Oh what a dangerous question: “what’s in it for me?” Am I the reason that I follow God’s will – for some big payoff? Does this payoff come only in the hereafter or if I do what God wants, do I expect some sort of down payment now, you know, just so I can be sure He’s good for it and this life of virtue is worth all the hassle. It’s a dangerous question because it begs another: who are the bounty hunters I send out if God doesn’t pay up in the way I have imagined? What end of the bargain can I let go of because He seems to be failing to hold up His? Ah yes, a dangerous question indeed. But also a very human question. The famous quote by a beloved spiritual hero, St. Theresa of Avila comes to mind “God, if this is how you treat Your friends, no wonder You have so few!” When I worked for an institution of the Catholic Church (my beloved earthly spiritual home), it sort of became my mantra…
It is a very human question because we do expect that following God’s Will will bring us some amount of earthly happiness. Not necessarily the dance-on-tables, jump-in-the-air sort of happiness, although, if it seems an appropriate reaction, don’t let me hold you back. But the deep fulfillment, peace-bearing sort of happiness – doesn’t this accompany a life of holiness? After all, Cardinal Dolan did remark at the most recent Al Smith Dinner that “Joy was the infallible sign of God’s presence.” So what’s with that? As a philosopher (does 4 years of pretending to study philosophy make me a philosopher??), nothing bothers me more than a blatant disagreement between theory and practice.
Two people with seemingly parallel stories have been very present on my mind lately. One is a friend who, during this election season, has seemed quite angry. No, that’s not an accurate description of this woman’s anger. She has boiling resentment flowing out of her every pore, and she seems to believe that through her extremely unkind words, she can, in fact, cause the lava of her rage to actually burn through the skin – and every layer underneath – of her opponents. She vehemently supports the HHS mandate that all employers – including religious institutions – provide free contraception, sterilization procedures, and abortifacients to their health beneficiaries. She is a champion of abortion on demand, of course in the name of “women’s rights,” and she believes that abortion is above all necessary in the case of rape, the children conceived in which do not seem to fit under her umbrella of tolerance. She wholeheartedly believes that these practices are the great equalizer on the corporate playing field and the true savior of women. She identifies as a Catholic, which, of course, makes me wince – not twitch with just an eyebrow, but truly wince – with every fiber of my being. I sometimes wonder where these misleading notions came from. Where is the source of her anger? Perhaps it’s just that the popular social networking site through which the vast majority of our interactions take place is a sounding board for her anger, and what I see is disproportionately represented to the amount of anger she amasses in reality. I truly hope so.
The other is a woman I met during a presentation I gave on Natural Family Planning at Yale last year. She came up to me and shared perhaps the most moving testimony I have ever heard. I can’t lie, that when she first approached me, I expected her to sucker punch me – at least verbally – for the ridiculous claims that I made against the use of artificial birth control (an argument for a different post). I have become a bit paranoid, leaning toward the “I’m a martyr for the cause” side of crazy, as I have spoken more openly about my beliefs and received quite a bit of hostility from the outspoken minority of listeners. I was so very wrong. She shared with me her story, and it is one I will never forget. If anyone, anywhere, has reason to be angry, this woman does. She was sexually abused as a child, and because of that, she spent a good portion of her adult life trying to work through the psychological and emotional wounds that had been inflicted on her. She married late in life, and, when they wanted but were unable to conceive a child, they consulted Natural Family Planning as a method of increasing their chances of doing so. Ultimately, she said, they were unable to conceive, but she told me that learning NFP was the single greatest step she ever took in her recovery from the abuse because taught her, more than just if and when she was fertile, that her body was beautiful, that it was, in fact, mysteriously and awesomely designed and intended by God, and that it was good. What a beautiful testimony, and what an incredible testament to the love of God that is constantly woven through our lives. She exuded peace, she was incredibly graceful, and her strength and bravery I could not begin to describe. How beautiful that God was just waiting to give her this gift of peace, if she would only be patient, if she would only seek His will. She could have pursued any number of coping mechanisms for her abuse: alcohol, promiscuity, further abuse – and who could ever blame her? She could have taken her fate in her own hands and turned to IVF to conceive a child, rather than trying NFP, which requires more trust and patience. But she had immense faith in God, and He did not disappoint.
I wish, for the sake of the first, that I could introduce these two women. I wish that my friend who has so much pain could see the peace that flows from following the will of God, which this woman has not only found, but now embodies. I hope she finds it.
I do love that quote about joy from Cardinal Dolan, and I couldn’t agree more that it is, in fact, the “infallible sign of God’s presence,” but I think they key is realizing that joy is a gift from God, and it’s going to come in the way and at the hour that HE deems it appropriate, not when we demand it… or send out our bounty hunters after Him. Just like the hesitant believers at the time of Jesus, who were a bit shocked, and I’m sure rather disappointed, to find out that He was not the political conqueror or earthly king that they had imagined for so long, we need to open our hearts to receive the joy of Christ and stop hunting down what we think it should be. Or those who struggle to accept the notion of transubstantiation in the Eucharist, who are looking for the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus Christ, and instead, find what they think to be a mere morsel of bread. He has always revealed Himself in the way He knew in His wisdom to be the most appropriate. At first glance, He strangely seems to disappoint, but when we look with the eyes of faith, we find so much more than even our wildest dreams could contain. When we have the… dare I say… patience (the one virtue I refuse to pray for because I dislike the way in which God prefers to teach it) to experience His love in the way that He desires us to have it, yes, then, and only then, will true happiness – a happiness beyond our imagination – come as a benefit of following God’s Will.