Keep Moving

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“Cliffhanger” by Sam Purtill, via Flickr

A few days ago I came upon a quote from St. Bernard that really struck me:

You must either ascend or descend; if you try to remain in one position, you are sure to fall.

This might sound like a challenge or a threat at first; but I find it helpful because it sounds more like advice to me. When you’re fighting depression, or temptation, trying to stay in one place out of sheer force of will is not likely to work. Getting up and doing something is the only way to make some progress.

Imagine you’re sitting at home in front of your computer, and you’re attacked with a strong temptation to watch pornography. White-knuckling it is not going to work. Instead of doing your best to stay in your current position–in the near occasion of sin, but not sinning–you’d do much better to get moving. Go out of the room, call a friend, go outside, read a book, anything to distract your mind.

If your toddler keeps getting into the sugar bowl, you’re probably going to be disappointed if you keep admonishing him and putting the sugar back, hoping that his self-control will kick in. Do something! Put that sugar bowl on a higher shelf!

This doesn’t just apply to sin, either. When I was studying abroad in college, I fell suddenly into one of the deepest depressions of my life. I caught myself stopping in the middle of the staircase, trying to come up with a reason to take the next step. What finally brought me out of it was happening upon a quote similar to the one above, which reminded me that sitting there, being depressed, was never going to improve things. I had an impulse to pick up my homework, which was a reading from St. Thomas Aquinas, just to give myself something to do other than focus on my despair. To my surprise, I got completely caught up in the reading, and I was out of the depression when I finished. (Thank you, St. Thomas!) The chapter I read wasn’t particularly relevant to my situation or anything I was particularly interested in; it was just the act of doing something normal, something to take me out of myself, that rescued me.

When you’re stuck in a rut, don’t worry about finding the absolute best thing to do with yourself–just do something! You’ll be moving forward.

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Attitude of Heart

A quick review of a spiritual self-help book that has meant a lot to me.  (I’ve also written about this book here.)  God kept putting this book in my path, through various recommendations and offhand mentions, until my sister sent me a copy out of the blue and I finally read it.  These days it’s one of those books I give to people so often that I like to keep an extra copy on hand.  (This post ran in its original form on Simcha Fisher’s blog.)

Searching for and Maintaining Peace: A Small Treatise on Peace of Heart by Fr. Jacques Philippe

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This is a small, extremely easy-to-read little book, written in a gentle and tender tone.  At first glance it seems to offer the kind of cliche spiritual advice that is hard to take to heart, but it is actually full of extremely practical advice about breaking destructive mental habits.

Fr. Philippe begins by dismantling the subtle temptation to fight the “wrong battle,” which he describes as the misplaced desire to attain peace by conquering all of our faults and all of the external obstacles to peace.

…if we expect peace…because everything is going well…and our desires are completely satisfied, …then it is certain that we will never know peace or that our peace will be extremely fragile and of short duration.

This is a double temptation–to doubt God’s mercy on our sins, and to doubt his ability or desire to aid us in our troubles.  Both lead to despair–either despair of salvation, or despair of any happiness and peace in this world.  If instead we contemplate Christ’s love for us, embodied in the Cross, we will gain the confidence we need to survive our trials, whether they go away or not.  Fr. Philippe describes his own peace after adoration, not as a feeling that conditions are going to improve, but as an “attitude of heart:”

The external situation was always the same, there were always problems to solve, but the heart had changed, and from then on, I could confront them peacefully.

Here’s a prayer upon making a decision, which demonstrates how effectively Fr. Philippe cuts through mental confusion and scrupulosity:

‘Lord, I have thought about it and prayed to know Your will.  I do not see it clearly, but I am not going to trouble myself any further.  I am not going to spend hours racking my brain….I know well that, even if I am mistaken, You will not be displeased with me, for I have acted with good intentions.  And if I have made a mistake, I know that You are able to draw good from this error….’  And I remain at peace.

One last snippet, which is explained further but makes a good mantra all by itself:

The reasons why we lose our peace are always bad reasons.

Do Catholics Have Crisis Pregnancies?

Let me tell you about a woman I know.  She is a cradle Catholic and firm pro-lifer, happily married to a supportive and loving husband.  She lives in a modern apartment in a safe, friendly neighborhood, and her family’s income is enough to provide for their necessities and a few luxuries too.  She has a wonderful support group of like-minded family and friends.  But last year, she became unexpectedly pregnant and it was one of the biggest crises she ever faced.

She was thrown into panic–she had two children under 4, and already felt overwhelmed; she was on anti-depressants; they already had four people squished into a 3-room apartment, and couldn’t afford to move; they had enormous student debt; and her husband was scheduled to be in the middle of an unpaid internship the month the baby was due.  She worked a physically demanding part-time job, and the pregnancy brought with it panic attacks, severe insomnia and nightmares, back pain so bad it made her limp for a few months, and depression that occasionally reached the point of suicidal thoughts.  She was angry at God, afraid of the future, and resentful of the baby.  She felt horribly guilty that she couldn’t view the baby in her womb as anything but a burden, and she felt ashamed to be so overwhelmed when she had such a fortunate life.  She was so scared of another pregnancy after this one that she was flooded with temptations to take birth control or get sterilized.  And once, at the darkest point, the thought of abortion came into her mind.

This woman is me.  I couldn’t believe it.  I didn’t think it was possible for someone as fortunate as me to have a crisis pregnancy.  Thanks to God, and to my marvelous group of friends and family, the temptation never returned.  But it opened my eyes to the fact that anyone can have a crisis pregnancy…and this means that anyone can be tempted by abortion.  I already knew that many women get pushed into abortions, and suffer terrible guilt afterwards; but now I felt like I understood what they have gone through.  I gained a much deeper compassion for women planning or recovering from abortions, a compassion which I hope will continue to guard me against ever stereotyping or vilifying them.

I also learned something about the pro-life movement (or at least, that part of it that I’ve experienced): we are so concerned with welcoming new life and affirming the blessing of parenthood that we pretend we’re always happy about it.  When a woman like me finds herself in a crisis pregnancy, she may be scared to admit it.  After all, doesn’t she realize how many infertile people would kill to be in her position?  And doesn’t she understand what a blessing fertility is?  And shouldn’t she make sure everyone sees her joy, so she can witness to the Gospel?  When a pro-life woman with several kids gets the usual “are you done yet?” or “how on earth can you manage?” comment in the supermarket, she feels compelled to reply with something enthusiastic, like “we’re happy to have as many children as God gives us!” or “oh, we love having a house full of little ones!”  I used to always have a cheerful reply like this waiting, so I could be a good witness for the secular world.  But during this pregnancy, things were so bad that I couldn’t muster up a pro-life rallying cry.  I couldn’t even joke about the trials of pregnancy.  It was deadly serious.  So instead, I started admitting to people–first my husband, then my friends, then even my coworkers–that I was not expecting this, and I was having a hard time.  And suddenly, I didn’t feel alone anymore.  No one responded with “oh look, she was pro-life until she got pregnant!” or “I’m glad I’m not Catholic, I wouldn’t want to be drowning in diapers like her!”  Instead, I received the support and sympathy I needed.

Looking back, I think this may actually be a good form of witness, too.  Certainly, it’s good for secular people and pro-choicers to see examples of joyful parenthood; but it’s also good for them to see that, even when parenthood is a crisis, it’s worth it.  As a priest once said to me, you can’t be sure that you’re faithful until temptation comes along and you resist it.  You won’t really know that you’re pro-life until you are tempted with abortion and choose life; and nobody else will know it, either.  By all means, let’s show the world how happy a life open to God can be.  But let’s also be someone they can relate to–for their sake and for ours.

Many thanks to the strong and amazing Rebecca Frech, at the blog, Shoved to Them, whose post about crisis pregnancy inspired me.  These thoughts have been on my heart for a long time, but her post crystallized them in my mind and inspired me to write.  Her follow-up post gets a little more specific about temptation to abortion and solidarity with post-abortive women.  And by the way, here is the happy ending:

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I love this baby more than I have ever loved anyone else in my entire life.  I can’t help thinking that some of that is due to the hell I went through to bring her into the world.  I paid for her with my blood, sweat, and tears and she was worth it!