As a child, I played a favorite game with my friends called “follow the leader” where everyone did exactly as the name suggests – followed the leader. If you didn’t do what the leader did you would be eliminated from the game. This game correlates to the Christian life: when we follow Jesus and do what He did, we reach our heavenly destination. We are wise to remember and heed Matthew 18:3-4: “Unless you become like children, you will not enter the Kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the Kingdom of heaven.” How important it is as an adult Christian to always have the willing mindset of a child – to follow the leader with joyful expectation and simple trust. This reminds me of a remarkable event in my life that illustrates this concept.
Several years ago, when our four youngest children were still living at home, we embarked on one of our family camping vacations. Having a large family, we had chosen camping as a way to enjoy a vacation together while on a budget. It removed all the distractions of our life of modern conveniences and afforded us time in the great outdoors to relax and build memories. This particular adventure took us to Cloudland Canyon State Park on Lookout Mountain, on the border of Georgia and Tennessee, a glorious place high in the mountains with astounding stargazing at night and amazing hiking trails during the day. One day we chose to traverse the Waterfalls Trail. The sign at the trailhead read “Steep grade ahead, use caution. Stay on marked path.” That should have been my moment of truth, my opportunity to bail and choose to sit on a bench and enjoy the 1780 ft vista and await my family’s return. But I ignored the queasiness in my stomach and forged ahead with them as they vivaciously marched down the canyon on a slim, winding trail. My stomach began to ride higher into my chest, my breathing was becoming fast and bordering on gasping and my feet were becoming heavy and unsure on the many twists and turns. After we passed under an enormous rock overhang, my body halted and I literally could not take another step.
I was paralyzed with fear. Did I forget to mention, I’ve suffered from overwhelming fear of heights ever since I was a teenager? It was alive and acutely crippling on this day. As I watched my children bounding ahead and walking precariously near the rim of the steep trail, the fear gripped me to the point of panic. My husband kept telling me to look ahead, not down, and to follow his footsteps so that I would be safe and secure. The more I thought about moving forward, the stiffer I became. Moving at all in this way was sure to make me more apt to stumble. On my own steam, I could not go any further. I was at an impasse. With wisdom and child-like trust, my husband gathered our children all around me and asked each of them to lay their hands on me and to pray for all fear to cease so that I could be free to walk with joy and confidence. They did not want to leave me behind or to turn around and abandon the hike to the waterfalls. After several minutes of prayer, my breathing slowed to normal, my heart stopped racing, I unclenched my fists, and my legs relaxed. I felt a distinct release of tension in my body and my mind – so much so that I knew that I could resume the hike without fear. It was a healing miracle I claim to this day, as I can now hike steep mountains and enjoy magnificent views from heights that I could not before.
My husband and children were instruments of faith who infused the peace of Jesus into me so that I could follow the leader and enjoy the boundless beauty nature had to offer on that hike. Later that night, my husband commented that Jesus healed me and gave me sure feet to traverse the steep path with assurance. I will never forget that manifestation of God’s love for me and I am willing to continue to follow the leader on all the paths He takes me because I know He will give me strength and guidance every step of the way. I am comforted by the instruction in Matthew 7:13-14 where Jesus says: “Enter by the narrow gate, since the road that leads to destruction is wide and spacious, and many take it, but it is a narrow gate and a hard road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” As humans, we cannot find and walk this path on our own.
We need a leader, but we also need to be aware of all the people God places in our lives who provide guidance and leadership when we need it. It is part of the mystery and beauty of living in community with others in this life. If I had not yielded to the assistance of my family, I would have remained in bondage to crippling fear. I received help to navigate off the wide road of self -doubt and irrational panic that is destructive. With simple child-like trust and prayer, I was able to stay on the narrow path that led to a glorious adventure and freedom! My prayer is that each of us practices the obedience of following the leader so we can navigate the path that leads us to eternal peace. It is certain to be rough, but instruction is always available to us. We have to be humble and have child-like trust to adhere to the direction He provides.
“Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” Matt. 16:24
Susan A. Fowler was born and raised in Maryland and has been a lifelong Catholic actively involved in parish ministries for over 43 years. She has been married for 40 years, raised 6 children with her husband, and currently resides in Georgia.
Imagine four graduate students passionate about ministry and ready for new experiences. We pulled up to a ranch house in New Hampshire in August 2012 and unloaded our packed cars. Our next two years were devoted to serving in local parishes while earning our degrees in theology through the Echo Graduate Service Program.
Our first community prayer took place on the Feast of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, whose feast day we celebrate on Thursday. The translation for “Clairvaux” is “Valley of Light”; we didn’t know a great deal about Bernard, but the theme of light clicked. We were accumulating candles as welcome gifts from our parishes, so of course, it was a sign! We pieced together his biography and reflected on his dynamic writings. We asked St. Bernard to be the patron of our house and bless our time together.
St. Bernard was a monk who lived in 11th century France and became a Doctor of the Church. From an early age, he was considered devout and well-educated. The third of seven children, Bernard took a particular interest in poetry and had a special devotion to Mary. He notably authored the Memorare prayer. He became a respected abbot of what are now the Cistercians in the Diocese of Langres. Bernard is credited with naming the monastery he began Claire Vallée, in an area originally named Vallée d'Absinthe, or Valley of Bitterness. He was known for his influence among clergy and political leaders. St. Bernard died in 1153 and was canonized in 1174.
Now imagine a young family. My husband, one-year-old son, and I prepared to “hunker down” for quarantine in March 2020 in Indiana. Five months later, we are still amid a global pandemic that can feel overwhelming, oppressive, disheartening, and confusing all at once. The virus has also revealed some of the most beautiful elements of community and compassion.
While I can’t compare the virus to the challenges Bernard faced as a young adult starting a monastery with a “band of monks,” I appreciate how he held fast to the deeper purpose of Benedictine life. He cultivated habits of work, leisure, and rest while counseling his fellow monks, clergy, and politicians. COVID-19 forced me to recognize how I create space to listen and be with God both inside and outside my home, much like Bernard’s contemplative life.
Eight years ago, the patron of candlemakers introduced what it means to practice a type of “spirituality of home” where home is not only a place for living, but also one of brightness, hope, and intentionality. I can see hope daily in our little boy, doing the hokey pokey many times over, reading books, and playing chase. We intentionally set up a prayer table in our living room where we say morning and evening prayers as a family and filled walls with icons and pictures to remember who it is we say thank you to! These habits took time, but they have been a source of security in such a time of uncertainty.
I’m grateful to St. Bernard for bringing light to all the “unknowns” in our little ranch house in New England and my first home in the Midwest. He is a guide who shows us how to cultivate habits that lead to a deeper relationship with God, our true home!
Reflection Questions: How might we practice a “spirituality of home”? Where is the light in our individual “valleys of bitterness,” i.e. isolation, loss, anxiety, or despair?
Inspiration for this article came from the book Theology of Home.
If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to read Creating an Inner Monastery During the Coronavirus Pandemic.
Sophie Lorenzo is a wife and mom of a sweet little boy. She’s worked in social media marketing for a Catholic publisher, in parish ministry, and currently facilitates online theology courses. Sophie began writing for the Ad Infinitum blog while in the Echo Graduate Service Program through the University of Notre Dame where she earned an MA in Theology.
I watched her curly little head bounce away from me further down the hiking path and around a bend, out of my sight. I knew her older brothers would slow down so she could keep up with them, taking her under their wings. In the midst of a global pandemic, the woods were a safe space, open and free from the danger that seems to lurk everywhere these days. Nonetheless, my heart rate picked up along with my pace. What if a stranger was on the path? What if she fell and got hurt? I couldn’t see the path ahead, and I was afraid.
I hurried along, my anxiety increasing as my steps forward failed to lead me to a view of my children. My thoughts turned dark while the woods around me became bright. Trapped in my own head, I failed to notice the sun breaking through, filtering light through the treetops. Until—there! The sunshine reflecting off of my little girl’s sequin covered sneakers allowed me to catch a glimpse of my babies. “Red light!” I yelled, in our family shorthand for “stop-moving-your-body-immediately.” The birds scattered, startled. My children froze in place as they waited for me to catch up with them. As I knew they would be, the boys were watching closely over their little sister. Taking her by the hand, they coached her through the mud and over the fallen branches.
“See, Mama? Pretty!” my curly little girl exclaimed, joyfully depositing semi-crushed wildflowers into my hands. After rubbing her nose against mine, she joined her brothers on a moss-covered log, not registering my fear for even a moment. Exhaling a sigh of relief, I praised God in joy for great big brothers, my safe little girl, and a Father who is Light, illuminating the way.
In this season of uncertainty, I find myself living that moment on the hiking path time and again: rushing forward, afraid, unable to see what is ahead. My days are filled with research and passionate conversation about schooling, and what the right choice for our family will be this fall. We deliberate over each barbecue invitation and mourn the loss of birthday celebrations that will never come to life. Parenting in a season where change is the only constant is overwhelming.
I’m living that moment on the hiking path again: where I could not see, there was light. Though I was afraid, the Father was before me, protecting my little ones. So now, instead of remaining trapped by my thoughts, I am pursuing His power and protection. I am practicing seeking the light.
In his letter to the Colossians, St. Paul reminds us that we can live in joy even in the midst of hardship, and he shows us how: “[We are] strengthened with every power, in accord with His glorious might, for all endurance and patience, with joy giving thanks to the Father who has made you fit to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. He delivered us from the power of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom[...]”(Colossians 1:11-12).
Joy is a pursuit. By God’s great mercy, we are called out of the darkness and into the light. We are invited to share in the inheritance of the saints, if only we can pursue His power and glorious might instead of depending upon our own. When left to myself, I abandon joy for the hopelessness and despair that seems to permeate the world during this pandemic. However, when I pursue the heart of Christ, I am promised endurance and patience. I am equipped to face the reality of a sick and broken world and to remain unbroken by its weight. In His power alone, joy still abounds.
Joy is a practice. Turning hands full of crushed wildflowers to praise comes with intentionality. So: let us train ourselves to joy. When we feel the dark closing in on us, we are called to joyfully give thanks to the Father and to seek His fingerprints that so graciously mark our lives—to acknowledge His many gifts.
When the trees block our view, let us enjoy the sunshine filtering through their branches. When the path is rocky and unsure, let us acknowledge that He walks alongside us, and before us. When we suffer through sickness, hardship, and isolation, let us hope in God who has overcome suffering once and for all.
This is joy. Grace-filled moments of contentment, happiness, peace, safety, and hope that we open our eyes to experience, even in the midst of the dark. Where happiness is fleeting and circumstantial, joy is ours to keep no matter the circumstance.
Along this path I will stumble and fall. Joy will evade me as I am burdened by fear and uncertainty. But I will allow the Lord to raise me up, seeking the joy He offers me despite my skinned knees.
Like my curly girl, I choose to trust that I am not alone. I choose wildflowers and light. I chase joy.
Amy Blythe is a wife and mom to 4 children, ages 5 and under. She holds her MA in Pastoral Theology from Loyola University-Chicago and has worked in campus and high school ministry. When she isn't wrangling her little ones or writing, you can find her jogging through the countryside or on her back porch with a book. You can find Amy on Instagram @everytinyflower.
“At the school of Mary, we learn that her life is marked not by protagonism but by the capacity to enable others to be protagonists. She offers courage, teaches people to speak, and above all encourages people to live the boldness of faith and hope. In this way she becomes the transparency of the Lord’s face who shows his power by inviting and calling people to participate in building up his living temple.” – Pope Francis, Homily on the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, 2018
Such a strange thing Christ has done! He has left his mission to the baptized until he comes again in glory at the end of time. This is the part of Advent waiting that we often do not dwell on. The first half of Advent is very much focused, though, on this reality. Our waiting is not passive, but very active. We are protagonists who are called to boldly witness Christ in our lives. Bold witness in the way of Our Lady of Guadalupe, who encouraged St. Juan Diego to go forth to build not simply a physical temple in the Lord, but one that is living.
In a time of needed renewal within the Church, we turn to the Blessed Virgin Mary to be with us, but also to give us example. She did not focus on the reality of the change in her life when she heard the message of the Angel Gabriel. Instead, she rose and went “in haste” to her cousin Elizabeth to rejoice and be in solidarity with her. Elizabeth’s son, St. John the Baptist, later went forth to prepare others for the coming of the Messiah through conversion of hearts and minds to the Lord. We, too, are meant to do the same. We cannot sit back and wait for others, but need to go forth with urgency, in haste, “inviting and calling people to participate in building up his living temple.”
This inviting and calling that enables “others to be protagonists” has a name – co-responsibility. It is co-responsibility for the mission of Christ and his Church. Pope Francis invites us to “move towards a participatory and co-responsible Church, one capable of appreciating its own rich variety, gratefully accepting the contributions of the lay faithful, including young people and women, consecrated persons, as well as groups, associations and movements. No one should be excluded or exclude themselves” (Christus Vivit, 206). Therefore, may our Advent waiting not be passive, but very active in our bold witness of Emmanuel, King of the Nations and Prince of Peace!
Our Lady of Guadalupe, pray for us.
May the Charity of Christ urge us on!
Fr. Frank S. Donio, S.A.C., D.Min. is Director of the Catholic Apostolate Center.
“Jesus returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the desert for forty days, to be tempted by the devil...” - Luke 4:1-13
In each of the Church’s Liturgical Seasons we have an opportunity to examine ourselves and reflect on different aspects of Jesus’s life. During Lent we create a space to reflect on His suffering and sacrifices. In today’s Gospel reading the Spirit led Jesus into the desert. For forty days Jesus lived in the wilderness, and faced the devil’s temptations. He was tempted with pride, power, and popularity; however, Jesus knew that He was called to follow God’s will and resist the empty promises the devil offered. I find comfort that the Holy Spirit led Jesus into the trial. The forty days were meant to prepare Jesus for the work that was to come, and a part of that preparation included temptations. Jesus relied on His knowledge of the scriptures and combatted the temptations with Truth. Turning a stone into bread seems like an innocent action, but Jesus knew that the temporary satisfaction would be empty and in defiance of God’s will. Jesus understands what it means to face temptation, and in His resistance provides a model of following God’s will that we should all ascribe to. Jesus was tested, and responded without sin. When I find myself facing a trial, I can draw comfort in the knowledge that the same Holy Spirit that led Jesus into the wilderness is in me. In His resistance in the wilderness, we have a foretaste of Jesus’s victory to come. At Easter we celebrate Jesus’s victory over death; in the meantime Lent provides us with a time to fast and prepare our hearts for the inevitable temptations of the world. Lent provides us with the opportunity to spend forty days in our own “wilderness”, fortifying our own hearts through sacrifice and prayer.
Throughout Lent we focus on all that Jesus has done for us. In today's Gospel we see that Jesus resisted each temptation, not just for Himself, but for us. Each of the temptations the devil proposed were designed to distract Jesus from His humanity. Each temptation involved Jesus using His divinity for personal gain and separating Himself from the human community. The temptation of individualism is something that we are all called to resist. The Lord created us as social beings with a responsibility to care for one another.
WHO INSPIRES YOU TO SERVE?
My Mom has always been a model of service I aspire to follow. She embodies the principle of placing others first, stressing to me and my siblings that “where your treasure is your heart will also be.” Mom’s treasure is rooted in the love she has for our community, and it is important to her that she actively invests her time to show the love. It could be as simple as caring for our school garden, or as involved as organizing our Church’s homeless outreach ministry. Mom has always found a way to make time for the causes that matter to her, and in doing so has shown the importance of committing time and resources to love others in her care for all of God’s Creation.
Lord, you created us to love and worship. Help me cling to the truth that I am Yours in the midst of trials. When I walk through the valleys help me remember the joys from the mountain tops, and place my hope in the knowledge that Your will is for my good. Stir in me a heart that longs to discern Your will. Help me to work Your justice rather than personal gain every day of my life. Bless our bodies for Your service, and our service for Your Glory.
To view the entire 2019 Lenten Guide, please click here.
For more Lenten resources, please click here.
Mara Scarbrough, Bon Secours Volunteer Ministry
January, as the first month of the new calendar year, is for many people a time to start fresh. And January 2019 in particular seemed to be the month of intense home decluttering. This is probably due to the advent of the Netflix show “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo.” I have friends and relatives who had never heard of Kondo’s bestselling book before the streaming show debuted, and yet I have watched them become KonMari method adherents, filling my social media feeds with success stories about the household clutter they are donating or dumping.
Amid all this physical decluttering, I find myself wondering how often we take time to do some spiritual decluttering as well. Especially for myself—I strive to maintain a ruthless-but-not-obsessive attitude about household clutter. But do I regularly declutter my soul outside of going to confession every month or two? And when I do attempt spiritual decluttering, do I approach it with the same kind of enthusiasm about ridding my soul of the things that are holding me back from God?
In this new year’s spirit of decluttering and simplifying, we tend to think about the kinds of things in our homes that we no longer need: toys missing essential pieces, gifts we will never use but feel too guilty to donate, soccer participation trophies from third grade. But we should also think about the kinds of things that make up ‘spiritual clutter’: useless smartphone games that waste hours of our time, social media accounts that just fuel jealousy and resentment toward our peers, junk food binges that disrespect our bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit. What are the things that our minds, our bodies, or our souls cling to that do not bring us closer to God?
In Luke’s Gospel, Simon, James, and John “leave everything” to follow Christ. We also are called to leave everything and follow Christ. But what does everything mean when we live in the twenty-first century with all of its modern conveniences? We are not all called to join a mendicant order, to become cloistered nuns, or to become missionaries in the far-flung corners of the world. We still need shelter, food, clothing, and dignified work. But along with striving to make our homes oases of calm in a chaotic life, so too should we strive to make our souls oases of peace in a fallen world.
If we really stop to think about it, spiritual clutter is as ubiquitous as and more detrimental than physical clutter. Everywhere we turn, there are bad habits and ill-formed attachments that keep us from deepening our relationship with God. And just like physical clutter, spiritual clutter is a deeply personal thing. We can choose to ignore it, but—like its physical counterpart—spiritual clutter will eventually take over our lives until we dread even peeking into those areas that are the messiest and need the most work. But we must look inward in order to grapple with the things that keep us from following Christ—especially if we dread what we will discover about ourselves.
When the metaphorical pile of spiritual clutter seems insurmountable, it is good for us to remember that we are not alone in our endeavors: God is there beside us, calling us to engage with him in the sacrament of Penance, which itself is spiritual decluttering. With its thorough examination of conscience and its outpouring of God’s grace, going to confession not only absolves us of the sins that clutter our hearts, but it also bolsters us to overcome those temptations in the future. And, with God’s grace, the spiritual clutter that accumulates in our hearts will slowly begin to seem more manageable and less insurmountable, until one day we realize that the things that had once seemed to control our lives are no longer more than a passing temptation.
As the new year continues on and we declutter more of our physical homes, let us remember to give equal attention to our spiritual homes.
Question for Reflection: What are some things that are cluttering your spiritual life?
Helena Romano is the Editing Associate for the Catholic Apostolate Center.