My thoughts and reflections on my Catholic Faith, Fulton Sheen, the problem of suffering, and books

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Never Alone in the "Valley of Death"

 I never pegged myself as a fan of rock music--until I heard the song "Anchor," by Skillet, about which I wrote in this post:

While some of Skillet's songs have a heavier or more "metal" feel, "Anchor" and my current obsession, "Valley of Death," are among those New Release Tuesday classes as "ballads"--"heart-tugging," "hand-raising," "softer."

Despite the rock aspects, they are prayers--addressed to God.

John Cooper, the lead singer, says in a recent article on Billboard, that "Valley of Death" is
an honest song about the fact that when you are going through the valley, you can’t see what’s around you because there’s hills and mountains and you can’t see the way to go… What’s really hard about the time we’re in now is that none of us know if there’s light at the end of the tunnel. ... [I]n the end, I know that I'm not alone. That is the hope and the light at the end of the tunnel.

I had not listened to any of the songs on "Dominion," because I thought they were more of the heavy rock than the ballad style, but after seeing a link on Facebook where Dallas Jenkins, the creator of the Chosen, said that "Valley of Death" stood out to him, I decided to give it a listen. The title was particularly appealing because things have been particularly dark in my head and soul lately, and from the first notes, the song did not disappoint.

It started out gently--reminding me of "Anchor"--and by the first few words, I knew that the singer (like so many of us in the third year of the pandemic) is struggling:

Days and darkness rolling by
And happiness betray us
And our dreams escape us

"Where did the time go?"

This question resonates for so many of us, whether we lost loved ones or jobs or simply time.

"Someone said this is all part of the plan / But I don't understand."

Does any of us understand why all this is "part of the plan"? No, because His ways are not our ways, and regardless, we don't want easy platitudes. Who honestly can say he or she finds comfort in being told that the death of a loved one, or the loss of a job, is part of His plan? If that's you, dear reader, then your faith is a lot stronger than mine.

The chorus evokes Psalm 23's "valley of the shadow of death":

Now that I walk through the valley of death
You're the light to guide me
When I'm lost and can't see
I'm holding on with all the strength I can
Say You won't forget me
'Cause sometimes I don't believe
That I am not alone in the valley of death

"Valley of death"--we all have been through a valley, whether it's the pandemic, or depression, or anxiety, or struggle with a habitual sin and the self-hatred that comes from falling again, or abuse, or sickness, or death, or any of the million other struggles human flesh is heir to. 

The valley of death is dark; we're lost because we can't see through the darkness--and then Christ comes in with a reminder (yes, even through the form of Christian rock) that He is still the Light of the world, that He is an Anchor to which we can hold, which we can grab like Peter, that He has not and will not forget us.

The second verse gives a sense of hope:

Love and laughter turn to tears
What will come tomorrow
Is a joyous sorrow
Memories fading through the years
Now I've got some smile lines
We've had some good times

Even through tears, we can sometimes find one of those "smile lines," like stumbling upon an old email from a dearly-departed friend, or a recollection of a trip to get donuts before a final with friends.

I can't help wondering how much time is left
'Cause I'm not ready yet

Is any of us ready for our own entry into the valley of the shadow--either whatever 2022 holds, or the valley of death that we could walk into any time during this pandemic?

No, but our own lack of preparedness is no cause for despair, because we still have hope--Christ is still our Hope and our Light and our Anchor:

Now that I walk through the valley of death
You're the light to guide me
When I'm lost and can't see
I'm holding on with all the strength I can
Say You won't forget me
'Cause sometimes I don't believe
That I am not alone in the valley of death

The next verse is a cry of help from someone who is at the point of despair:

When I can't carry on
Enter into the unknown
When I'm with You where I belong
When the night's too hard to take
And the starlight starts to fade
Come and find me, I need to be saved
Before it's too late

When we can't carry on, we need to cry out to the Lord to "enter into the unknown" with us, because when we're with Him, we are where we belong. And in the darkness, we need to cry to Him because we need Him to save us--before it's too late.

In the final two repetitions of the chorus, as a reminder to himself and to us, the singer says five times

I am not alone.

With Christ as our Light and our Hope and our Anchor, no matter what "valley of death" we face, we are not alone. 

Tuesday, December 7, 2021

"We Need Emmanuel" to Hold Our Broken Hearts

Is it just me, or does anyone else get a touch of the melancholy around this time of year?

It's something that I've experienced for years...since my first Advent and Christmas season in college, when the traditions of my childhood (creche, Advent wreath, certain tapes of music) weren't available.

Family stresses made other Christmases hard.

I can't even blame grief for this year's's 3 1/2 years since Mom's death, 14 months since Brendan's...or maybe I can.

There's a trend in society to say: "O, it's been ~~~ long; you can't still be grieving." A relative said this past March that she was sorry I was still grieving three years after Mom's death. You can bet I excoriated her...and she still didn't get the point.

Our society doesn't want to face that fact. If you're not "over it" after six months or a year or whatever arbitrary time the non-grievers set for you to be "over it," there must be something wrong with you.

There is a wonderful resource--secular, but still helpful--on Instagram: Refuge in Grief. Megan Devine, the author of It's Okay that You're Not Okay, runs that Instagram page, where, among other things, she talks about grief; common grief myths (such as the fact that you should be "over it" by a certain time), etc.

And, because all roads lead to Fulton Sheen, thinking about melancholy and grief during this Advent and Christmas season, led me back to a quote from Sheen where he talks about expectations.

See, we all have expectations for this season--and those expectations are never fulfilled, because the gifts and family and music and pumpkin pie cannot fill the ache in our hearts--whether that is the ache of grief, or the ache of stress, or the ache that only He Who made our hearts can fill.

Sheen, in Preface to Religion, re-published by Ignatius Press as Remade For Happiness, writes:

Are you perfectly happy? Or are you still looking for happiness? There can be no doubt that at one time or another in your life you attained that which you believed would make you happy. When you got what you wanted, were you happy?

Do you remember when you were a child, how ardently you looked forward to Christmas? How happy you thought you would be, with your fill of cakes, your hands glutted with toys, and your eyes dancing with the lights on the tree!

Christmas came, and after you had eaten your fill, blown out the last Christmas candle, and played till your toys no longer amused, you climbed into your bed and said, in your own little heart of hearts, that somehow or other it did not quite come up to your expectations. 
And have you not lived that experience over a thousand times since? 
The fact is: you want to be perfectly happy, but you are not. Your life has been a series of disappointments, shocks, and disillusionments. How have you reacted to your disappointments? Either you became cynical, or else you became religious....
Why are you disappointed? Because of the tremendous disproportion between your desires and your realizations. Your soul has a certain infinity about it because it is spiritual; but your body and the world about you are material, limited, "cabined, cribbed, confined." You can imagine a mountain of gold, but you will never see one. You can imagine a castle of a hundred thousand rooms, one room studded with diamonds, another with emeralds, another with pearls, but you will never see such a castle.

In like manner, you look forward to some earthly pleasure or position or state of life, but, once you attain it, you begin to feel the tremendous disproportion between the ideal you imagined and the reality you possess. Disappointment follows. Every earthly ideal is lost by being possessed.
You want perfect life, and perfect truth, and perfect love. Nothing short of the Infinite satisfies you, and to ask you to be satisfied with less would be to destroy your nature. You want life, not for two more years, but always; you want to know all truths, not the truths of economics alone, to the exclusion of history. You also want love without end. All the poetry of love is a cry, a moan, and a weeping. The more pure it is, the more it pleads; the more it is lifted above the earth, the more it laments.
Look at your heart! It tells the story of why you were made. It is not perfect in shape and contour, like a Valentine Heart. There seems to be a small piece missing out of the side of every human heart. That may be to symbolize a piece that was torn out of the Heart of Christ which embraced all humanity on the Cross.

I think the real meaning is that when God made your human heart, He found it so good and so lovable that He kept a small sample of it in heaven. He sent the rest of it into this world to enjoy His gifts, and to use them as stepping stones back to Him, but to be ever mindful that you can never love anything in this world with your whole heart because you have not a whole heart with which to love. In Order to love anyone with your whole heart, in order to be really peaceful, in order to be really wholehearted, you must go back again to God to recover the piece He has been keeping for you from all eternity!

I heard this song on the radio today:
Christmas this year doesn't feel quite the same
As it did back when I was a boy
But why's it so hard to find joy?
I hope I don't sound ungrateful
There's food on the table and family around

The Christ in a manger, could I ask a favor?
Could I just hold You right now?

God with us
Will You come be with us?
'Cause we need a little help
We need Emmanuel
(Brandon Heath, "We Need Emmanuel")

A friend said to me one year "Christ calls us all to Bethlehem once a year, and there are no tears in Bethlehem."

Those words were what I needed to hear that year--but I think there can be tears in Bethlehem.

The first Christmas wasn't all joy and warmth and cozy fires. It was cold, poor, probably stinky. I'm sure there were tears shed as Joseph searched for a place for Mary to give birth.

And yet--Christ came.

As that friend said to me another year: "God became a Baby, helpless, laid on the harsh and filthy manger, all for us. He loves us so tenderly."

God-with-us is there for us, even in the midst of the stress and the grief and the tears and the pandemic and the filth and the failure and the dryness.

That Baby in the filthy manger wants to hold our broken hearts close to His Sacred Heart.

(If you need some songs to listen to this Christmas season that aren't all happy-clappy, here are two playlists: 2020 Christmas songs and Christmas sad songs.)

God Love you, and may our Baby Savior bring peace to your hearts this Christmas and always.

Monday, September 20, 2021


When I read on Instagram that Bonnie Engstrom was self-publishing the children's book she had written several years ago, I shouted for joy. See, I've been reading Sheen for 18 years, and his autobiography is one of my favorite of his books.

While Sheen loved children, and told many anecdotes about them on his TV program, 99% of his books are written to instruct adults. (The 1% exception to that is his book "Jesus, Son of Mary.")

Bonnie's book makes Sheen accessible to kids. He comes to life, beyond the smiling man in that black-and-white picture on the wall, or the YouTube videos Mom listens to while she cleans the kitchen.

Before he was a priest, bishop, radio personality, or TV personality, Sheen was a little boy growing up in early 20th-century Midwest America. This book tells that story through everyday experiences--hearing a neighbor criticize you, making restitution for theft, overhearing family members laugh at the embarrassing things you did as a baby, and making a clumsy mistake in front of the whole church--that children can sympathize with.

The message comes home through gentle encouragement from Sheen's parents:

God loves you and made you just as you are. Our sins and sorrows are not who we are. Though things may be hard, God never leaves us.

Buy this book--for yourself, for your kids, for your grandkids, for your church library, for the youth group

Read this book.

Pray for Sheen's canonization.

Make Fulton Sheen someone whom your kids know as well as they know about the Holy Family and their patron saints. Make him a household name, like he once was in houses across America.

God Love Y'All!

Thursday, March 18, 2021

On Music and Grief

I never thought a piece of music could make me feel guilty.

Until March 2018.

Saturday, March 13, 2021

Lenten Parish Mission Notes, Day 3, part 2

Day 3, part 2

Mark 5:25-34

The Eyes in the Life of the Woman with a Hemorrhage

 Eyes speak eloquently and persuasively, but not always truthfully.

The eyes of those around her tell her she is unclean, an outcast.

Former friends, now moms with children: go away, you're dangerous, you're not wanted here.

Doctors, at first looked at her with hope and expectation.

As time went on, with desperation.

As she spent all her money but grew worse: you're hopeless, you're a lost cause.

The people, with a mis-formed religiosity: she's condemned by God, she's a sinner, she's rejected; why else would she be suffering if not for some offense committed against God? You're forsaken by God, and it's your fault.

Her family: visits her at first, then they stop going as their lives go on, as they hear people gossiping about their sister, their daughter, their cousin: the shame cast on her was cast on them

The lack of eye contact from anyone around her tells her you're no one, you're nothing.

All these words, communicated so eloquently and persuasively by these eyes, are lies; but as the years went on, these lies became the way this poor woman spoke to herself: she saw herself to be unwanted, hopeless, a lost cause, condemned by God, no one, and nothing—and there was darkness.

She heard about Jesus, Who was healing people, and a little candle was lit in her darkness.

She goes seeking Jesus because she believes that if she touches the tassel of His cloak she will be healed; yet she comes from behind. Although she believes He can heal her, she has given up all hope that good news can be written on a human face. She doesn’t dare look Jesus in the eye. She sneaks through the crowd and touches the hem of His cloak—and immediately she knows she’s healed.

She immediately returns to being anonymous, to hiding. She becomes one of the crowd.

People are pressing around Jesus, and He says: Who touched Me?

She falls at His feet with fear and trembling: she begins to apologize at the feet of Jesus for being so gold as to come in faith and to touch the tassel of His cloak, seeking healing. She apologizes and she cries at the feet of Jesus.

There she is, with expectation to be condemned, cursed, chastised, scolded, publicly shamed.

And there is silence.

And then she hears the rustling of cloth as Jesus kneels down in front of her. And very slowly, she begins to raise her gaze, tears streaming down her face. She sees His feet, His knees, His cloak.

There’s a moment of hesitation before she dares look Him in the Face. It’s been so long since she’s seen a human face that loved her.

Her eyes come to the eyes of Jesus.

And His eyes say: I love you. I’ve been searching for you. You’re beautiful. You’re Mine.

And all of these words can be summed up in this word that falls from His lips: DAUGHTER.

It was the truth of the eyes of Jesus which eclipsed all of their lies, and in the Face of Jesus, she received her peace, and she received the true healing that she so desperately needed.

She is daughter.

There’s a whole lot being spoken into our lives, in words, or without.

We look at ourselves and think of ourselves as lost, forsaken, abandoned, hopeless. It feels like reality is indifferent to us. 

It is in the Face of Jesus that we realize who we are, and it’s only in the Face of Jesus that we come to learn the deepest truths of who we are: Beloved, Pursued, Forgiven, Desired, Loved, Daughter, Son.

Sunday, March 7, 2021

Lenten Parish Mission Notes, Day 3, part 1

 Day 3

Wherever Jesus is, there is healing.

Pope Benedict XVI: healing encompasses the whole story of salvation.

God's desire is to heal us and to not leave us alone in our darkness, to not leave us alone in our brokenness, to not leave us alone in our pain.

Healing is God's deep desire for you.

There was an elderly, blind priest who went on the same walk every day. One day, he got disoriented and found himself in the middle of the street, and he didn't know what to do.

He was a very holy priest, and he said to the Lord: Lord, I don't know what to do. I can hear the cars and I don't know which way to turn and this is dangerous. What do I do?

The Lord said: Sit down!

The priest: Uh, Lord, excuse me? I'm in the middle of the street!

The Lord: Yeah. Sit down!

So he sits down, and a woman stops and drives him home.

And he hears the Lord say: Sit down and let yourself be found.

Let yourself be found.

Where is your heart? What are you experiencing right now? Pain, struggle, fear, anxiety, dissatisfaction, longing for more?

Sit down and let Jesus find you.

Sunday, February 28, 2021

Lenten Parish Mission Notes, Day 2

Day 2

Fr. Angelus:

If we are only met/loved where we're successful--that love is shallow.

When we are still loved in our weakness and in our vulnerability, that is a deeper love, that is mercy.