Tag Archives: Christianity

Avoiding a Post-Easter Spiritual Letdown

Easter Letdown

Easter night I was tucking my boys in, and we were having a discussion about Easter, comparing it to Christmas, and I was making the point that though Christmas has more decorations and gifts, Easter is still the most important Holiday of the year. One of them summed up the discussion with the question:

“Why isn’t New Year’s at Easter?”

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Science Gives Us a Little Way to Measure Holiness

Occasionally science gives us little glimpses of deeper truths that we normally wouldn’t associate with the scientfic method.

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A recent study of acts of selfless love shows that such acts – acts of self-sacrifice or charity with no expectations of reward – don’t bring us the same kind of pleasure that romantic love brings.

Romantic love tends to light up the same reward areas of the brain that are activated by cocaine. But new research shows that selfless love—a deep and genuine wish for the happiness of others—actually turns off the brain’s reward centers.

It isn’t news that the two types of love are different. We even have different words for them: agape for selfless love and eros for romantic love. We are all called to have agape for our fellow man, but we may or may not be called to eros for a spouse. And if that eros does not naturally transition to agape, we may find ourselves not feeling any kind of love for our spouse.

What is interesting here is not just that the two types of love bring about two different brain responses, but that acts of agape actually turn off the response centers that lead us to such great enjoyment of eros.

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So the holier we become, the less need we have of “the warm fuzzies” of your typical Hollywood romantic comedy. It’s almost as if the physiological response to passion, the triggering of those reward centers, is some kind of crutch, a crutch that teaches us to love in spite of ourselves. As we become more and more capable of selfless love, we use the crutch less and less until, finally, we can throw it away.

I still enjoy those puppy dog moments with my wife. Yes, we still have them. But I am even happier during those quiet moments where we sit together, not talking, just being. Those moments where we just simply fit together and everything seems right with the universe. Those are moments indeed when the Peace of the Lord is truly with us.

St. Thérèse of Lisieux and Her Little Sacrifices

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We often think of St. Thérèse in terms of simplicity of life, the life of a joyful young woman in a cloistered convent. She is the Little Flower, which almost has some kind of 60s flower-child connotation.

She was, indeed, a gentle soul, and she did, indeed, live a simple life. Her spiritual life was, however, built around the concept and practice of self-sacrifice.

“I prefer the monotony of obscure sacrifice to all ecstasies,” she wrote.

I find the concept of obscure sacrifice to be compelling. We all love to make sacrifices when we get noticed for it, don’t we? We all have “white martydom” syndrome. Do we hesitate to share with others how hard it is sometimes to raise kids? How many times, in an argument with our spouse, do we tell them just how much we have given up for them? When we give up desserts or alcohol or something else for Lent, do we make sure everyone at work knows about it? Do we make a big deal to people about not eating meat on Fridays?

But obscure sacrifices, hidden sacrifices. Aren’t those the sacrifices we are commanded to make? Didn’t Christ say that if we fast we are to wash our faces and not let anyone know we are fasting? Didn’t He tell us to not let the left hand know what the right is doing?

It doesn’t take much. St. Thérèse said, “To pick up a pin for love can convert a soul.” We have to pick up those pins, and marriage and family life provides ample opportunity. Let’s not squander that opportunity by trumpeting our great self-sacrifice. A little humility would be in order on that front. We should remember that St. Thérèse performed her little hidden sacrifices when she was suffering from a tuberculosis which would take her life at the age of 24. We should remember that St. Thérèse went through a Dark Night of the Soul, herself, and was tormented by temptations and a grave crisis of faith. If she could persevere through that without complaint, we can persevere through our daily pains with a smile on our face.

5 Things I Wish Every Engaged Couple Knew

This past weekend, my wife and I had the privilege of teaching a “Pre-Cana” marriage preparation class to a group of 20 engaged couples. We use a version of the Evenings for the Engaged program, which has been converted from a six evening program to one all-day session, due to the large distances our couples often must travel to attend.

I pray that we have some small influence on the future course of these marriages, helping to prepare them for all of the challenges ahead. I know that my wife and I feel closer than ever each time we present.

There is so much to know and learn about marriage, that we can barely scratch the surface in one 8 hour session, but if I had to summarize five key things every engaged couple should know, they would be:

1. Every Marriage Goes Through Hard Times
Those hard times can come from external sources (like finances) or they can be bred within (like a deterioration of communication). But I can pretty much promise you that there will be a moment where you wonder if you made a mistake, where you question whether you should go on. Fifty percent of marriages end in divorce because when those times come, couples too often give up.

2. Marriage Can Withstand the Worst
Adultery, addiction, physical or emotional abuse, the loss of a child,financial ruin. I personally know strong marriages that have withstood all of these painful experiences. Even in the wake of utmost betrayal, it is possible to rebuild a marriage. And it is very worthwhile. The more adversity you face, the sweeter the victory.

3. Nothing Strengthens a Marriage Like Faith
The statistics vary depending on the study, but the results are consistent: marriages in which both couples are dedicated to their faith are much more likely to survive the test of time, with the divorce rate dropping to as low as 98%. Couples who are serious about their faith understand that a marriage is a sacred institution created by God and not just another kind of human relationship. And as Christ said, “What God has brought together, let no man put asunder.”

4. Contraception is Poison to a Marriage
It is no coincidence that the huge rise in divorce rate, abortion, single parent homes, and pornography use has followed the broad cultural acceptance of contraception. Contraception fundamentally alters the sex act, turning it from a self-giving act that nourishes a marriage and brings it closer to God, to a selfish pleasure-seeking act that turns spouses into sexual objects. Everyone I have talked to who has stopped using contraception and kept that commitment has found that it improved their marital and spiritual lives.

5. Love is a Decision
This is a catch-phrase for many marriage-oriented organizations including, I believe, Worldwide Marriage Encounter. What this means is that the feelings you have, no matter how strong, are not love. Feelings go as quickly as they come. Instead, love is a decision you make, actions you take. When those warm and fuzzy feelings go (and they will), all you will have left is your ability to say, “I will contine to take take the actions. I need to take to keep this marriage together.” If you keep making that decision, the warm fuzzy feelings will come back.

Understanding these five simple truths isn’t a guarantee of a successful marriage, but it can save a couple from the most common pitfalls, and I do wish everyone entering into marriage could have that basic understanding.

The Four Last Things

This article is part of my attempt to write down those aspects of the faith I most want my daughter to understand before her upcoming Confirmation. She has, I know, learned much of this at her Catholic school, but hearing my way of describing it will, at the least, make it a little more personal.

The Four Last Things
The Four Last Things represent what happens next. They are the answer to the puzzle of why we live this life and what comes next.

If you are taking a class with a final exam, it would be smart to put some thought into that final exam. What will be on it? How hard will it be graded? What is the grade curve? When will it be and how long will it take? What do I need to study to ensure I do well?

The Four Last Things – Death, Judgement, Heaven, and Hell – are the final exam for life. Nothing, really, is more important. That is why we are encouraged to meditate on them regularly, even daily. Not in a fatalistic sort of way, and not in a morbid way, but with seriousness and with hope, putting our trust in Christ Jesus.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church discusses the four last things in paragraphs 1006 to 1041. You can read those sections here.

Death

“It is in regard to death that man’s condition is most shrouded in doubt.” In a sense bodily death is natural, but for faith it is in fact “the wages of sin.” For those who die in Christ’s grace it is a participation in the death of the Lord, so that they can also share his Resurrection. (CCC 1006)

There are three key things to know about death:

1. Death came into the world because of sin. Before the sin of Adam, there was no death for men in God’s plan.
2. Christ conquered death. This means that he transformed death so that now, when we die, we share in Christ’s death and therefore earn the opportunity to share in His Resurrection. Christ has turned death into a blessing.
3. In accepting Christ and in choosing to die to self, we have already begun the process of dying. Physical death only completes that process. In fact, Pope Benedict XVI said in Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week that those who believe in Jesus have already entered into eternal life, that death is just a part of that eternal life.

Judgement
Judgement is complicated because there are two judgements, the particular judgement, which comes to us at the moment of our death,

Each man receives his eternal retribution in his immortal soul at the very moment of his death, in a particular judgment that refers his life to Christ: either entrance into the blessedness of heaven — through a purification or immediately — or immediate and everlasting damnation. (CCC 1022)

and the general judgement, which is that judgement that occurs at the end of time, after the resurrection of the dead.

In the presence of Christ, who is Truth itself, the truth of each man’s relationship with God will be laid bare. The Last Judgment will reveal even to its furthest consequences the good each person has done or failed to do during his earthly life. (CCC 1039)

It is hard to understand why there is a general judgement when we have already received the particular judgement. There are three things to keep in mind to try to understand the difference:

1. The particular judgement is before the resurrection. The general is after, and so we go through the general judgement in our resurrected bodies.
2. Time after death is not the same as time on earth. God exists outside of time. It is not clear what our relationship with time will be in the next life, but the distinction as to which judgement came first may not be important.
3. We are alone during the particular judgement. The general judgement is in front of everyone, and we can see the effects of our sins on those other people.

One useful analogy is this: Imagine your senior year at high school or college. When you get your final grade, you know whether or not you have graduated and if you have received any honors. Weeks later, however, you still go through the formal graduation ceremony, where you are publicly recognized.

Heaven
Heaven is kind of the point of all this. The only real reason to practice religion is because you love God. And if you love God you want to be with God. To be with God after death means you will be in Heaven.

This perfect life with the Most Holy Trinity —this communion of life and love with the Trinity, with the Virgin Mary,the angels and all the blessed —is called “heaven.” Heaven is the ultimate end and fulfillment of the deepest human longings,the state of supreme, definitive happiness. (CCC 1024)

But there is a catch. Nothing impure can be in the presence of God. The Old Testament is very clear on this, and it appeals to common sense. If God is perfect goodness, how could He tolerate any non-goodness in his presence? Put another way, Heaven wouldn’t be a perfect place if anything imperfect were there. If I retain some selfish traits, then sooner or later in Heaven I am going to act out on those traits, and someone else will be hurt. But if a person can be hurt, then it can’t be Heaven.

So, the natural consequence is that most of us – those of us where aren’t living saints – are going to need purification before we can enter God’s presence.

All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified,are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven. (CCC 1030)

This purification, we call Purgatory. Purgatory is a process, rather than a place. St. Paul describes it as a burning away of the wood and the chaff, the imperfections, leaving behind only the gold. We don’t really know what it is like, though some mystics have seen glimpses of souls in purgatory.

Once we have been purified, we are in Heaven, in total intimate communion with God. Again, we have no idea what it is like – “Eye has not seen. Ear has not heard…” but we do know it will be the essence of joy.

Hell
Hell is real. Christ repeated that over and over. And many will go there. We don’t know who is in Hell. We don’t even know if Hitler is there. (He may have repented at the last moment.

We cannot be united with God unless we freely choose to love him. But we cannot love God if we sin gravely against him, against our neighbor or against ourselves: “He who does not love remains in death. Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.” Our Lord warns us that we shall be separated from him if we fail to meet the serious needs of the poor and the little ones who are his brethren. To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love means remaining separated from him for ever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called “hell.” (CCC 1033)

So if we die in mortal sin without repentence, we will go to hell. We will be separated from God. Again, it makes sense. If I intentionally separate myself from God in this life, what makes me think I won’t do so on entering the next? My main job must then be to learn to love God as much as possible to avoid that eventuality.

One of the Good Guys

I am taking a musical theater class with my daughter. (I find that participating in my kids’ activities – as coach, helper, or fellow student – brings us closer in a way that’s hard to get otherwise.) My daughter’s vocal teacher, who is leading the class, picked out a song for me: One of the Good Guys from the music revue Closer Than Ever. It is a remarkable song about temptation, mid-life crisis, and the truth about marriage.

Temptation

The song is sung by a self-professed good guy, who dotes on his wife and kids. It quickly becomes a confessional:

But there was a night in Hawaii
On a business trip,
That my mind has suffused with a mystic glow.
She was someone’s friend, and she had this smile…

They become close, but in the end he resists the temptation to cheat on his wife. (Though he should never have been on that beach in the first place!)  And in his reflection it gets interesting:

…one of the good guys
Who trades a flash of heat
To build a warmer fire;
Denies himself a treat
To shoot for something higher
And that’s the part that’s sweet
That only the good guys know.

What is the “something higher”? Of course it is marriage, but it isn’t just any marriage. There are plenty of loveless and miserable marriages out there. It is a marriage that has realized something important. A marriage in which self-sacrifice is recognized as the highest virtue. A marriage built according to this guideline:


Husbands,love your wives, even as Christ loved the church and handed himself over for her to sanctify her, cleansing her by the bath of water with the word, that he might present to himself the church in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. So also husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one hates his own flesh but rather nourishes and cherishes it, even as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother and be joined to his wife,and the two shall become one flesh.”

Ephesians 5: 25-31

This is a call to self-sacrifice, a call to the husband to give over his very life for his wife, just as Christ gave up his, a concept out of fashion in our no-fault divorce world. This sort of self-sacrifice, however, which is the definitive sign of real love, is what we were built for, what we are called to, and when we reach it, we have reached something higher. We have reached something holy.

I can honestly say, after twenty years of marriage in which we have seen our share of pain and in which we have failed to love more than I would care to admit, that what you get to after those 20 years of perseverance really is something higher, something transcendent. We have, even in a very imperfect way, attempted to imitate Christ’s love, and even imperfectly it is something wonderful.

But that’s not the end. There is more to the story.

Mid-Life

Fast forward and the singer is now 44 with everything laid out in his life as perfectly as he could ask. But…

Sometimes at night, in the stillness,
Lying wide awake
As the wife I still desire sleeps by my side,
I can feel the wash of the perfumed air
As my mind is drowning in billowing hair…

He is tormented by thoughts of what might have been, of what he gave up, and of the possibility that even now he could seize those fantasies and make them real.

Of course, he doesn’t. After all, he’s one of the good guys. And then he passes on the key piece of wisdom from the song:

It’s not which road you take,
Which life you pick to live in,
Whichever choice you make,
The longing is a given.
And that’s what brings the ache
That only the good guys know.

He has come to realize that no matter how happy you are, no matter which spouse or career or life you choose, you will feel the regret, the questions, the uncertainty, and the temptations. It is just a normal part of life. These things we find ourselves desiring – and the people – are mirages. Worse, they are lies. They promise something they can never give, which is completion. Total happiness.

But why? Why are we built that way? Why can’t we achieve that happiness we desire? St. Augustine understood:

“You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”

We have an emptiness inside us that only God can fill and that will not be filled in this life. We try to fill that need with pleasure; with sex or alcohol or excitement or food or other indulgences. We try to fill it with our spouse. But it is never enough. We always come back to that empty feeling.

Even our marriage cannot fill that God-sized hole, and if we persist in believing that it should, we may be tempted to throw it away and start over. But if we come to understand what marriage is and what its relation to God is, then we can feel that transcendence that I talked about earlier, even while tormented by the longing that never goes away.

And what is this understanding of marriage? Marriage is no less than a relationship, designed by God, to reflect both Christ’s love for his Church and the Father’s love for the son. It aspires to be the perfect and selfless love that is Christ’s love. Paradoxically, the only way to achieve total happiness is through a total outpouring of oneself for another, for in doing that, we begin fulfill our purpose, which is to be an image of God. Likewise, our marriage an family begins to fulfill its purpose, which is to be an image of the Holy Trinity, that most fundamentl and perfect of all relationships.

And that truly is the part that’s sweet, that only the good guys know.

Lost In The Fog

The fog was amazingly thick this morning on the way to work. So thick that my headlights could penetrate 30 feet at most. So thick that streetlights and oncoming cars were invisible if more than 100 yards away.

There were moments where I felt that the entire universe had been reduced to me, my car, and a thirty foot sphere of existence. I was alone in the universe, an eerie and frightening feeling that was somehow exhilarating at the same time.

It is easy to live that way, in such a fog that all I can see is my own existence. Especially (and unfortunately) as a husband and father, it is easy to ensconce myself in my own little world of responsibilities and worries. People, even loved ones, can become objects, providers of my inputs and receivers of my outputs. When they have needs (or I have needs of them), they enter my little sphere of light. When I have met their needs or they have met mine, they depart, and it is as if they are no more.

If I shine, however, with Christ’s light, the fog is dispersed, and I can truly begin to see and love those around me as they really are. No longer do I love someone for what they can do for me or how they make me feel. I love them for one simple fact: that they are images of God.

But I have to keep my guard up. That fog keeps trying to roll in.

How an Atheist Ph.D. Physics Student Found God and the Catholic Church Part 3: My Own Little Damascus Moment

In Part 1 of my conversion story I described how I became an atheist but how I later began to learn that belief in God was not unreasonable. In Part 2, I described how I learned about the Catholic Church and even came to respect it.

I still did not believe, however, and I had no desire to believe. I was perfectly happy at the thought of dating – and eventually marrying – my cute Catholic girlfriend, and she was happy with her atheist but well-meaning boyfriend.

No Proof is Possible

Stuart Chase said, “For those who believe, no proof is necessary. For those who don’t believe, no proof is possible.” I was definitely in the latter category. I had come to understand that you cannot prove that God does not exist. I had even seen scientific evidence for the existence of God. I had come to learn, in as first-hand a manner as possible, that the universe is delicately balanced in a way that science really can’t explain. I had come to see that science is a tool for understanding how the universe works, but it cannot approach the question of why.

But it wasn’t enough. I know now that it shouldn’t be. Faith cannot come from a textbook.

Advent

I didn’t know it then, but it was the Advent season.

In order to keep this very large physics experiment staffed, the project rented an apartment in Italy for the professors, post-docs, and graduate students and also leased an automobile on a yearly basis. The car was leased out of Milan, a two hour drive north of the laboratory. The lease was up that December, and as I was the last American on site that year – scheduled to fly back to the States shortly before Christmas – it was my job to drop the car off then return to the lab via train and bus.

So Christmas was coming. My return home was coming. Something else was coming that I definitely wasn’t expecting.

When Nothing Seems to Go Right

Have you ever had a trip where nothing seems to go right? This was it for me, at least until the end. It seemed simple enough. Drive to Milan. Turn in car. Take cab to train station. Take train to seaside town of Guilianova. Take bus from Guilianova to Paganica. Be home by bedtime. I had the train schedule and the bus schedule and the timing all planned out. Being a graduate student, I didn’t have much money (and no credit card), but there was cash for the cab, cash for the train, cash for the bus, and a little extra for food. No problem.

Well, some problems. Like delays at the rental agency. Like traffic on the way to the train station.

I raced into the station right at my scheduled departure. The train was about to pull out, and the line at the ticket booth was at least a dozen people deep, so I skipped the ticket booth and went straight for the train. I knew that, if the conductor came by for tickets and you had none, you could buy one, though at a penalty. I had done it before. Once safely on board, I carefully counted my money. There was enough to cover the penalty, but I wouldn’t be doing much eating the rest of that day.

The train was packed, and I was one of the last on board. Standing room only on a smoking car. Miserable and hungry, I stood and stared out the window as the countryside slowly went by. Very slowly. Then we stopped, and I didn’t recognize the station.

I pulled out my map. Yes, I was going the right way, but this station wasn’t on the map. In my broken Italian (which tended to be laced with a lot of French and a little bit of Russian, but that’s another story), I asked the other passengers and heard the word I had learned to dread in my days in Italy: Strike.

The express train conductors were on strike, and all express trains were out of service. I was on a local train.

I looked at my watch and made frantic mental calculations. I had to be in Guilianova by 8pm to catch the last bus out. At the rate we were going, I didn’t think we would make it.

The anxiety grew at each stop. A fold-out bench opened up, and I was able to sit. My mind rehearsed the remainder of the trip. Soon the conductor would come by and ask for my ticket. He would take the majority of my money. I would have the 10,000 lire for the bus ticket but little else. I would arrive in Guilianova with no money, no place to stay, and no way out till morning. And it was cold, likely to snow. I wondered what it would be like to sleep in an outdoor railway station in the middle of winter. I was scared.

Presence

I felt something set in that was an incoherent overlay of panic and despair. Would I suffer in the cold? Would I be arrested? Would I die? Would somebody, anybody, help me?

There are people that confront those questions every day of their lives. But I was a pampered graduate student who had never had to worry about food or shelter. For me a big horrible thing was about to happen to me, and I could not stop it. All I could do was wait and watch it happen, and more than anything else, I felt all alone in the world.

Then, all of a sudden, I wasn’t. I don’t know what happened, what triggered it. The best way I can describe it is this. Try to think back to when you were a child and your mother gathered you into her arms. How did it feel? I felt gathered and held and comforted. I felt as if someone had come up to me and told me he loved me and would take care of me no matter what.

There was a physical sensation to it. A communication. I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I was not alone. I don’t think I heard a voice, but I thought maybe I had. Words were in my head. Words of reassurance. Comforting. Like a parent with a small child.

I was told, in that voiceless way, not to worry. I was told that I was loved and would be taken care of. I was told to trust.

And so I did. I spent the rest of journey focused not on my plight but on this wonderful experience of being loved by something or someone I could neither see nor touch.

He Provides

Before I knew it, it was around ten o’clock at night. I was in Guilianova, and the conductor had never come by to collect tickets. If that was a miracle, it was a pretty low grade miracle – perhaps it was policy not to collect tickets during a strike, I don’t know – but it felt like a miracle to me. One of the things I have come to understand is that God works miracles for us every day, miracles that seem absolutely mundane until you look on them with the eyes of faith.

But now I had the next step of my journey. The last bus was long gone, and I was in a freezing cold and empty train station long after dark. I wasn’t worried. I was filled with a sense of wonder at what might happen next. I walked out of the train station into a dark and sleeping town.

Guilianova – at least the part I was in – did not have a bustling nightlife. Or any nightlife that I could see. I picked a dark street at random and started walking.

Soon I saw a light. As I approached, it resolved into a small bed and breakfast. Still trusting, I walked in.

No, there were no empty rooms. Then the owner hesitated, and a look of motherly concern came over her face. “You’ll take one of our rooms,” she said, “But it does not have a private bath. You will have to share with our family. Is that all right?”

I agreed enthusiastically, in my best Italian. While she prepared the room I spoke haltingly with a guest who claimed to be an alchemist. He was excited to learn that I was a physicist and wanted to share his theory on how to create gold.

The innkeeper had no food, so she gave me directions to a place that she thought might still be open. It was nearing midnight, but I set out again anyway. I was hungry, but I was more motivated to just live out this strange and wonderful moment of my life.

Several hundred twisty-turny yards later and I found myself in a pizzeria. I sat down with a pizza and a beer and watched the movie showing on the bar’s TV. I wish I could say the movie had a spiritual meaning. It didn’t, but it was comforting. I spent the evening watching Walt Disney’s Robin Hood, feeling like a little child whose Father loved him.

Next: The Way of the Cross

How an Atheist Ph.D. Physics Student Found God and the Catholic Church Part 2: Visions of Truth

In Part 1 of my conversion story I described my atheistic background and how God “tilled the soil” in preparation for my conversion. He wasn’t ready to plant the seed of faith quite yet, however. I think He needed me to see some things for myself first.

There’s Always a Woman

Is there a woman in every story? Well, there is in this one.

In the autumn of my first year of graduate school, I chose the experimental physics group with which I would eventually complete my Ph.D. It was a group doing experimental particle astrophysics – looking for exotic particles in the ubiquitous shower of cosmic rays that constantly bombards the earth. I chose the group both for the grandiosity of the subject as well as for the fact that it would give me a chance to live in Italy. I had been at the school over the summer, so I already felt at home the day I first walked into the lab.

Now, to set the picture, I still looked the part of a hard partying college student in southern California, even though I had recently transformed into a non-partying graduate student in the northeast. I had hair down to my shoulders, a snake earring in my left ear (sometimes it was a dagger or skull), and dark glasses. I wore t-shirts and shorts, but I had given in to wearing shoes again.

I followed my new advisor into a lab where electronics were being prototyped and equipment was being calibrated in hurried preparation for shipment to Italy. The room was full of undergraduate research assistants all working diligently. One stood out.

She stood out in one sense because she was a she, the only she in the lab. But she wasn’t just any she. She sat on a tall stool with a soldering iron in her hand and her long brown hair tied back in a ponytail. We were introduced, and she looked at me with those big brown eyes, and I didn’t think physics students were supposed to be so pretty. I did know that she was way too pretty for a guy like me to be asking out.

It was a year later when we started dating. I’ll skip the details; that’s another story. Suffice to say she gets the credit for getting the ball rolling. It was in the first two weeks when I got a little surprise. I asked her out for dinner on a Sunday night. She agreed, but said she couldn’t go out until after she got out of Mass.

I wanted to impress her. I really wanted to impress her. So I said, “Want me to come with you?” Oh so suave. Oh so debonaire.

Hesitantly, she said yes. So I attended my first Catholic Mass. It was not a conversion experience. I wasn’t reverent. I was just confused. And the crucifix – I had never seen anything like it, and it made me uncomfortable (as well it should).

It would be nice to say that attending Mass with my new girlfriend inspired me to believe in God and to accept Christ, but it didn’t happen. What did happen was that I developed a respect for her faith. I saw she was serious about it and that the people there really believed what they professed. I just didn’t (and couldn’t) share that belief. One very important thing happened: I became aware of the Catholic Church as more than just the caricature we find sprinkled throughout pop culture.

Italy

I started going back and forth to Italy, working on a cosmic ray detector deep under a mountain near the town of L’Aquila, and I missed that pretty physics student terribly. The internet was primitive then. No webcams. Not even voice. We could “chat” occasionally when I could get access to the right terminal, but other than that our contact was limited to very expensive weekend phone calls.

On weekends I took the bus to Rome to sightsee. I saw all the ancient sights of both pagan and Catholic Rome, and I barely distinguished between them. The churches I found to be awesomely beautiful, moving in a way I did not understand. Saint Peter’s. Saint Mary Major. Saint Paul Outside the Walls. Saint Peter in Chains. I saw the bones of martyrs and the fragments of the manger of Christ. I saw tombs of popes. I saw Michaelangelos and Caravaggios.

The thing that struck me from all of this was that this church was an ancient church. It was a critical and inescapable factor in history. Again, I was learning to respect the faith, even though I didn’t accept that there was any truth to it.

At that point, I can only surmise that God decided I was ready.

Next: The Seed is Planted

Happy Feast Day, St. Thérèse!

Today is the feast day of the Little Flower, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the patroness of my family and this blog.

I woke up this morning, not realizing what day it was, and immediately upon preparing to shower I noticed that my St. Thérèse medal had disappeared from the chain I wear. I was sad and determined to get a new one at the earliest opportunity. Later that morning, I realized that I had lost the medal on her feast day, and was more than just a little sad. I realized I hadn’t said a novena to the Little Flower in quite awhile, and so I decided to start one tonight. Then, this evening, I found the medal in the middle of my bedroom floor.

I like to think that St. Thérèse was trying to tell me that, like a loving sister, she is praying for me, even when I forget about her. That seems reasonable to me. After all, she is a Saint of “signs”. Stories of roses from St. Thérèse abound. I have, on at least three occasions, received unexpected flowers of some sort on days where I was praying particularly fervently for her intercession. Once, at a particularly low point in my life, I was praying hard to her. That evening, I dropped by my parents-in-law for some reason that I don’t remember. My wife’s mother saw me and said, “Oh, I have something for you. I found it at the Dollar Store.” It was a framed picture of the Little Flower, herself. How often do you find framed pictures of saints at the Dollar Store?

Here are two good articles on St. Thérèse that showed up in my inbox today:

From the blog “Beginning to Pray”
and
From the blog “The Integrated Catholic Life”

And here is a link to EWTNs novena to St. Thérèse.

I pray to St. Thérèse that we may all learn to approach God as little children and attempt to do the ordinary things in our life with great love.