Monday, November 16, 2009

Reflections on the Crucifixion

Dying on a cross isn't exactly a "joyful" situation. Christ, in his suffering and death, must not have experienced the kind of happiness that we all seek in our lives: comforts, contentment, fulfillment, a euphoric feeling (however fleeting)- the list of adjectives could go on. Jesus' human nature was screaming out against the crucifixion- against the pain, suffering, humiliation, and ultimately, death. But- we ask ourselves- what was it all for?

For us.

For every sinner who has ever lived and will ever live. For the redemption of the human race, of us, the adopted sons and daughters of God the Father, Jesus' own brothers and sisters- so that what was broken could be made whole again and so that we could have life and have it abundantly.

So he resigned himself, willingly, to death, so that we might have eternal life. For God so loved the world, John tells us, that He gave His only beloved son. Love. Doesn't it always come back to love? We are created to love, called to love, to be perfect in love, and to die in love. Jesus wasn't happy or joyful in the eyes of the world. But how must he have felt to know that it was for us, who he loved so very much? He loved us to the end.

Similarly, our lives aren't always pleasant, fun, comfortable, and we may not always feel happy. But, we ask ourselves, if our God was able to suffer and die for us, how should we approach the trials of our own lives? Not necessarily jumping for joy, but with a deep contentment that comes from a total acceptance of God's will. Would that we, like Mary, could say, "Thy will be done," and accept, like the Blessed Mother, all the things that God asks from us, as she accepted the death of her only son. Because, really, this life, this confusing and often painful life, doesn't last forever. Christ lay in the tomb for three days before his resurrection and Mary never lost hope. We must never despair and always hope in Christ, and keep our eyes on our resurrection and our heavenly home where we, God willing, will be truly, deeply, and completely happy.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Support a Catholic Speaker Month: Father Dave Pivonka, TOR

The first time I ever saw Father Dave Pivonka, TOR, I was a junior in high school and surrounded by two thousand screaming, sweaty teenagers in a gigantic white tent in a small town outside of Boston. It was 2003 and Father Dave was speaking and celebrating Mass at the first Steubenville East Youth Conference I ever attended. The conference was a high-energy experience centered on the Eucharist and featuring a variety of speakers who witnessed to their love for and commitment to God and the ways in which He worked in their lives. The highlight of the weekend was an intense hour of Eucharistic Adoration on Saturday night where many teens truly encountered Christ for the first time. I was profoundly affected by the conference, and I attended many more, as a particpant, chaperone, and presently as a youth minister and group leader. Over the years, I've heard many different speakers and talks, which eventually all start to run together in my memory, but seven years later, I can still remember Father Dave's homily on Sunday morning of my first conference. I was literally buzzing with a first-timer's retreat-high, ready to conquer the world, convert my family, and live for Jesus! Father Dave's words cut through my euphoria and embedded themselves in my mind. I can't remember exactly what he said, but his homily dealt with how, although the theme of the conference was "Just Live It" and we kept connecting the Christian life to a sports game, the Christian life is anything but a game. If we turn to Christ and give our lives to Him, we will enjoy eternal life. If we turn away from Christ, we lose our very souls. I remember Father Dave standing on the stage/altar, dead-serious, trembling even, his face flushed and his voice cracking as he literally shouted in the microphone. Many speakers shout for effect, but even in my youth and immaturity, I could see without a shred of doubt that Father Dave was mortally afraid for our souls. He knew the temptations and sins that many of the teens before him were facing, and I know that at that moment, he would have given his life to make us understand, to pull us out of Satan's grasp. That conviction and love for his audience completely characterizes Father Dave, as a speaker, as a priest, and as a man of God.

Father Dave Pivonka, TOR is the current director of Post-novitiate Formation for the Sacred Heart Province of Franciscan TORs (Third Order Regular). Previously, he served as the vice president for Mission Effectiveness at Franciscan University of Steubenville, the Director of Franciscan's Austrian Study-Abroad Program, and the director of the Franciscan Youth Outreach Office. He is the author of several books, including "Hiking the Camino: 500 Miles with Jesus" (found here) about his recent experience walking the famous Camino de Santiago in Spain. In his various missions, Father Dave has touched the lives of thousands of people, from the high school students who heard him speak at numerous youth conferences, the students he encountered, lead, and befriended at Franciscan University, and the adults who he lead on pilgrimages throughout the world.

Four years after my youth conference experience, I found myself sitting jet-lagged on a coach bus on the Austrian Autobahn listening again to Father Dave's passionate, engaging voice as he introduced the bus of Steubenville students to the country we would call home for the next four months. During my semester in Austria, I was able to get to know Father Dave personally, hear his homilies on a daily basis, and travel with him to Vienna, Salzburg, Rome, and Assisi. My Austrian experiences served to confirm what I realized about Father Dave four years before; he is an extraordinary priest who is passionately in love with Christ and his Church, and he uses his many gifts to lead people to God through his role as a Catholic speaker, his leadership, and his witness.

I'm very happy for this opportunity to write this blog for "Support a Catholic Speaker Month," sponsored by Matthew Warner's blog FallibleBlogma. See the list of speakers and links to the posts about them here.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

"I Know the Plans I Have for You"

This is a talk I gave about the Plan of God last week at girls' vocation camp. Hope you enjoy!

What is the Plan of God?

• We can all agree; everyone wants happiness. We might not agree on what that means, but I don’t think you’ll find a person who when you say- “what do you want out of life?” will say- “oh, I don’t know, I want to be miserable.” When you ask that question, common responses will be “oh, I want to get married,” “I want to be a doctor,” ‘I want to make lots of money,” but really, the reasons why people say that is because they think that those things will bring them happiness! And happiness, of course, is a really good thing! We all want to be happy!
• The really awesome thing about all of us wanting to be happy is that God wants us to be happy too! In fact, he created us to be happy. We know that God didn’t make the earth and the animals, the sea, the land, the sky- all of creation- because he needed it. He did so because he wanted to- and he created man as the greatest of all creations and he gave all of creation to us. Why? So that we could have the things that we need to be happy in our lives and ultimately one day be eternally happy with him in heaven. He did this out of an overabundance of love. God loved so much that he made all of us so that he could love us and we could love him in return. And that is a really beautiful thing. I’m always struck by the fact that God didn’t need to create us. He didn’t have to, he chose to, it’s like his love was so great that it overflowed into new life, into you and I, and all humankind, and everything else in existence. And all of it is so that we can be happy and love God in return. Of course, you may notice that there are many people in the world who are not happy. Any ideas as to why so many people in the world aren’t happy?
• So many people in this world are living empty lives, separated from God, trying to find fulfillment in things of this world- money, material things, drugs, alcohol, parties, friends- things that aren’t lasting, things that end, and things that certainly won’t bring the kind of happiness we’re destined for. The way to find our happiness is to discover what in the world God has created you for. Yes, we know he wants us to be happy, but what we have to do in our lives is to find the particular way in which he wants us to be happy: the Plan of God.
• In everything that we talked about so far we’ve learned that God doesn’t do things randomly. He didn’t arbitrarily choose Mary to be the Mother of God. In being Jesus’ mother, in saying “yes” to the angel Gabriel, Mary was fulfilling the plan that God had destined her for. In the same way that God’s plan for Mary was for her to be the Mother of God and the Mother of all of us, God has a plan for each one of us, for me, for you, for everyone! He has these plans because of love! God’s plan for each of us is a proof that we’re not randomly created without any purpose, but created with purpose and most importantly with love.
• We know, in general, that everyone is called to be holy, everyone is called to be a saint. That’s the theme of the camp! That’s the General Plan of God. However, in looking at the lives of the saints of our communities and other saints that we know about, we can see that all the saints are very different! St. Therese was a French Carmelite nun, St. Dominic was an Italian choir boy, Bl. Jacinta was a tiny Portugese shepherd girl, and Bl. Pier Giorgio was an active, wealthy young man. Some saints are nuns, others popes, others mothers, fathers, priests, lay people. And not one of them came to be saints in the exact same way that another did. We are all called to be saints, but God has a particular plan for us to reach holiness and sainthood that differs for each person.
• In the Bible, God tells the prophet Jeremiah: ‘‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you;” (Jeremiah 1:4). And again to Jeremiah: “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jeremiah 29:11). The prophet Jeremiah was really young when God called him to be a prophet to Israel, meaning that God would speak to him and he would advise the King on how to best rule the nation. Of course Jeremiah was afraid when he was called to the “prophetic office,” he didn’t want to accept the trials, burden, and difficulty that he knew lay ahead of him. But God had big plans for Jeremiah, just as he has big plans for us. Before we were even conceived God knew us, before we were even born he had us in his mind! That’s how great God’s plans for us are. In the second quote, God says that he has plans to prosper us, not to harm us, and to give us hope and a future. God’s plans for us are great and eternal, but the fact that these plans exist show that it’s not up to us to choose or decide what’s going to make us happy- that plan is written by God from all of eternity. Discovering God’s plan for your life is not like any of the choices that we’re so accustomed to making, from choosing how to spend your time, who to be friends with, what clothing to wear. In all those cases, we choose what we want and what we think will bring happiness. In discovering God’s plan, it’s all about what God knows will make us happy. God made us accordingly, he made us according to a plan. In this way, we know that God’s plan is not going to be one of misery! A very wise saying- God doesn’t give you anything that you can’t handle. In the same way, God’s plan for you will absolutely not make you miserable, in fact, following God’s plan is the way to happiness.

What does God’s plan have to do with me?
• More explicitly, what is God’s plan for each of us called? Our vocation. Our vocation is our particular path to holiness, it is the way that God plans for us to get to him, that best suits us, our gifts and our talents, our personality, our particularities. No one has the same exact plan! Some people are called to holiness through living religious vocations, as a priest or consecrated. Others are called to holiness through the vocation of marriage, in uniting with another person and raising a family. Both of these vocations are different, of course, but beautiful in their own ways. And both vocations can lead to sainthood. This is where it starts to get complicating. It doesn’t even make sense to be afraid of your vocation, as we are certainly assured of God’s love for us, and knowing that our vocation is God’s plan for our happiness, why would we be afraid? But many people are afraid of learning what their vocation is, thinking they won’t like what it is, or they’re afraid that they will choose the wrong one and be unhappy. This is a really common fear, because of course we don’t want to be unhappy, but even more, we don’t want to make God unhappy either.
• In my own life, I’ve had a lot of what I like to call vocational confusion. I’ve been a committed Catholic since I was fourteen and started going to daily Mass on my summer vacations, going to adoration at the chapel in my parish, volunteering there, reading about the lives of the saints, and trying to learn everything I could about the faith. I knew that my faith was the most important part of my life, and I wanted to make God the center of everything. I thought I had it all figured out, but the question of my vocation never really came up. I loved little kids and I would babysit all the time and really enjoyed it, so I thought of course that meant God wanted me to be married- and there, that was the end of my vocational discernment. ☺ Throughout college I was firmly convinced that I was going to meet my husband at Franciscan University, which is a really Catholic school, and I would be all set. I did meet a great guy there, and we were together for more than two years, really thinking that when we graduated we were going to get married. It wasn’t until last summer that the question of what God wants from me, what my vocation is really came up, actually when I was here at this camp. Of course I knew that God has a plan for each one of us but I never really thought of it as a call that is written on our hearts, meant to make us happy, and fulfill our deepest desires. I learned that knowing God’s plan for your life comes from knowing yourself, so you can learn to discover what that plan is by knowing what it is that God created you for.
• So then I had a total crisis of not knowing myself, not knowing what God wanted from me, and definitely no longer being assured that it was marriage to my boyfriend from school. Suddenly, it was like my eyes were opened to the beauty of religious life and I thought about it in a way that I never had before. But still, I was always back and forth about it. There were lots of religious at my school so it would be like- I would see a nun doing something, like walking, or praying, or talking to someone, looking happy and fulfilled and I would think- oh I want that! Two minutes later I would see a mother pushing a stroller or holding a smiling baby and I would think again- I want that! Of course that made me totally confused, because God calls us to our own particular vocation. After many instances of back and forth confusion, seeing the beauty in both vocations and not knowing what was for me, I realized that the reasons why I was drawn to these people was because I saw their happiness and I wanted that happiness and assurance for me too. Why were they so happy? Because they were living their vocations- their paths to holiness and happiness. My vocation, whatever it is, is so much more than seeing a nun and thinking “well that would be cool” or seeing a mother with a child and thinking “hey that would be pretty fun!” It’s so much more than being attracted to something because you see the goodness in it, there is so much goodness in every vocation because it is a path that leads that person to God, and what could be better than that?
• Each one of us has that question in our hearts- why am I here? What am I meant to do? What does God want from me? This question is HUGE, given to us from eternity, and it has so much more to it than what we think we want, what we think we will be good at, and what we think will make us happy. God, in his infinite wisdom, has a plan for each of us, and right now he is calling all of us to something. We have to find out what it is!

How do I know God’s plan for me?
• I know what all of you are thinking, because it’s the same question that I was thinking, and that I sometimes still think. How do I know what God’s plan for me is? How do I find my vocation??? It seems like an impossible task sometimes, really overwhelming and confusing. But it is definitely possible!!! There have been moments of confusion in my life when I really had no idea what was going on with me or what God was doing in my life and in my heart. Now I look back on those moments of confusion and I see that he was preparing me, teaching me, leading me, and drawing me to get to where I am today in my discernment.
• The first thing we have to do to start to know God’s plan is to make an effort to know God’s plan! Unlike the Blessed Virgin Mary, an angel is most likely not going to appear to us and tell us what God wants from us. We have to try to find out what God’s plan is by knowing ourselves and deepening in our relationship with him. And to do this you have to pray, pray, pray. At this camp we’ve been learning about the importance of prayer, and different ways to pray, from spending time before the Blessed Sacrament, praying the rosary, reading the Bible, and making sacrifices and offering them up. Prayer is how we can grow closer to God. He knows our desires, our confusion, and our fears. So many times I’ve been praying in the chapel just saying again and again, “God, I want to do your will. Help me to know your will.” Like Mary we can pray, “Let it be done unto me according to your word.” If you truly, honestly, deeply want to do whatever it is that God wants from you and you continue to go to Him in prayer, you should never be afraid of knowing his plan for you, or being afraid of missing your vocation. Pray to God that he can help you know yourself, so you can see the talents and gifts he’s given you, and see how he wants you to use those gifts to serve him.
• Another important thing about discernment that I’m learning is that you have to be patient! Even if you go in the chapel right after this talk and say “God, I’m ready, tell me my vocation so I can go do it and start serving you and so I can be happy and make you happy!” which is a beautiful and sincere prayer- if it’s not time for you to know your vocation, you’re not going to. God knows when you’re ready, and he is preparing you for your vocation every day, through the opportunities you’re presented with, through the people you meet, the things that you read, the talks that you hear. So don’t be frustrated. Trust in him, that everything will be revealed to you in His time. It’s his plan, after all, so we all have to trust that he will reveal it to us when we are ready.
• I’m still searching for my vocation, just like you are. I’ve come a long way since a year ago when I suddenly realized there was more to life than choosing what you think you will be good at. I pray every day that God’s will be done in my life, and I know, without a shadow of a doubt, that if I stay close to God in prayer, and if I constantly strive to know him and love him more, I’ll be able to discover what his plan for me is.
It all comes down to love. God’s plan for us is the way in which he calls us to love in our own special and unique way. Only I can love in that particular Jess Harris way. Only you can love in your particular way, finding that way and doing it- that is how we follow God’s plan for us, that is how we find our happiness.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Loving to the End

"Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket--safe, dark, motionless, airless--it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable...The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell."
-C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves

This quote from Lewis' The Four Loves is brutal but it's so beautiful. It's probably my favorite quote because it just shakes with truth. And I'm all about the truth. A surefire way to experience pain is to love anyone. As Lewis writes, it can even be an animal. In that act of loving, you become really and truly vulnerable. In loving anyone- family, friends, co-workers, lovers- you guarantee yourself pain. Even if the object of your love returns that love consistently and with near-perfection, your heart can still be decimated by separation, illness, death, racked by misunderstandings, miscommunication, and doubt. There is no surety in love, other than the inevitability of pain. And no one loves perfectly except Christ and His Mother. We're all flawed, we're all afflicted with selfishness, and we hurt each other, again and again, with our sin. The absence of love is sin, and in the act of loving- true, pure loving- it's impossible to sin. In striving to love, we also aim to refrain from sinning.

Love hurts and even the most beautiful, selfless love brings pain. But we do it anyway. We love. We're made to love. We do it imperfectly, often selfishly, but we can't help it. Lewis' point isn't to caution people to lock up their hearts, protect themselves from the anguish of love, and resign themselves to hell as they do so. It's to expose the nature of love in a shocking way that is also undeniable. Who hasn't been exposed to the torture of love? And who experienced this torture more acutely than Love Incarnate, Jesus Christ? In his Gospel, John writes Christ " loved his own in the world and he loved them to the end" (John 13:1). He loved us unto death. John also writes in one of the most well-known verses of all time: "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life" (John 3:16). The love that Christ had for the world lead Him to experience the worst pain possible; aside from the physically excruciating pain of Passion and Death, He also experienced utter rejection from the people He loved (including betrayal by Judas, denial by St. Peter). And His Blessed Mother, who never sinned and never ceased to love, suffered with the incredible pain of watching her innocent son, who she loved so perfectly, suffer and die ("And you yourself a sword will pierce" Luke 2:34).

That's what love is. And we'll love, and we'll suffer, or we'll resign ourselves to hell. We'll expose ourselves to rejection, to grief and separation, we'll sign up to willingly experience the imperfections of human love, and hopefully, we'll be wise enough to realize that human love will never be enough, and we'll let ourselves be loved by our Redeemer and King. We'll let Him take our hearts, wounded by sin, and make them whole. We'll admit our flaws and weakness but not resign ourselves to it, and we will love Him in return, with all we have.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Obviously failing at that whole writing every day thing. For the most part, I'm failing at writing.

Thursday, January 8, 2009


I read somewhere, several somewheres, in fact, that a writer who doesn't write every day is not serious about being a writer. How can you ever expect to improve at the craft of writing without continuous practice? So here goes writing, something, anything (besides e-mail and/or Facebook posts) every day.