I first started attending mass at a time in my life when I felt that modern society had utterly failed me. By all accounts, I had lived an extremely successful life up to that point, making all the widely accepted ‘responsible’ decisions and striking out on my own. I was a well educated, fiercely independent young woman embarking on a lucrative career in a STEM field. However, in addition to graduating with a fancy engineering degree and a job in the steel industry I also tasted real regret for the first time over decisions which society continued to assure me were perfectly smart and reasonable.
We’re all only human, ignorant and error prone and I’m no exception. But having been raised by two intelligent and amazingly supportive parents, there were some lessons I was convinced I’d never have to learn the hard way. I thought I was smart enough not to make certain mistakes, particularly when it came to dating. I did everything right by cultural standards and had a good life but was still very far from the person I wanted to be.
After months of genuine scrutiny of my core beliefs, I began to reorient my life in accordance with Catholic teachings although that was hardly my goal at the time. It was the beauty of the church’s stance on marriage which first struck my fancy. In a world of ‘good enough for now’ and ‘let’s see how it goes’ I was completely enamored by the idea that two people could love and trust each other enough to wait for each other and the sacramental bond of marriage. People are so impatient these days and chastity is such an unpopular virtue on a college campus.
That isn’t to say that I didn’t have solid role models in my life when it came to marriage. My parents are two of the most in love people I’ve ever met. But finding that one person to spend the rest of your life with is a tricky business, especially when the dating pool is full of people who are convinced that marriage is just a piece of paper. I once heard a newly engaged coworker say “you wouldn’t buy a car without test driving it first,” referencing her relationship with her fiance. At the time I had no intelligent argument to offer except that people are not cars. They are not objects to be used and abused for your pleasure even if they’re willing to consent to such treatment on the grounds that it’s mutual.
As previously stated, Catholic marriage is a sacrament, one in which you vow to each other and to God to die to yourself everyday for the good of your spouse. The ultimate goal is to ensure that your husband or wife enters the Kingdom of Heaven. The sexual embrace is a renewing of those vows and thus ought to be reserved only for marriage. Obviously you should be choosy when selecting your spouse and you both need to be generally compatible but you don’t have to sleep together to figure that out. There are many far more telling judges of a person’s character than their ability to please in the bedroom. Their ability to keep their hands to themself as they wait in anticipation for marriage is a perfect example.
Having recently been married, I can happily attest that there is no greater feeling than knowing with absolute and total certainty that my husband and I are madly in love for all the right reasons. He doesn’t just attend to my everyday physical and emotional needs as a loving, doting husband. He cares about my soul. It was a very happy day in my life when I discovered that it’s possible to love and be loved that much.
I attended a theology uncorked event recently where the associate pastor gave a presentation on the Eucharist. His talk was full of calls to live our faith in small everyday ways and to embrace all doctrines of the Catholic church. This was truly more of a plea than a demand as he cited studies showing an overwhelming majority of Catholics do not believe in the real presence. How can this be?
Along my journey to faith terms like ‘benchwarmers’ and ‘piecemeal Catholics’ came up. There will always be those who struggle to practice what they preach or see fit to only follow certain teachings of the faith which they find most to their liking. But when did they become the rule instead of the exception?
How can we help them? As a member of several ministries within our parish and as a newly devout Catholic myself I’ve been asking this question a lot lately. Sometimes I still struggle to find the balance between being pious and preachy and being a loving disciple of Christ. Of course everyone must accept Christ’s teachings in their own time and of their own free will. We can’t force people to believe in the real presence at mass. But as Catholics we are called to love our neighbors which includes spreading God’s word and love and speaking up when we see our brothers and sisters going wrong in their faith.
Through transubstantiation, the consecrated host and wine at mass truly become the body and blood of Christ. As the associate pastor reminded us, we do not go to mass for the music or the aesthetic or even the homily. All of these things help us to worship and praise God but they are not the purpose of the Catholic mass. We attend church every Sunday to receive Christ through the Holy Eucharist. We become living hosts of God and subject to all the graces which come with that.
Mass is not simply an empty routine to fill an hour every Sunday. Mass is where we go to worship God. Whether we enjoy the homily or are pleased with the choir’s performance, we always receive Christ.
In every parish I visit there seems to be a huge emphasis on attracting new young Catholics to the faith. It’s no surprise. They are the future of the church and are desperately needed. However, nearly every appeal to these young people that I’ve witnessed has been a play on modern pop culture and precisely the opposite of what drew me to the faith as a 21 year old fresh out of college.
It wasn’t the rocking drums and electric bass from our parish Life Teen band that I found so enticing. Although those musicians are certainly talented and their music is something that I still enjoy in the car on my way to work, it is at odds with the quiet, reverent beauty to be found inside a Catholic church. I wasn’t starved for pop culture. I was desperate for holiness, peace and Christ in my life, even before I consciously accepted that fact.
The moments which ignited my faith were all moments of quiet reflection. The first of these came during an advent vespers service led by our former associate priest. It was an eye-opening experience which I will never forget. The sanctuary was completely dark except for the altar which was ablaze with the warm flickering glow of dozens of candles. The entire service was conducted in a reverent silence broken only by the sweet tenor of the associate priest as he guided the assembly in musical hymns at the beginning of the service.After group prayer was finished there was a time of silent prayer for parishioners to light candles in front of the altar for their own prayer intentions.
In that darkened, quiet sanctuary I finally felt the presence of God. I consciously accepted Catholic teachings very early in my faith journey but it took a bit longer for my heart to catch up. I understood these teachings to be true months before emotionally investing in them. This advent vespers service was the first time that I truly felt the presence of the Holy Spirit.
Everyone is so quick to fill the silence these days. There seems to be a persistent assumption that we can’t possibly focus in absolute quiet and that we must fill every waking moment with noise, in particular, the hip guitar music that all those young folks are so fond of but if we are constantly surrounded by all of this noise and activity, how then will we hear the voice of God when he speaks to us? We need peace in our lives, the kind of peace that only silent and sincere prayer can bring. We grow up learning how to clap in time to our favorite tunes. What we need now is to learn to stop and listen. Church isn’t where we come to be moved by the music. It’s where we come to be moved by Christ.
Many people of faith are fond of this phrase when touting the benefits of sincere prayer and I count myself among them. Life is full of metaphorical mountains which God helps us to conquer through small, everyday miracles. However, in my case, the phrase can be interpreted a bit more literally. Obviously the mountains didn’t actually move but they did move in relation to me when I picked up my life in Colorado and relocated to the Midwest for an engineering job.
Every time I take a stroll down memory lane and examine all of the choices and happenings in my life up to this point I’m freshly amazed that I landed here; successful, married, in love and just as surrounded by joy and family as I have ever been. Had I chosen any other career I likely would never have left Colorado. Had I refused an internship in Indiana during my Junior summer of college I would never have been offered a full time position here. I wouldn’t have moved halfway across the country away from all of my friends and family and my beloved Rocky Mountains. I probably wouldn’t have had time or cause to seriously consider my core beliefs as a newly graduated and totally independent 21 year old and in turn would not have sought answers in the Catholic church. I wouldn’t have embarked on my journey to faith and I certainly wouldn’t have unknowingly caught the eye of my husband during my Easter baptism as an adult.
It was that move away from the mountains that shaped the beautiful life I’m living today. Despite my agnostic upbringing, God was always there in every decision I made, guiding me closer to Him. Of course I would have loved to have met my husband years before I did and maximize our time together on Earth but upon reflection, everything happened just the way it was supposed to. It’s very unlikely that we could have connected any sooner than we did and even if we had, I wouldn’t have been the faithful Catholic that I needed to be for my husband.
Finding God in my search for the perfect spouse was the very last thing I expected but it truly couldn’t have happened any other way. There were no cataclysmic earthquakes or rearranging of continents but every day that I wake up next to my best friend I’m reminded of exactly what God can do; how the mountains moved for me when He brought love into my life.
Finding the love of your life is something that nearly everyone on the planet struggles with at some point. After one too many failed romances or long bouts of no romance at all, it feels like there are no good options left. It’s a difficult cross for anyone to bear and not one that is made easier by society.
For those wishing to escape today’s hookup culture the alternative is almost as bleak though it usually doesn’t seem that way at the time. I never had any interest in dating around. I hated the idea of having many boyfriends throughout my life and wished only to find one who would eventually become my husband. I suspect that many people have a similar outlook. However, we’ve been conditioned to keep our long term romantic goals to ourselves until we feel we’ve achieved a sufficient level of emotional closeness with the other person for fear of scaring them off or perhaps ending up stuck with the wrong person. We don’t want to come across as too hasty or pushy and this is where I feel our culture has failed us.
We live in a society of “let’s see how it goes.” It’s common and even expected in many cases to date someone for years in order to discover every little thing about them that might be a barrier to eventual marital vows. But at what point do you pull the trigger? When do you wake up and decide that you’ve seen and learned enough? In the game of “let’s see how it goes” it’s more than likely that one person in the relationship is ready to go to the altar and say “I do” while the other is still just having fun and wondering if something better might yet come along. Some will call me old fashioned but, in my opinion, dating is a waste of time. After investing years of your life and some degree of emotional and physical intimacy into a relationship it’s unlikely that you’ll be willing to simply walk away upon discovering that their dreams don’t align with yours.
If at any point in the relationship you don’t feel that you can have a frank and honest conversation about your marriage goals, you shouldn’t be with that person. But if dating is a waste of time, how then do you attract your future spouse? The answer; through proper courtship. In this arrangement it is mutually understood and agreed upon in the early days of the relationship that marriage is the intent and that certain intimate activities are to be saved for after the wedding. For many people this sounds like a stuffy practice and a giant step backward in human history.
However, the reality is that it actually opens the door to true romance while alleviating any confusion about where you stand with potential suitors. It forces both parties to be original and genuine in wooing the other. There’s no added awkwardness which comes with trying to decide how soon is too soon to sleep together. You’re not in it simply to wear the other person down enough that they’ll agree to be intimate. In fact, the opposite is true. From the start of the relationship you begin to develop a team mentality as you both work together and help each other to stay chaste, something that becomes increasingly difficult as feelings grow. You have to get creative and be very deliberate about how you show affection for one another. If you both fully dedicate yourselves to this kind of relationship, you’ll arrive at your wedding with a mile long list of things you love to do together outside the bedroom and you’ll be thrilled to death at the prospect of spending the rest of your life with your best friend.
Of course, there’s no single path to true love. I know many happily married couples who didn’t take this courting approach in their early days. It’s not the only way to cultivate a healthy relationship and it’s certainly no guarantee that your next first date will lead to marital vows. However, it does cut away all that wasted time spent dating people who don’t share your values. In my experience, courtship is the surest way to start a heart-stopping, wholesome, old-timey, life long romance and friendship.
It seems that in the current society of pride and coexistence, skepticism for traditional marriage has reached an all time high. It is commonplace to cohabitate for two to five years before even broaching the subject of life long love and commitment. People say that ‘it’s just a piece of paper’ and ‘most marriages end in divorce anyway’ as excuses to not strive for a successful one. Much like having children, marriage is so often likened to a jail sentence.
Of course any legal contract is only as binding as the two parties which have committed to it but that’s not what God intended for this blessed sacrament. In order to encounter the bliss of God’s work through marriage, one question must be answered.
What is the goal of marriage?
The goal of marriage is NOT to have fun or to have financial security. It’s not even to be happy (you or your spouse). All of these things are byproducts of marriage but when boiled down to its core, the goal of marriage is to get your spouse into Heaven. Marriage is constant sacrifice and service but also, I believe, the closest we can get to Heaven on Earth. If you are truly, sacramentally married you can always rest easy knowing that there is a human being out there in the world who has made it their mission in life to ensure your soul enters the Kingdom of God.
I spent most of my life believing that the secret to happiness was to lead a life of no regret and fully dedicated myself to that cause. There is a lesson to be learned from every mistake and I’ve made plenty of those. I explained away each and every one of them by extracting a nugget of truth from the experience and carrying it with me through all of my endeavors. This is a useful practice and I highly recommend it to maintain a solution oriented lifestyle.
However, a life of no regret is not necessarily a life without sin. I was convinced that guilt was a useless emotion. So long as I learned from my blunders I felt free to move on from them. In this way I often successfully refused to acknowledge any shame I might feel for those things that I wish I’d done differently.
It wasn’t until I became Catholic that I realized the error in my thinking. Everyone knows that the first step to solving a problem is admitting that you have one. This was the critical missing piece of the puzzle that only Catholic reconciliation could drive home to me.
Even after fully embarking on my journey to faith, I questioned the merits of Catholic confession. I’m no saint but I always considered myself a generally intelligent, compassionate, good person and God is all knowing. He knows my heart. Why then would I have to divulge my wrongdoings to some priest who may or may not know me when I could simply offer my sins directly to God?
The first answer is the simplest one. During confession the priest acts in persona Christi. In Latin this means that he is acting “in the person of Christ.” By confessing my sins to him I am confessing directly to Christ and God himself. However, this only answers part of the question. It gives the ‘how’ but I still wondered why.
It’s easy enough to doll out the words “I’m sorry” when we know we’ve made a mistake or as a means of avoiding conflict. They can even become automatic in an effort to be polite to those around us. But in order to truly be absolved of our sins we must first feel remorse for them. A hurried apology on our way to the next activity doesn’t cut it when seeking God’s forgiveness. The act of sincerely seeking atonement for our wrongs helps us to be worthy to receive it. Thus I discovered the use for guilt. Only when we grasp the weight of our mistakes are we properly motivated to seek forgiveness and to strive to do better.
But even a sincere apology to God Himself does not absolve us of our sins. Catholic reconciliation is not complete until we have performed a penance. We offer some action of atonement to God in reparation for our sins. It is an assurance of our commitment to turn away from sin in the future and turn instead toward God in all things. We’re only human after all, flawed and fallen and ever seeking God’s grace. In the blessed sacrament of reconciliation and all other sacraments that we celebrate in the Catholic church, we can be granted that grace on Earth.
I’ve never been so motivated to better myself than when I first allowed regret to color my life. In many ways I did a complete 180, upending the status quo and rewriting my core views of the world. I’ve also never been so relieved and full of joy as I was when I finally realized how God is divinely merciful, loving and forgiving us in all of our brokenness, including mine. We aren’t meant to wallow in shame but we are meant to feel it and to do something about it.
He noticed me for the first time during the Easter Vigil mass where I was receiving my sacraments of initiation; Baptism, Confirmation and First Eucharist. Nervous and preoccupied at the time, I had no idea that my future husband was there with his family watching as I entered the Catholic faith. He spent the next three weeks asking around about me at church until we finally connected on a Catholic dating site.
Once again, God was helping us along. I’d previously given up on online dating altogether but decided to give it one more try. Five minutes after posting my profile he messaged asking about my upbringing in Colorado. He’d clearly read the profile. Many texts and 3-hour phone calls later, he asked if we could catch mass and lunch at a local burger joint. He was a man with a plan. We met for the first time for Pentecost Mass. Afterward, we lost track of time while enjoying the sights and flavors of downtown Valpo. Who could have guessed that an Easter baptism would mean having a date to church every Sunday for the rest of my life?