I recently learned that a medical condition (that I have suffered from for most of my life) might be greatly improved or even completely healed via a major diet overhaul. Although I may one day be able to reintroduce some foods back into my diet, it is difficult for me to face giving up many of my favorite foods for several months, years, or even forever.
On reflecting and praying about my reluctance and fear about this daunting task, I realized that my personal struggle with my physical health is analogous to the human soul’s struggle with concupiscence and sinfulness. My body has been growing progressively sicker over nearly two decades, with symptoms that none of my previous doctors had been able to explain. But I have been so sick for so long that there were times (usually in between the worst flare ups) that I convinced myself everything was manageable, or even that it was all totally fine and normal. But during the worst flare ups—whose pain or duration I could never anticipate and for which I never had any warning—I would be in so much pain that I could sometimes barely function.
In a similar way, mankind clings to sin. Why do we hesitate to put aside the things that keep us from God? Why is it so hard for us to simply reject our sins and turn to a deeper relationship with our loving Creator? Like me with my medical condition, I think we can become so used to our vices—to how it feels for our souls to be sick from repetitive sins—that we convince ourselves that turning back to God and casting aside our sinful habits is too difficult and would not make us any more joyful or free.
Choosing the healthier or holier life is difficult. Establishing good habits always seems to take more effort than establishing or sliding back into bad ones. Of course, it does not help that temptations abound in the temporal world; inflammatory foods are the easiest and cheapest things at the grocery store and are laced throughout restaurant menus. Likewise with temptations to sin: the ubiquity of screens and social media, which can create barriers to personal relationships and wipe out our daily prayer times; the constant push to place religious devotion with devotion to ‘things’, the pressure to ignore the natural moral order in favor of the self and the self’s pleasures.
Because we are a fallen race, we often seem incapable of rejecting short-term pleasure in favor of long-term gain. I know my health will drastically improve if I permanently remove the inflammation-triggering causes from my life, but somehow the very process—the sacrifice itself and the initial withdrawal I will surely feel as I miss that old diet—seems like too much to bear. How can I ever survive without donuts after Mass sometimes? How can I possibly stop eating cheese? Maybe I can just take a pill instead and keep on living my life how I want to. It’s like this with our vices, too: How can I give up this behavior or this selfishness that is rooted in my heart? I know I should put down my phone and pray, but I’ll do that in five minutes (or thirty, or sixty). There isn’t really any need to change my lifestyle to be a stronger follower of Christ, is there? And besides, wouldn’t my hundreds of Instagram followers miss me if I stop posting photos five times a day?
Entering into a deeper relationship with God demands radical changes of us. I eventually realized that my physical health is also tied to my spiritual health. God gave me this unique body, fearfully and wonderfully made in His own image, and it is my responsibility to care for that gift by treating it well—by seeking to heal it in the ways that are available to me and to which God has slowly led me over the past ten years. If I know that my soul is sick—and that more stuff, more screen time, and more licentiousness are not going to heal me—should I not put my sinfulness or woundedness into the hands of the God who will heal me?
Maybe it will take years for my body to heal. Maybe there are some things that I will never eat again, while others I will be able to tolerate on occasion or even fully reincorporate into my daily diet. But, in physical as well as spiritual health, I won’t ever find out what it feels like to be healed unless I commit to getting rid of the things that are holding me back.
There are few religious images that hold more significance for me than that of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. My grandmother, a pillar of faith in our Mexican-American family, kept a framed copy of the image in her bedroom, adorned with numerous prayer cards, mementos, and old palm branches. For a young child walking by the door, that image seemed both mysterious and comforting. What was it actually depicting and why should it be a focus of such devotion? Who was this Jesus who stared out at me, gesturing to the flaming heart in his chest, poised as if to offer it out through the frame of the picture?
Only years later would the full meaning of the image become apparent, as I learned more about the history of Christianity and the fundamental meaning of the Incarnation. Devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which developed particularly in 17th century France from earlier medieval devotions to Christ, is about much more than the image itself. Given particular shape by the writings and experiences of figures such as St. John Eudes and St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, the devotion is a way of contemplating more deeply the mystery of God’s love for humanity expressed in the true human existence of the Son of God as the Incarnate Word. Ultimately, the image and devotion remind us that the God we confess as Christians is not a powerful yet distant God. Rather, the God who so loved the world (Jn 3:16) loved us in such a way that he truly entered into human life, becoming a human being not merely in appearance but complete with body and soul, mind and heart.
In a certain way, the devotion trains our minds to resist passing over the Incarnation as simply a well-worn article of doctrine, affirmed as a matter of course but rarely considered more closely for its radical implications. Christianity is not ultimately a belief in formulas but rather an encounter with God in faith expressed, preserved, and remembered authentically through such fundamental doctrines as the Incarnation (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church §170). As Pope Benedict XVI wrote so beautifully in his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, “being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction” (Deus Caritas Est, §1).
The devotion to the Sacred Heart, and the strikingly concrete image of a human heart, presents this encounter in high relief. Jesus Christ is much more than a moral teacher or religious sage. He is much more than a simple mode of communication between God and human beings, or a courier of divine knowledge and commandments. He is, instead, the Good Shepherd who has come to us, whose heart is moved with pity. He is the Bridegroom who has loved us with a human heart and given himself completely for us. He is the God who is Love (1 Jn 4:8), who unites to himself a human heart in the Incarnation and transfigures it with the fire of divine love as the heart of the Incarnate God.
This good (and truly astounding) news is depicted in the gaze and kindled heart, the crown of thorns and the cross, of the image of Jesus that hung in my grandmother’s bedroom. The image and devotion, so widespread now as to feel fundamentally traditional, invites all Christians to return in awe to an encounter with this God who has loved us and humbled himself so much for our sake, “becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:8). On this Solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, may we turn to Jesus, who is turned to us and always has his eyes fixed lovingly upon us (cf. St. John Eudes, Letter 9), so that we may “know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge… [and] be filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph 3:19).
Beauty transformed my soul—waking it up from the depths of hibernation and shaking loose the layers of grief, bitterness, and resentment which had grown over time. My heart could not resist the lure of cobblestone streets, golden light cascading down narrow alleyways, or the shadows of the towering cathedral. I felt alive during those months abroad in a way I had hardly known was possible. Afternoon jogs on an ancient Roman bridge. Secret courtyards and hidden gardens overlooking the city. Tucked-away alcoves and incense emanating from ancient chapels. A croissant shop with an expansive menu that dared me to try them all.
I did, by the way, try them all. I had goals like that while I was studying abroad. For the first time in many years, the over-achiever A-student was not living for grades and recognition. She was living for experience, for delight, for beauty. And in this was a newfound freedom. I remember sitting in the cavernous cathedral of Salamanca for long stretches between classes breathing in the music that played softly between services and basking in the magnanimous splendor. Moments like this made me long for something outside and above myself, though I could not precisely say what or why. Only later would I come realize it was the Bridegroom Nicholas Cabasilas writes of in “The Life in Christ” calling me to glimpse the eternal I was created for.
Cabasilas explains, “When men have a longing so great that it surpasses human nature and eagerly desire and are able to accomplish things beyond human thought, it is the Bridegroom who has smitten them with this longing. It is he who has sent a ray of his beauty into their eyes. The greatness of the wound already shows the arrow which has struck home, the longing indicates who has inflicted the wound."
Beauty wounded me that semester in a delightful way. It awakened my heart with a longing to reach for what transcends human experience: the eternal. My experience living abroad enabled me to delight in creation and life in a way people seldom do or ever get the chance to. And this knowledge humbled me profoundly.
“I do not deserve this,” I thought many times throughout my studies abroad. What had I done to earn the experience of such majesty? The short answer: nothing. It was sheer, unmerited gift. I knew almost immediately who the gift givers were. First: my parents, who had spent their lives providing for their children and modeling servant leadership and sacrificial love. It was because of them and their contributions to my education that I was able to study abroad in the first place. The other gift giver: God himself—the author of beauty.
It was in this way that God revealed himself to me personally and began to bring me back to himself.
The famous line from Dostoevesky, “Beauty will save the world” started for me that fall in Spain. Beauty saved me. God, beauty itself, the author of beauty, created us with a desire to grasp at and experience beauty in order to draw us closer to himself.
Beauty is sheer gift—unnecessary by logical standards and not necessarily functional or efficient. It does more than just appeal to our senses: it awakens our soul. It is meant to draw us outside of ourselves with what Cardinal Ratzinger at the time called a “longing for the Ineffable, [a] readiness for sacrifice, [and lead to] the abandonment of self.” Furthermore, “Beauty does not end with us or with our experience, but calls us outward on mission. Artistic beauty provokes interior emotion, it silently arouses astonishment and leads to an ‘exit from self’, an ecstasy” (Pontifical Council for Culture, Plenary Assembly Final Document-The Way of Beauty. section III.2, The Beauty of the Arts).
This was my experience exactly. I came home a different person—one overflowing with gratitude and humility. It manifested in frequent phone calls to my family, much to their concern. The formerly independent, cold, aloof daughter was calling her parents each week to say thank you and to check in. After ascertaining that my mental health was still sound, my mother offered wise advice to her daughter now bubbling with gratitude: spend 5 to ten minutes a day thanking God.
Beauty was, therefore, God’s entry point into my heart. As a result, I turned back to him in praise and thanksgiving. My friends and family noticed the transformation, the newfound peace that overflowed, the eyes now on the lookout for glimpses of the Creator hidden among his creation.
Beauty resulted in action—slow and gradual, but intentional in my remaining college years. I entered the Campus Ministry office for the first time upon my return stateside. I began making use of the Sacrament of Reconciliation weekly and sitting in the beautiful mission church of my alma mater for daily Mass. I attended retreats, began participating in service opportunities, and mentored younger students. Beauty drew me outside of myself and into the other—I had received an unmerited gift and wanted to reciprocate the giving.
As Bishop James D. Conley said at an apologetics conference, “When we begin with beauty, this can then lead to a desire to want to know the truth of the thing that is drawing us, a desire to participate in it. And then the truth can inspire us to do the good, to strive after virtue.”
Almost a decade later, as a mother of small boys, often limited to the sphere of my domestic church, how and where can I experience beauty? How can each of us, in whatever vocation we find ourselves in, find and experience beauty?
After a year in which sin, division, sickness, and isolation threatened to obscure the beauty of life and our world, I believe we are called to reclaim this truth and open our eyes to the beauty and wonder of God once again.
Beauty is not reserved for a special place or time, but can be found all around us: in the newborn’s first cry, the child’s wonder, the cicada’s song, the family dinner, the work done well, the priest’s sacrifice, the nun’s contemplative prayer, the humor of a colleague, the glowing of the stars, the dawn of a new day.
Let us allow ourselves to believe and hope in the glimmers of beauty all around us that reveal a greater beauty we are called to. Let us strive to make the world more beautiful with our kind words and gestures, deeds done with love, hope, and joy, with the way we relish life as a gift and inspire laughter, with the way we live our lives authentically—in such a way that others are drawn to the joy of our Gospel message. Why? So that the world can see and come to know him. The ultimate purpose of beauty is redemption—knowing and experiencing Christ himself.
The then-Cardinal Ratzinger put it so well, “We must learn to see him. If we know him, not only in words, but if we are struck by the arrow of his paradoxical beauty, then we will truly know him, and know him not only because we have heard others speak about him. Then we will have found the beauty of Truth, of the Truth that redeems. Nothing can bring us into close contact with the beauty of Christ himself other than the world of beauty created by faith and light that shines out from the faces of the saints, through whom his own light becomes visible.”
Ever struggle with attempting to find God in your daily life? Do you ever feel that you are just so busy that engaging in a personal relationship with the Lord seems out of the question? Do you struggle in attempting to recognize how God is acting in your life, at work, or in the classroom? I promise, you are not alone. Many of us struggle with finding God not only in the ordinary, but also in our busy lives. Different saints, such as St. Francis de Sales, even recognized how at times it can be challenging to find God’s presence in the ordinary. Surprising right?! Sometimes, it seems so difficult to find God in the mundane or in the office. Yet, this is exactly where we can find God’s presence—in the ordinary!
St. Francis De Sales, a Doctor of the Church and inspiration of the ever popular Salesian Spirituality, wrote in his famed Introduction to the Devout Life that “It is an error, or rather a heresy, to wish to banish the devout life from the regiment of soldiers, the mechanic’s shop, the court of princes, or the home of married people… Wherever we may be, we can and should aspire to a perfect life.” St. Francis De Sales advocates the notion that everyone is called to be in relationship with God no matter their specific state in life. For St. Francis De Sales, the soldier, the mechanic, the government officials, and the married couple—any lay person—can find God in the ordinary. God meets each of us were we are; his presence is not restricted to a building. Nevertheless, what are some practical ways in which we can find God in the ordinary?
Again, St. Francis de Sales has more wisdom for us from his Introduction to the Devout Life, writing that “occasions do not often present themselves for the exercise of fortitude, magnanimity, and great generosity, but meekness, temperance, integrity, and humility are virtues that must mark all our actions in life.” When we refrain from boasting about our accomplishments in the office or when we refrain from lying to our professor regarding a string of absences from class, we are encountering God in the ordinary. When we simply take a minute in the beginning of the morning and offer our day to God, we are encountering God in the ordinary. When we take a moment to recognize a coworker’s kindness to a stranger or a fellow student’s concern for a student falling behind in class, we are encountering God in the ordinary. Encountering God is not solely done on in the pews or on the mountaintop. Instead, we can encounter God in the ordinary, in our everyday life.
To learn more about seeing God in the ordinary, please visit our Prayer Resources page by clicking here.
On Pentecost we celebrate the gifting of the Holy Spirit to the Apostles in the Upper Room. For nine days past they have been hiding in fear, awaiting this gift, the Advocate. The Holy Spirit descends upon the Church in an outpouring of love, and with Mary as their guide, the disciple’s mission begins: proclaiming the Kingdom, outpouring their gifts, and healing the world.
The Apostles were filled with fear up to this point. They had witnessed the Risen Lord’s Ascension into Heaven, and still their purpose was not yet realized. The liturgical calendar enables the faithful to reflect on our own lives, hearts, and mission. We are called to place ourselves in the very heart of the story, to participate as if this very event is happening today. And so Pentecost beckons the questions: “In what ways am I in the Upper Room, unsure of how the Lord is calling me to serve?” “What brings my heart to fear?” “In what ways am I holding onto lies, listening to a voice that is not the Lord’s?”
Jesus Christ chose men and women who, like you and me, struggled with human fears, human sin, and human misunderstanding. We can resonate with their experience in the Upper Room, awaiting guidance and courage. The moment the Holy Spirit descends on those in the Upper Room, everything changes and their hearts are transformed. The Apostles baptized 3,000 people that very day. The mission of the Church begins, and the Apostles are equipped with what is needed to live out that mission.
From Pentecost onward, the Gospel was shared and people were baptized from as far as India to Spain; miracles and healings took place in Jesus’ name! Now in 2021, we have the same Spirit, and this brings our hearts great hope. This is the very Spirit given to us in our Baptism and Confirmation! We have the power to spread the love and message of Jesus’ life and Resurrection to others because we are equipped with all that is necessary. It is easy to read of the Early Christians who bravely faced martyrdom and changed the world and to just dismiss it, as if the Spirit within them has diminished over time and no longer carries the same power. No, the call of the Christian is to open our hearts to this very same Spirit and ask Him to show us the path to love. The same Spirit that transformed the world through the Apostles can transform our world today.
In our ordinary lives there can be extraordinary love, sacrifice, and renewal in and through the power of the Holy Spirit. Today we are called to open our hearts to the Holy Spirit’s transformative love, asking Him to show us the path to mission. In what ways is He calling you outside of yourself to love those around you? How can you let go of fear and open your heart to the burning fire of His love for you and the whole world?
“For God did not give us a spirit of timidity but a spirit of power and love and self-control.” 2 Timothy 1:7