I wrote this awhile ago and have not published it, because, well, it bares all, and that is hard. I keep coming back to it though, and some of the recent comments made by Pope Francis during an interview speak so loudly to me on this issue. Many of his words deeply touched my soul and instilled in me an even greater desire for a stronger conversion in love and compassion. Like our Holy Father, I stand firmly with Holy Mother Church and embrace all that She teaches, but my approach to living out the faith and sharing it with others is in desperate need of change. My Papa is speaking and I am trying to listen.
When I came into the Church I was attracted to the love. I witnessed a love in people that I had never seen before. It was so intense that at first I thought it was fake. There was a woman at my RCIA classes, who was overflowing with the love of Jesus. Her eyes were shining with His love. She gave her testimony one night, speaking of her love not only for Jesus, but also for His mother. I had never before heard anyone speak about God in the way she spoke, filled with so much emotion and love. I was intrigued by her, but highly skeptical. On the way home, I decided it was time to call the bluff. I shared my suspicions with my husband, telling him that I really didn't think anyone actually LOVED Jesus like THAT. His response was silence. I continued, "I mean, YOU don't love Him like that, do you?" His reply was soft. He nodded and whispered, "Yeah, I do." I can pinpoint that exact moment as one of the most pivotal moments of my conversion. It was the moment when I realized I was missing something hugely essential in my life. I began taking my RCIA classes much more seriously. I listened when the lead catechist advised us to "pray for a desire to love Him." I listened and began doing everything she suggested. I prayed, I opened my heart, and He poured Himself in. After a few months I knew first hand that the woman with love in her eyes was 100% sincere, and I was completely amazed at what God had done in my own heart in following the advice of the lead catechist. I am forever grateful for the witness both of these women gave me as I was coming into the Church.
I am also thankful for the warm welcome I received not only after my conversion and during my conversion, but most importantly before my conversion. I had been in plenty of Catholic churches pre-conversion and always felt like I didn't belong, like I wasn't welcome. I felt ashamed of who I was, not because I realized all the things I was doing that were against Church Teaching (I had no clue), but because I got the feeling that I was not welcome there simply because I was not Catholic/different. I felt like this in every single Catholic church I had been in, with the exception of the one in which I eventually ended up receiving my first Sacraments in. No one gave me a sour look when I remained in my pew at Holy Communion. People smiled at me, even though I fumbled through most of the Catholic gestures of the Mass. People were welcoming. To top it off I went to the mail box one afternoon and found a card addressed to me. It was an invitation to check out the RCIA. An invitation sent out to all the non-Catholic spouses in the parish. Wow, not only did they not dislike me because I wasn't Catholic, they actually WANTED me to consider joining them in their faith. I took the bait, and here I am!
At first the same love that attracted me to the faith, filled my own heart, and I wanted to share. Unfortunately, as time went on my faith sharing transformed from "I'm telling you this because I love you, and want you to experience what I am experiencing (God's love)" to "if you aren't practicing the Catholic faith in the way that I think you should be, than I am not going to hang around you." I began to think of my little circle of friends as "the ones who had it", and forgot about where I had come from. I didn't take the time to remember all the warmth given to me in those welcoming smiles. Smiles freely given in His love, even though they knew I was breaking so many rules. They had patience with me and waited for Him to change my heart. We are blessed to belong to a very, very, solid parish, and I would venture to guess that the majority of the parishioners there are daily striving to follow every single teaching of Holy Mother Church to the best of their ability. We are also blessed with a group of friends outside of our parish community who do the same. All of this made it fairly easy for me to cut ties with most of my "outside of Church" connections. Everything worked well for quite a few years. The problem reared its ugly head when I couldn't live up to my own standards. When I started asking more out of myself than even God, Himself, was asking. I had forgotten that He is not asking me to be perfect. What He IS asking for is permission to perfect me Himself. I had forgotten that all I need to do is open my heart, and HE will do the work. All I could see was my sinfulness and an illusion of perfection in all those surrounding me. I had forgotten that we are ALL sinners, and began to believe I was the only sinner in the midst of holy perfection.
It took hitting rock bottom spiritually for me to be awakened to this monster that my own pride had created. I was in despair. I found myself on the verge of throwing in the towel, spiritually. The devil constantly whispered in my ear, "You're not going to make it." "Who are YOU trying to be?" "You aren't going to make it, you are going to hell." Why was I entertaining this conversation? Well, let's see. At the time I thought I was failing because I wasn't doing all the "super holy" things I had done in the past. I wasn't going to daily Mass anymore (by the way there is nothing better than daily Mass, but I just can't manage it right now). I was very frequently skipping my daily rosary. I wasn't "feeling" it. This went on until I one day last fall when I entered the church where I had received my first Confession. Upon entering the church I experienced the most wonderful thing. I was immersed in that feeling of love that I had been missing for so long. It hit me in a powerful way and I was so saddened because I had not felt it in so long, and it brought back so many wonderful memories of my conversion. I went to Confession there and was reminded that our faith is not about completing a checklist of daily devotions, but rather praying with our whole heart. One really, really well prayed rosary is much better than a half-hearted daily rosary prayed just to check it off the list. I have held these words in my heart for almost a year now. What those words have done for me is remind me of why I started praying the rosary in the first place. Out of love. I knew it was pleasing to Our Lord and His Mother, and I wanted to do it for that reason. What my devotion developed into was one not out of love, but out of fear. I began to fear that if I didn't pray that rosary, I was not going to make it. After my confession experience I slowly began to find glimpses of joy in praying that rosary again. I no longer had this huge weight of guilt and fear on my shoulders. I was doing it out of love again, not out of a fear of going to hell if I didn't.
I also began to see clearly just how toxic my expectations for myself and those around me were. I desperately longed for those early days of my conversion when I felt joy and love in my heart, rather than fear, shame, and disappointment. I knew something was missing, but I couldn't figure out what. I went back through my memories of those early days and asked myself what was different. What did I have then, that I don't have now? The first response was love. The fire of love in my heart was gone. Fear had smothered it. The second was humility. When I entered the Church I knew I was a HUGE sinner, and guess what, I still felt loved. I felt so, so, so loved. I could lay in bed at night and literally feel God's love as I drifted off to sleep. I owned, and in a way embraced my sinfulness, because it made me dependent upon His great Mercy for me. I knew how much I needed Him and I appreciated all He had done, and was continuing to do, for me. I knew He loved me. As I grew in my faith, my pride grew with me. I began to believe that because I was still inclined to a large number of sins, that God did not love me anymore. I told myself I did not deserve His mercy, and He wouldn't want to give it to me anyway. Lies, piled upon lies, in my head.
The blinders are slowly being removed. I am once again rejoicing in His mercy and am much easier on myself. I have also spent a good deal of time thinking about how my expectations may have affected those around me. How many people who were lost did I send a warm smile to during those years? Not many. How many felt judged by me, even if I had no intentions of judging? Probably countless. How many times did people see me and think, "Wow, I should really check out the Catholic faith?" Zero. I was so consumed with reaching some unattainable level of holiness (on my own), that I forgot to reach out to myself, and to others, with that same warmth and love that brought me to Him in the first place. I forgot that the only thing I needed to do to start moving in the right direction is depend on Him, rather than myself to move me.
Following all the rules and devotions, means nothing without the love. I wanted everyone to be Catholic, but did not give anyone any reason to want to be Catholic. In a crowd of non-practicing Catholics you might find me sitting with a frown of discomfort on my face, because maybe someone might use the Lord's name in vain. Or maybe they might mention what contraceptive they were using. I was a crab. No one frowned at me or pouted around me when I was coming into the Church as a contracepting, Lord's name in vain using, big, fat, gigantic sinner. So why on earth was I not reaching out to people with the same love and patience I was shown? As the love returns to my heart I am finding a love growing for myself as well as for those who are not in that same little box as me. People already know where I stand on the issues of the Church. I no longer feel the need to shove it down their throats, or pout when they don't do back flips (like my heart did) when they hear the Good News. None of this is going to show them His love. They need what I needed (and still need), and that is simply to SEE HIS love.
I think Casting Crowns is on to something. This song is not saying that we should adopt an attitude of moral relativism, or that Jesus doesn't mind our sins as the title might suggest. Instead, it argues that we should live the faith showing His love to those who don't know Him, rather than closing our doors to them. Check out another powerful song from Casting Crowns . The message of being open to those who aren't exactly on the same page as us, is speaking so loudly to my heart. I was that girl, and I THANK GOD really, really, holy people reached out to me and allowed my ugly sinfulness into their presence. I have also been those who ignore the girl or even the woman who pulls her daughter closer to protect her from just walking past the girl. I am much more ashamed for having been the woman, than I am for having been the girl. Jesus, meek and humble of heart, make my heart like unto Thine. Fill me with your love so I can give it to others, in the same way it was given to me!