep up with the handful of kids assigned to me (and thinking it would be easier to herd feral cats), I started thinking about the endless opportunities we humans must provide God and his angels for amusement. I could just see Jesus up there in heaven, face-palming us for risking our lives in arctic temperatures just to show a bunch of preschoolers an ice sculpture of the Holy Family.

Surely, most of the hilarity we provide God and our heavenly patrons comes from our foolish pride. We’ll have our common sense and conscience screaming at us that This is SO going to end badly, dude! but we still proceed in a futile attempt to prove we’re right. Like that time three years ago, when a friend from church invited me to join her on an outdoor run in the middle of winter. So what if I hadn’t exercised in nearly a decade? This was my chance to prove I was a real Alaskan!

Driving to my friend’s house the next morning, I checked the temperature: 15 below. I was still acclimating to the cold back then, so I swallowed hard. I thought about turning back, but I’d already bragged on Facebook about how tough I was to be running in Alaska in winter, so I had to keep going. I consoled myself with the fact that I’d met two others from Fairbanks who regularly ran in the winter. One in temps as low as 40 below. How hard could it really be?

When I arrived, my friend, Heidi, was wearing typical runner’s spandex and looking as if she was about to go out for a leisurely summer jog. I, on the other hand, was bundled up like a tick about to pop. We put springs over our shoes for traction and then started out. The plan was to run the two-mile loop surrounding her neighborhood, which Heidi assured me was “super easy.”

We hadn’t even been running a full five minutes when I had to admit I was suffering. And I mean, “Doing penance for killing a busload of nuns and orphans” kind of suffering. You imagine serious cold and you think, “numbing,” right? And it will…eventually. But not before it feels like a cloud of wasps are stinging every exposed inch of your flesh.

We hit the main road and started jogging in earnest. Running, as it turns out, is rather difficult if you can’t breathe. And since the air was so cold it felt like a knife being plunged into my lungs with each inhale, I wasn’t getting a lot of it anyway. But none of that seem to bother Heidi. She’d brought her dog along and the two of them jauntily trotted a few feet ahead of me. She chattered lightly the whole time, but I couldn’t hear a thing over the sound of my own ragged breath and hammering heart. 

We crossed a road and got onto a bike trail. This was where it got scary. Beach runners know the give of the sand forces you to exert more effort to push off each step. It’s the same with snow. We’d gotten a few inches of the white stuff the night before, so the path was slushy and uneven. I lived in terror of taking a very public spill while cars sped past us. I fleetingly wondered if there was a patron saint for idiots and then realized I would probably qualify if I died right now.

I was no longer cold, but I could feel my energy pouring out like a sieve. We hadn’t even covered the first mile and I was on the verge of my heart valves just blowing into a dozen pieces right there in my chest. By now, I was silently berating myself for not bringing holy oil so Heidi could anoint me when I collapsed on the side of the road.

I began to feel sick, so I slowed down. But then the cold began to creep in again. My choice became clear: I could freeze to death or die from a heart attack. I began to panic because I couldn’t remember the last time I’d gone to confession. Even worse than imminent death was the nagging feeling I was holding back a serious runner. Heidi hardly filled out a size 1 and breezily talked about running “five or six miles a day.” I kept giving her permission to run ahead to get in a real workout (and so I could hide my misery), but she insisted on staying with me the whole time. (I think she just wanted to be close in case I needed CPR.)

We turned around about a mile from her house. I stoically tried to keep up the show, but was privately nursing fears about how my husband was going to raise four kids on his own. Does he know where the wills are? Can he afford a live-in nanny on our Knights of Columbus life insurance payout? Would running in Alaska in December be considered suicide and void the policy? (I did brighten a little when I realized I’d probably get to skip purgatory if I ended it all in the midst of such intense suffering.)

Finally, we made it back to the house. My clothes were sweat-soaked and I couldn’t feel my toes. My stomach was churning and I was pretty sure I had done permanent damage to my heart and lungs. But I had made it; I had survived running in the interior Alaska winter. Heidi asked if I wanted to join her again later that week for another run. And this time, I used the common sense God gave me and declined. I knew if He’d spared my life that day, it could only be for one reason: so I could confess to being a prideful idiot.

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What Are We Afraid Of?

I have been asking myself this question after having lost several relatives in the past year.  My paternal grandmother died last January at the age of 91; my maternal grandfather, 89, just died the Friday after Easter; two uncles died in the last month and a half; a young man of 19, a graduate of the school where I teach, also passed away this month.  All this loss has gotten me thinking about death more and more.  As a person of faith, I have understood fear to be debilitating; it keeps us from experiencing life and it prohibits us from moving forward.    Blessed John Paul II said, “Have no fear of moving into the unknown. Simply step out fearlessly knowing that God is with you, therefore no harm can befall you; all is very, very well. Do this in complete faith and confidence.”  So, if fear keeps us from living, it most certainly keeps us from dying—ironic, is it not?

Why is it that we are afraid to die and afraid for others in our lives to die?  Fear of the unknown is a natural human condition, but as people of faith, we need to move beyond that fear and place our confidence in Christ.  When my grandfather passed, I found myself saying over and over again: If I claim to believe what I believe, if I honestly hold credence in an existence after this one, I must deep down in my heart be okay with earthly death.  Are we so uncertain of the state of our own souls that this proposition is so frightening?  I am not sure how much I trust that at any moment in my life I am ready for death, not death as an end, but death as a beginning.  The existential reality of the demise of all humans is what makes us uncomfortable.  I will deserve whatever comes after this life and that is frightening.

When others die, we comfort ourselves and others by saying the deceased is in a better place.  The fear, however, comes from that uncertainty within us.  We question whether or not we really are worthy to gain Heaven.  It would be so much easier to accept this as a given if we are believers, but the reality is we are not too sure.  It cannot be that easy to gain Heaven and it should not be, if Heaven really is what we perceive it to be with our small minds.  Maybe the reason we live as long as we do is because we have a lot of work to do.  We must work for Heaven and strive to become people who deserve Heaven.  We do this by following Christ, working and suffering just as He did.  I often wonder why the most saintly living people I know, my mother and grandmother, suffer so much.  I figure it is because they are the closest to Christ and Christ indeed did suffer.

So how does suffering figure into fear?  What it comes down to is that we fear suffering.  We fear life because of the uncertainty of failure or loss and, therefore, the suffering that comes with that failure or loss.  We fear death because of the uncertainty of the suffering that may ensue, either in Purgatory or hell.  The point of Blessed John Paul II’s statement is that Christ empowers us and if we really believe that He is the “way, truth, and the life,” we cannot fear these things because it is only through Him that we can survive suffering on earth and deserve the avoidance of suffering in the hereafter.

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Redemptive Suffering: The Ultimate Act of Love

As we walked back into my homeroom classroom and my seventh graders marched in the door to their seats, they knew my mood had changed.  Erasing everything from the board I wrote in capital letters:


Then I turned around and waited as everyone took their seats quickly and quietly.  With a perfectly-serious-teacher-face I asked, “Can someone read this word, please?”  Marisol raised her hand first, as usual, and when called on she said, “sacrifice.”  “Perfect!” I said, “now could someone please give me the definition of this word, please?”  A bunch of hands shot up in the air, I called on three or four and the definitions were spot on.    Some said, “the state or experience where one suffers,”  others gave some version of “suffering pain.”  “So most if not all of you know the definition of this word, very good.”  (I cracked a half smile.)  “So when you think of this word, who is the first person that comes to mind?”  Thankfully, most hands shot into the air and I gave a nod which they knew meant “go ahead give me the answer” and in unison, all the children ages thirteen and fourteen who, by the way, were preparing for the Sacrament of Confirmation that same year, shouted “Jesus Christ!”  “That is right,” I confirmed, but proceeded with, “so why is it so hard for young ladies and gentlemen to kneel for a holy hour in honor of our Lord and Savior at Adoration?  Why is it that you can’t make it through without complaining, or whining, or slouching?  What is it that He has to do more for you, besides giving up His life and giving you Salvation, so that you can offer Him some sort of sacrifice?”


Some students looked down to the floor in shame.  They realized that the question that their eight-month-then-pregnant homeroom teacher was asking was a valid one.  I let the room go silent for some time.  Then I asked the children to take out their journals and write this word at the top.  They were to write as many words that came to mind when they thought of this word.  The bell rang before we could discuss this any further which was fine, I prayed the Holy Ghost would plant a seed in their young hearts.

The next day was Mass, a Friday, when the Consecration came all of the children in my homeroom class knelt almost on cue, it really looked rehearsed.  They remained on their knees until Communion time, some went up, others didn’t which wasn’t common.  “Good, I thought, they are examining their conscience from the event the day prior.”  When they returned to their pews, they all knelt again and remained there until the Blessed Sacrament was back in the Tabernacle and Father sat down.  All remained focused in prayer, with eyes closed and hands folded, even the ones that didn’t receive.  When we got back to class, they all sat waiting for our mini lesson to resume.  I wrote on the board in big letters:

and in smaller print
“thank you”

This happened seven years ago.  It was the only time I ever spoke to my beloved students about this – after all, I was their Language Arts teacher, not their religion teacher – but it was a Catholic School, so I took the liberty to talk with them about something that maybe hadn’t been shared or spoken about in religion class or at home.  This past week, my home was in the path of the “frankenstorm” Sandy and we suffered a power outage from Monday around 8:30pm.  Being a native of Florida, we were prepared for this Category One storm as if it was a Category Five.  Candles went on immediately and each child received a small flash light in hand.  Initially, my thoughts went to “Dear Lord, bring our power back as soon as possible” but as the night went on and the storm passed our home making the trees, windows, and roof creak in all sorts of ways I’d never thought possible, I was given time to think about this further.  As I laid in the dark, children all around me in sleeping bags in our bedroom.  Our five kids feel asleep right away, they were sound asleep, had no worries, my husband and I had made them feel very safe despite the situation.  This didn’t mean we weren’t worried ourselves, as we had to come up with creative and resourceful ways of how would we flush toilets, take showers, eat food, you know the basics needed with children age fourteen, seven, six, four, and two.

We were able to endure three nights without power; sporadically I gave updates on my cell phone on Facebook or through instant message with family and close friends.  “I’m praying you get power soon,” they said.  We spent two nights without heat; it was about 40 outside, maybe a little colder, I wasn’t sure.  The first night of the cold was the moment when this classroom scene came to mind and I realized what a wonderful opportunity these next couple of nights would bring for our souls.  I had two choices, complain, and cry or endure it with a smile and some prayers.  Okay, I didn’t really smile, but I did offer my coldness for those poor souls in Purgatory, for my friends whom are enduring real suffering, and for those families in New York and New Jersey who were left with nothing but the clothes on their backs and lost loved ones.  So with flashlight in hand, I grabbed my Bible and flipped it open, a smile did come to my face when I read Job 2:10, “… if we have received good things at the hand of God, why should we not receive evil?”

Suffering and sacrifice seem like such foreign words to us these days.  Everything is instant and easy.  Suffering or sacrificing to many religions is seen as a sign of fortitude or strength.  In Christianity, like the children in my homeroom shouted back in 2006, Christ was the ultimate example of Redemptive Suffering.  We are ALL called to be saints, we are all to share in the holy priesthood of Christ, our spotless victim, and together we make up the mystical body of Christ.  We are called to be non-ministerial priests which in essence means to offer ourselves up for something or someone constantly, after all, that is why God created us.  Our works, joys, pains, sufferings, praise, gratitude, and work should be offered over to God in all we do and say, especially in those hardest of times.  When we do this, we take part in the Divine Nature of Christ, we share the fruits of Calvary.

“In all things we suffer tribulation: but are not distressed. We are straitened: but are not destitute. We suffer persecution: but are not forsaken. We are cast down: but we perish not. Always bearing about in our body the mortification of Jesus, that the life also of Jesus may be made manifest in our bodies. For we who live are always delivered unto death for Jesus’ sake: that the life also of Jesus may be made manifest in our mortal flesh. So then death worketh in us: but life in you.”
~ II Corinthians 4:8-12 

If Christ suffered in His human nature, why should we be spared?  The Passion of the Christ by Mel Gibson offers us a vivid image of Christ’s suffering even to the point of sweating blood in the Garden.  Our imitating Him strengthens the body of Christ, the Holy Church.  Paul tells us this in I Corinthians 12:26, “And if one member suffer any thing, all the members suffer with it: or if one member glory, all the members rejoice with it.”  By these actions of redemptive suffering, we are coordinating with God in very profound and spiritual ways and it will benefit others.  Think about it, when a friend suffers just a little for you, it builds you up.  Parents who suffer for their children, children who suffer the loss of a parent, or those of die a happy death.  When I think of this I also think of the victim souls like those saints who shared in the suffering of Christ through the Stigmata.  When they faced this “cross” they embraced and then used it to “offer it up” for others.

My favorite saint taught me so much about redemptive suffering in her book, Story of a Soul.  Saint Therese said, on page 27:

“I understood that to become a saint one had to suffer much, seek out always the most perfect thing to do, and forget self. I understood, too, that there are many degrees of perfection and each soul was free to respond to the advances of the Our Lord, to do little or much for Him, in a word, to choose among the sacrifices He was asking. Then, as in the days of my childhood, I cried out: ‘My God I choose all!’ I do not want to be a saint by halves. I’m not afraid to suffer for You. I fear only one thing: to keep my own will; so take it, for I choose all that You will!”

I invite you to embrace your crosses and offer them for others.  It brings so much healing for yourself, brings you closer to God, and it is so pleasing to the heart and soul when you hear a friend whom you have suffered for also is healed in some way.  Saint Catherine of Siena summed this up best when she said, “The only cause of my death is my zeal for the Church of God, which devours and consumes me. Accept, O Lord, the sacrifice of my life for the Mystical Body of Thy holy Church.”

Be joyful in your redemptive suffering, my brothers and sisters in Christ because the rewards are priceless!
For further reading on Sacrifice and Martyrdom:

Redemptive Suffering, John Paul II and the Meaning of Suffering by Father John Hardon, S.J.

The Eucharist, Mary, and Redemptive Suffering by Shane Kapler on Catholic Exchange.

To Love and To Suffer, the Science of Saints on Religious

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The Church Triumphant – Citizens of Heaven

If you are Catholic, you have heard the phrase “communion of saints” a lot, especially if you pray the rosary.  Have you ever stopped to think about what it means?  I have been thinking about this quite a bit lately.  What does it mean to be “in communion”?  When we partake of the Eucharist, Christ’s Body and Precious Blood, we “receive Holy Communion”.  Okay, so it has something to do with sharing.  We are gathering together and sharing a meal as a sign of our unity in Christ.  What about the saints?

We know that a saint is a “holy one”, because the Church is “The Holy People of God” (CC. 823) and her members are called “saints.”  (Acts 9:13, 1 Cor 6:1; 16:1).  The “communion of saints”, then, is the people of God in union with Him in and through Christ.  What does this look like?


Pretty cool, right?  Think of it as a big family.


 No, not them. BIGGER.

That’s better.

This family has one Father, the same big brother, and they share one name. Now imagine that they live all over the world – different continents, different nations (let’s call them “states”), and different languages – but they still share the same dad, same sibling, and same family name. And…they get together every day to share a meal and praise their father. Impossible, right? Not for God.

Jesus looked at them and said, “For human beings this is impossible, but for God all things are possible.” Mathew 19:26

The communion of saints=His family= the Church. And because we are also His Body, and Christ’s Body is unconquered by death, the Church reaches beyond death, connecting those who are being purified, those pilgrims still on earth, and those in glory in heaven.  It looks like this:

There are three states of the Church: the Church Suffering, about which I posted here, made up of the souls being purified in purgatory; the Church Militant,(more on that one at a later date), made up of we pilgrims here on earth; and the Church Triumphant, so called, I think, because the saints in heaven are victorious over death (by the grace of God) and now bask in the presence of God.

What are these citizens of heaven doing?  What will we do there once the grime has been washed away and we arrive, sparkling, into our true home?  There will be no more suffering.  Our cup of joy will be full to overflowing.  We will be with our heart’s desire: God.  He will be all we need.  And yet, God is love and, with the Son, and the Holy Spirit, a perfect family.  Being one with God, can we be other than loving toward those still suffering and sojourning?  I don’t think so.   Think about when you have been full of joy in your life.  Could you contain it, or were you so excited, bursting with happiness, that you immediately called everyone you knew and even told strangers your news?  How much more will we feel like this in heaven, shining in God’s love and glory?

The members of the Church Triumphant care about how and what we are doing;  they and the angels rejoice when we repent (Luke 15:7, 10).  They rejoice.  That tells you what kind of God He is, and how much He loves us.  Can you imagine a better cheering section as you run your race than the holy ones who have suffered and persevered and now see God’s face?

I hope Saint Therese is in my cheering section.

She is my big sister in Christ.  When I pray to her, asking her to pray for me, I think about her life and her “little way” and it gives me hope that I may one day attain holiness.  When and if I do (pray for me, please!), I will delight in helping those not there yet.  I may be in your cheering section one day, encouraging you to press on.  Look for me.  I will be at Mass, singing “Holy, holy, holy” with the angels as together we worship Our Lord in the Eucharist.  Don’t be late.


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Purgatory – The Church Suffering

Being military, my family moves often. This comes with its advantages: we have seen different parts of the country; we have friends everywhere, making it easier to find a place to stay when we travel; and if we really dislike a place, we do not have to live there long. Unfortunately, this also means we do not have an established community of Catholic friends outside of Facebook. At times this can be difficult, as we often have to explain various aspects of our Faith to curious non-Catholics to whom it is evident that we are in many ways counter-cultural. “Go and make disciples,” commanded our Lord, and so we aim to do, through hospitality, charity, and as quiet witnesses who allow others to see the light of Christ shining in all we do.

When asked what I believe, I try to respond with what the Church teaches. This does not mean that I believe her because what she says conforms to my ideas, but rather, that when she teaches she does so with God’s Voice. This is important, for the Truth is, regardless of whether or not I believe in it. This Church, instituted by Christ and built upon Peter, has the authority to bind and loose, the authority to interpret and instruct. Being baptized in God’s name – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – means I was baptized into the Body of Christ, a Body which is not only truly visible, but indivisible. It is universal (catholic), transcends beyond borders (including death), and is preserved generation to generation in an unbroken line until the end of time. I cannot rightly call myself a Catholic if I choose to believe and obey certain doctrines and not others; for to be selective would be to separate myself from the Church. Thus, I have never had a problem with believing in the existence of purgatory. In fact, I see it as proof of God’s abiding love and mercy.

I have always felt God’s love, but I did not always understand it as I do now. When my first baby was born – as I held her, tiny, warm, and helpless in my arms shortly after giving birth – I was given a gift in addition to the gift of her precious life. In that moment, God granted me a glimpse into His heart. I gazed into her blue eyes and wept as the burning intensity of God’s love for her, for me, for all His children dwarfed the love I felt for her. This loving God would never leave us in the filth of our own sin.

My baby is now an active, curious little girl. She and her siblings play outside nearly every day, and they tend to get dirty, as children are wont to do. Sometimes they are caked-on-muddy. When they come into the house, I do not just throw a blanket over them and seat them at the family table with their father. Nor do I change their clothes; what good would it do them to have on immaculate clothing if their bodies are not clean? I love them, so I bathe them, scrubbing off the mud. This process can be unpleasant, even painful, if they are filthy enough. One child screams in the shower like he is being tortured, but I had to use it one day, and even though it hurt him, it was the only way to get him clean. How much more does our Heavenly Father, who is perfect, do for us?

Purgatory, like other Catholic doctrines, is not isolated, but woven into the fabric of the Church. It is connected to the Communion of Saints, indulgences, and the Sacrament of Reconciliation, among other things. The Catholic Catechism explains purgatory in this way, “”All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven. The Church gives the name purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned” (CCC 1030–1).

So, when I die, if I die in a state of grace with no mortal sin on my soul but still have some venial sins, I am bound for heaven because of my love for Christ. But before I can attain the Beatific Vision (before I can see God face-to-face), I must be cleansed of all attachment to sin. I must be refined, as one refines silver (Zech 13:9). I would indeed be prideful to think I can just march into heaven immediately upon death and expect to be seated at the wedding feast of the Lamb without so much as washing my hands.

Purgatory is not heaven, though those who go through it are bound for heaven. It is not hell, where we have no hope and we are eternally distanced from God. There is a third place mentioned in the Bible: a prison for spirits where Christ went to preach to them (1Peter 3:19). It is a place “in the age to come” where we can be freed of the consequences of sin (Matt. 12:32). A place where we pay off the debt incurred by our sins (Matt 18:21-35). A place where the prayers of those still on earth can help us (2 Mach. 12:38-46). It is a place where those who are destined for heaven may be saved, but “only as through fire.” (1 Cor3:15). No one is saved in hell; no one suffers in heaven, so there must be another place after death – not heaven, not hell. The Church calls this Purgatory – where through our suffering we are transformed to be more like Christ.

That we should pray for the poor souls in Purgatory is no surprise. Do we not pray for one another as Christians? Do the saints in heaven not pray for us (Rev 5:8)? And if prayer helps those poor souls who cannot help themselves, what better than the highest form of prayer – the sacrifice of the Mass, where heaven meets earth on the altar of the Lord with the angels kneeling in adoration?