Credits and Love


Prophet Joel, Korovniki Church (c. 1654, Yaroslavl)

I wrote here a few months ago about strategizing to be more charitable in certain difficult relationships in my life. This exercise came with some tough realizations about my approach to loving. I realized that I often approached charity as though there were some kind of credit system. “Look, I spent time listening to your problems yesterday, so today that means you need to leave me alone.” Or, “I went out of my way to be kind to you earlier this week. Doesn’t that mean I get a free pass now?” To use another analogy, I was looking at relationships as though they were on a weekly (or even monthly) chore chart. Plan a dinner: check. Catch up on problems: check. Friendship confirmed, time to check out for a few weeks.

I came to realize how ridiculous this approach was when I thought about what it would be like if I tried to do the same thing with my prayer requirements for the Third Order. You can’t just sit down and say the entire week’s worth of Evening Prayers on Sunday to get them out of the way! It wouldn’t make any sense; the purpose of prayer according to the Rule is to help the Dominican “pray always,” and by having certain set times for prayer, we remember the importance of praying throughout the day.

In the same way, looking at love through the lens of building up credits is completely misguided. It leads you down a path that culminates in the lie that you can earn love through specific actions, and that you can cash in your “credits” for complacency in your relationship. It adds to our tendency to simply get people “off our backs” or “out of the way.” But people–as complicated and messy as this might make our lives–are not tasks. If we aren’t doing our best to be present to a person in the moments that we have with them, we’ve lost. It doesn’t really matter, at the moment I blow someone off, how nice I was to them the day before. Wouldn’t it be terrible, for example, if the day after a romantic Valentine’s Day dinner your partner was completely rude to you? Would the dinner the night before lessen the pain of being hurt by them the next day?

And the same goes for God. Religion is not a gym where you put in your hours and get a certain amount of payoff. It doesn’t make sense to say, “Well, I went to two holy hours last week so I won’t go to one this week.” There may be limits on your time this week because of the extra time you spent at church the previous week–fine, that is totally valid in my opinion. But it’s not that you got the holy hour “out of the way early.” The time you spend loving God today is going to be unique. The present moment is all we can give God, as I have written about before.

The Ash Wednesday liturgy contains my favorite scripture verses from the prophet Joel: “Even now, says the Lord, return to me with your whole heart.” That phrase “even now” has meant different things to me over the years… “even now” when you are struggling in your faith, “even now” when you keep falling into sin. Today the “even now” meant “even now,” when you are feeling a time of stability, of growth, of renewal… do not forget to rely always on Me.


The Magdalene

“Mary, do not weep; the Lord is risen from the dead.”
-Responsory, Liturgy of the Hours for Memorial of St. Mary Magdalene

What is the proper response to our own sinfulness? Penance, sorrow, and ultimately, a re-commitment to love: the Magdalene shows us this. She who loved much because she was forgiven much (cf. Luke 7:47) realizes that a disciple’s response to sin is not be scandalized, not to give up, and not to sit dumbfounded by one’s own lack of perfection. She knows this because she was given the privilege of being the first person at the Lord’s tomb. When she wept because all seemed lost, she was told to stop crying. “Do not be afraid, for I have conquered the world,” our Lord tells us (John 16:33). And yet we are often deeply distressed that we do not live up to our expectations of ourselves. We take pride of the image of ourselves that we would like to cultivate, and this image becomes our god.

Reflect instead on the Magdalene. She had no reputation to worry about, because hers was already destroyed. None of the holy men at the time regarded her as anything more than a sinful woman. All she had was Christ, and she was willing to appear foolish for him, to commit luxurious acts of love, to run to his disciples and tell them Her Lord was alive even when they were completely incredulous. Rather than priding ourselves on our own righteousness, why don’t we assume the position of Mary Magdalene, admitting our sinfulness and complete reliance on God’s mercy to get through the day?

St. Mary Magdalene, pray for us, that we may grow in humility, and that we may not be afraid to appear foolish in the eyes of the world in our zeal for God.

Some Jumbled Thoughts

I’m stealing from Fr. Walter again, but only because his homily this morning was fantastic. He drew a parallel between today’s first reading from Acts (Philip with the Ethiopian eunuch) and the story of Emmaus. Those who preach the Word come, interpret Scripture, interpret lives, celebrate Sacraments, and then leave. Because today is a remembrance of Our Lady’s patronage over the Order of Preachers, he talked about how all branches of the Dominican family must be both “available and free”–available to those around them, but detached, ready to go wherever the Spirit takes them.

After being a New Yorker for nearly 8 years, I’ve gotten pretty used to the transient life. It’s May, which means people find out about next steps, and at least 5 friends will be leaving town before summer’s over. I like to think I’m good at letting go. But several happenings this week–a friend starting a relationship, a gossipy squabble–made me realize how possessive I am as my life as it is, of my friends, of relationships that may or may not match in reality what they stand for in my head.

One of the biggest struggles I face is–what does detachment look like for a layperson? How radically can I live the Gospel without going on the road and becoming an itinerant preacher? When am I practicing detachment, and when am I just scared to put down roots in a situation, a place, a person?

I’m having difficulty coming up with the answers just now. Faith is a journey toward a greater alignment of one’s life with one’s beliefs, and this process can feel incredibly slow. We need to keep in mind that we’re not the ones who effect the change. I desperately want to move, like Philip, where the Spirit wills me, and so I must ready myself in small things, in the day-to-day, in the present.

Perseverance as Adventure

This morning Fr. Walter preached on this theme: perseverance as adventure. If divorce from our state in life, once we are bound to it, is unacceptable, then we must face the people God has given us to deal with as they change us and force us to grow. And what will these relationships have in store for us? In what ways will we be different on the other side? This is, I believe, where the element of adventure comes in–not that it is always exciting, but that it is always something risked.

And what about those of us who lack solemn commitments? I do not know that life is any less adventurous if we are committed to the moment and to a deep love of those around us, whoever they may be. Last night at my formation meeting for the Third Order, we spoke of the Dominican understanding of prayer (as it differs from, say, Carmelite and Ignatian) as an opening oneself to a God who is immediately present, even in your very soul. And so, perhaps, for those of us who feel like we’re playing the waiting game, or have some deep source of discontent, it is time to allow ourselves to be joyful in the Lord and to allow ourselves to be found by him. Anxiety is endless and consuming; it never stops feeding upon its prey but instead creates more and more to devour. Renounce it! Instead, fall in love with people again, and fall in love with God again. Let your life be adventurous; take on risk! I think that by admitting the possibility of risk–admitting that I cannot lay out a plan for my life or my relationships–we give God space to work and we let him out of the box to which our minds have confined him.

There Is No Time to Waste

ImageIt is a standing lesson to Christian souls that the amount and endurance of their work depends far more upon the character which they have previously formed than on the years of labour that they put into life. Patiently, quietly should a man fashion and temper that sole real tool with which all that he does is finally achieved. The only thing or person on which he can always depend is himself; on himself then, above all, must he concentrate. The preacher, the organiser, the administrator, is such in virtue of his own soul; because he has learnt to control himself, he can hope to control others; because he can set in order the household of his heart, he may dream of arranging in due and precise relation the affairs and the work of others; only if he has found the way to God can he dare venture to lead others in the same pathway since only he knows whither it leads. Only a man who has built carefully his character may hope one day to build the world “nearer to the heart’s desire.”-Bede Jarrett, O.P., Life of St. Dominic

We are constantly being formed. The hidden years of our life are just as important as the public ones, although it certainly doesn’t feel that way. The waiting takes on a desperate tone. That same question I mentioned before–when will my life begin?–is a false one. Without the patient and quiet (I love that Jarrett uses these two simple, perfect words) years of work, we will not be ready for the big events when they arrive. Especially in this liturgical season we think about preparedness. “We know that all creation is groaning in labor pains even until now,” says Paul in his letter to the Romans, but the time of waiting precedes a time of “the redemption of our bodies” (8:22-23). If we prepare our hearts for God, if we prepare a place for Him to be born within us, we are preparing for all else that life throws at us. We need neither to live in dread nor tap our feet impatiently. Every moment we are given is for preparation, is for self-immolation and Christ-growing-greater.

Veni, Domine Jesu! Rule over our hearts, silence our fears, and lead us, trembling and balking, to the manger, to the place where we find you, where you sweetly wait.