Sacrifice, not self-care

Make sure to put your own oxygen mask on first. When a plane is experiencing difficulties and the oxygen masks drop, you have to put your own oxygen mask on before you can put on the masks of others. You need to always make sure to take care of yourself first. — self-help speakers everywhere

I’ve been keeping track, and in roughly the last three years, at conferences, on retreats, and in a homily or two, I have heard the above “oxygen mask” analogy a self-care mantra 13 times. And every time I do, it grates on me.  

Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it. — Jesus of Nazareth (Mark 8:34-35)

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Cross in the St Viktor Church, Dülmen, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany, 2018 (image courtesy of wikimedia.org)

If there is one major thesis about self-care in the Gospel, it is this. No one can do it alone. We believe that Jesus Christ became man and died for us because we could not save ourselves. Before that he walked among the poor, healing the sick and lifting up the lowly because they were too broken to heal themselves and too beaten down to lift themselves up. 

But if you listen to contemporary culture, even among ministers, the message is always this: don’t forget about number one. Don’t get stressed out. Don’t sacrifice your well-being. If someone else is struggling, well, you can try to help to a point but ultimately, they need to make time for themselves.

This message does not work for any of the real problems facing us. That advice does not help the truly oppressed.

How about the women in Vietnam toiling away in sweatshops, literally beaten when they try to organize for better wages and conditions? Do they need to focus on self-care?

What about the elderly gentleman at our parish whose wife now has dementia? He can’t care for her, can’t navigate the medical bureaucracy, and is becoming increasingly enfeebled himself. 

What about the tragic, uncontrollable epidemic of gun violence and mass shootings that are causing our children, as they practice active shooter drills in school, to wonder if today is their last? 

These situations do not call for self-care. They require the help of others, of those outside the situation, to enter into the fray. The women in Vietnam need for us to stop buying products from the companies that enslave them and for us to care more about them and their plight than we do about looking good. The gentleman at our parish needs his friends to bring him meals and take him to doctors’ appointments and to tend to his needs. In the wake of the recent shootings in New Zealand, a young Muslim from the area, Nakita Valerio, posted a quick message that soon went viral: “Shouting ‘self-care’ at people who actually need ‘community care’ is how we fail people.” I couldn’t agree with her more. 

We need each other. We cannot solve our biggest problems alone. When we are strong, we need to truly exert ourselves in the causes of justice and wear ourselves out, even hurt ourselves in the struggle. And when we are weak, when we can’t do it alone, we should pray to God that we have communities that will lift us up in turn. 

In the lowest moments of my life,  I did not need a day at the spa I needed my friends to help me, to save me. I was lucky, privileged and blessed that they did. We need to create such communities for all.

This last year in youth ministry was hard. One of our students suddenly passed away from Leukemia. He was a wonderful and charismatic boy, and he left many grieving friends, myself included. Another student tried to kill himself. Between struggles with drugs, sex, parents divorcing, bullying and all sorts of other upheavals, it was an unusually grief-filled year. I was unusually grief-filled as a result. There were nights when I couldn’t sleep, entire nights when I prayed for my kids. And God and I talked about a lot of things. But you want to know one thing He never said to me? If I can, for a moment, presume to know the will of the Almighty and hear His voice, I will go out on a limb and say not once did I ever see in scripture or hear from the Lord, “Keep your distance. Don’t love them too much. This is their problem, not yours. Take care of yourself.”

As the year went on, I found my daily prayers changing. On Sundays, the day most filled with youth activities at our parish, I used to pray for strength to make it through unscathed. I soon realized that was not possible; that, actually, being invulnerable requires being very disinterested and ultimately not very Christ-like. 

For to be vulnerable means to be woundable (from the Latin vulnus, meaning wound), and what is the story of the incarnation and passion if not that God himself was willing to be wounded, indeed to die, for the good of those he loved? So now I pray, “God, feel free to allow me to be wounded in your service today. Feel free to wear me out and use me up. Just promise you’ll heal me when it’s over.”

It’s not that I like being hurt. It’s not even that I don’t think self-care is important (even Jesus took his time in solitude to pray and prepare). It’s just that maybe we are focusing on it too much. Maybe we’ve taken it too far, believe in it too much, idolize it.  Believing in the cross means we can’t expect to be well all the time, and believing in the resurrection means we can’t expect to be entirely well at all in this life. We should expect to be wounded, for a while at least, just as much as we should long to be made whole.

So, might I propose a better analogy? Perhaps we should think of these ubiquitous oxygen masks, not like the ones in airplanes but the ones attached to the oxygen tanks that firefighters strap on before they race into a blaze. 

Okay, fair enough; put your oxygen mask on first. 

But the “oxygen” is not your own self-interested little ritual of wellness it’s a real, lived connection to Christ and to a community that has your back. That is what you need to survive. But then, once that mask is on, go into the blaze. Go into the flames and the heat and the danger of the world’s real injustices to bring that connection to others. 

Because your brothers and sisters can’t breathe. They are burning up. They need the help of allies, activists, friends, servants, saints — whole communities of them because if they could have done it on their own they already would have. 

Or, to put it another way take up your cross.

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

Steven-Cottam-babySteven Cottam serves as youth minister at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. He lives in Mechanicsville, Virginia, with his lovely wife, precocious daughter and adorable infant son. He is an active member of Common Change, a group that seeks to gather and distribute tithe money in a relational and collaborative way. He has been friends with Sister Julia ever since they were students, coworkers, and cooking club members together at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, Illinois. His interests and passions include language learning, gardening, coffee, and becoming a Jedi Master.

The joy of being surpassed

Pass on what you have learned. Strength, mastery, hmm … but weakness, folly, failure also. Yes: failure, most of all. The greatest teacher, failure is. Luke, we are what they grow beyond. That is the true burden of all masters. – Yoda, to Luke Skywalker, “The Last Jedi”

It is good to remind myself, every now and then, that in a very real sense I am working to put myself out of a job. In two of the most important roles in my life, that of father and youth minister, I will only have succeeded if and when I am fully and finally replaced.

This has never been more on my mind than it has been this last month. Recently, I became a godfather for the first time, flying out to Chicago to stand beside my best friend and his wife as they baptized their brand new little girl. Not two weeks later, I watched as a good friend of mine was ordained a priest. And in both of these holy moments — both moments in which I stopped and praised God for the people in my life and the grace of the sacraments — my time of prayer was filled with reminders of being replaced.

The first was in the prayer I prayed for my goddaughter. Looking down into her small face and holding her tiny hand, and then later in a stolen moment of prayer after the baptismal ceremony, I found myself praying: “God, let her be the best of us. Let her surpass all of us in holiness. Let her become such a saint that we end up seeking her intercession, and may her prayers for us be even more effective than ours for her because she is that much more in your favor.”

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Steven’s friend and newly-ordained priest, Father Dan Molochko (standing), blesses Bishop Barry C. Knestout. Image courtesy of Steven Cottam.

At the ordination, in a liturgy filled with incredibly meaningful and memorable moments, the most impactful for me was watching my friend and newly-minted priest exchange the sign of peace with my spiritual director — another good friend, an incredibly gentle and holy man, a trusted mentor, and a priest who just weeks ago announced his retirement. I watched these two friends of mine embrace — one just beginning his priestly ministry, the other reaching the tail end of his — and found myself praying that my friend would be an even better priest than my mentor was.

May my goddaughter surpass me in holiness. May our new priests surpass our veteran priests in service.

What am I to make of this longing to be replaced and for those I love to be replaced as well? It is perhaps one of the most common temptations we humans face — the desire to be important. We want to be wanted; we wanted to be needed. We want people to recognize our talents and accomplishments. We love to sit at the head table at banquets and the most important seats in the assembly. Such temptations are always problematic, but in ministry, they can be especially insidious. Perhaps the greatest reason is simply for the fact that the desire to be recognized and applauded — especially for doing the work of the Gospel — is so foreign to the mind of Christ.

The Christian life is a constant call to humility, and that means seeking the lowest place. Christ constantly emptied himself — he took on flesh and claimed his place alongside the lowly and died alongside them. Christ instructed us to wash up and smile when we fast and to not let even our right hand know how much our left hand is giving. As ministers seeking to emulate this way, that means constantly dying to ourselves by always looking for places to step aside and let new ministers take up our tasks. And when they surpass us, when they do what we did even better than we did it, we ought not to sulk or pout or complain about being forgotten. We should rejoice in that God is glorified once again in a new generation.

Yet, so often we do not. As liturgical ministers, we refuse to skip a turn or take a seat and allow someone else to serve at Mass. At soup kitchens, we have to be the one to dish up, and we make the new people wash dishes in the back. We let the new girl talk at the meeting but make sure to cut her off if she starts contributing ideas that outshine our own. We sit in our place, our hard-won place, and we refuse to budge an inch.

How much better would it be if we rejoiced each time we were surpassed, especially if we had the honor of playing some special role in forming the one who replaces us? It would be all the better because being surpassed by our students is also the most natural thing in the world. If we do a good job of teaching — if we are able to pass on all we have learned to the young people we mentor — how could they not surpass us? They would have the knowledge of everything we have learned, including all the mistakes and failures we had to fight through the hard way and of which we tell the tales in the hopes of sparing them that same strife. Yet, they would also have the knowledge of everything they have learned for themselves.

In C.S. Lewis’ book “Perelandra,” Lewis imagines a foreign world much like our own but unfallen. In it, the main character meets the “Eve” of this world — Tinidrill. Tinidrill is destined to be the mother of all the people who come after her, and she has a conversation in which it is revealed to her that she will not live forever but instead will be replaced and surpassed by her children and her children’s children as the history of her world marches on. The main character, and I think most readers too, expect her to be bothered by this. But she is not. Instead, she rejoices. She praises Maleldil (her name for God), saying:

How beautiful is Maleldil and how wonderful are all His works: perhaps He will bring out of me daughters as much greater than I as I am greater than the beasts. It will be better than I thought. I had thought I was to be always Queen and Lady. But I see now … I may be appointed to cherish when they are small and weak children who will grow up to overtop me and at whose feet I shall fall.

In all our dealings with the young, or with whomever we have the privilege of preaching the Gospel, let us work to make saints far greater than ourselves. Let us work to be surpassed, and let us be filled with joy when we are. Let us decrease so that Christ might increase as these new workers in the vineyard proclaim him. As Litany of Humility (a great prayer for striving against just the sort of temptations we are discussing here) reminds us: “That others may become holier than I, provided that I may become as holy as I should, Jesus grant me the grace to desire it.” Amen.

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

Steven-Cottam-babySteven Cottam serves as youth minister at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. He lives in Mechanicsville, Virginia, with his lovely wife, precocious daughter and adorable infant son. He is an active member of Common Change, a group that seeks to gather and distribute tithe money in a relational and collaborative way. He has been friends with Sister Julia ever since they were students, coworkers, and cooking club members together at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, Illinois. His interests and passions include language learning, gardening, coffee, and becoming a Jedi Master.

Preaching the Gospel for the first time … again

kids-listening
Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

I sat down in front of 15 pre-K students for our bi-weekly Bible story time, expecting more or less to follow our routine. Every Wednesday and Friday I join them for a 15-minute story session, telling toddler-friendly versions of Sunday’s scripture or the classic Bible stories that adults clean up and present to young children: Adam and Eve, Noah, Daniel and the lions’ den and the rest. After the story I field questions for a few minutes (I’m most often asked whether or not I think someone’s new shoes were cool), end with a prayer and head back up to my office to prepare for my afternoon lessons with the older kids.

But this day we did not follow our routine. This day was Good Friday, and I had brought for them a story called “A Very Sad Day” which, albeit in simple terms, described Jesus’ crucifixion. It concluded, “So the soldiers took Jesus away. They nailed him on a wooden cross and left him to die. Jesus’ family and friends were very sad. They had lost a very special person.” I closed the story and waited for questions. There were none. That should have told me that something was off … they always had questions. But I didn’t notice. Maybe it was the routine; maybe it was the hunger from fasting that day; maybe it was just the inexperience of being a first-year educator. Nonetheless, I didn’t notice the lack of questions or the looks on their faces.

I went back to my office and began to prep for the afternoon. After about 10 minutes I got a phone call. “Hello, Mr. Steven. Hi, its Mrs. C., in the pre-K room. Could you come back, please? Something is … not right. Please come down. Right away.” I went right away.

When I arrived, the class was in pandemonium. One kid was at the sand center, just dumping sand on the floor. One kid was punching a wall. Two kids were on the floor, hugging each other and crying. Another was spinning in a circle. Another was ripping up paper from his notebook. They all looked upset. I turned to Mrs. C. with a quizzical what-in-the-world face. And she looked at me and said, “They’re really upset. About Jesus.”

I gathered the kids on the story carpet, and started asking what they were feeling.

The chorus of tiny voices responded “Mad. Sad. Why?”

I struggled to understand what exactly was going on. “I don’t understand. Our stories have had death in them before. You know what death is. We had that whole conversation when Charlie’s grandpa died.”

“This is different.”

“Why?”

“Because Jesus is the best. It’s not fair. He didn’t do anything. He’s the best.”

“The best at what? Tell me what you mean?”

“He’s the best.”

“But,” I continue, “is this a surprise? You guys come to Mass. Haven’t you heard the parts at the end about when this happens?”

They blink, uncomprehending. I guess not.

“But I know we’ve talked about this before. I mean, look, there, that crucifix on the back of the wall. That’s a statue of Jesus. Did you not know that statue was about this story?”

“That’s Jesus!!” one little girl screamed. The tiny voices descended into a clamor of shock and outrage.

I felt myself losing control of the situation so I quickly interrupted them all. “Well, wait … wait. If you haven’t heard this story before then you haven’t heard the next one either! Do you know what happened next?”

They sat in quiet and skepticism before asking the question “No … what happens next?”

“Wait here!” I leaped up, gave a nod to Mrs. C. and sprinted, as fast as I could, faster than I thought I could, up the stairs to my office. I grabbed the toddler Bible and headed back down, faster still. I didn’t want to keep them waiting, not another second. Another teacher saw me running and asked where the fire was. “Christ is Risen!” I yelled over my shoulder, and plummeted back into the room.

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“The Disciples Peter and John Running to the Sepulchre on the Morning of the Resurrection” by Eugene Burnand (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

I sat back down in front of the kids. “This is the story of the first Easter. Jesus’ friends buried him in a cave. They rolled a huge stone across the doorway. But when they came back, the stone had been rolled away …” When the story ended they clapped. They cheered. Several pairs hugged each other. One started crying in relief. It was like watching a tiny team of NASA scientists pull of a moon landing.

When I finally I walked back up to my office, I lowered myself into my chair and started to think. When was the last time this story had affected me like that? When had it stopped affecting me like that? How had I become someone who not only didn’t see this story for what it was — the greatest possible tragedy, the boldest possible comeback but I had become so accustomed I couldn’t foresee how it would sound to new listeners. All year I had told these young students many from non-Catholic homes, many who had never heard these stories except from my telling that Jesus was their friend, that he was the best possible man, that he was the nicest possible person. And then I had killed him, without warning, and I didn’t expect them to react?

“I’m sorry God. I’ve stood too close to you for too long and have become careless in your presence. I’m living next to a waterfall, and I’ve ceased to hear the sound. Help me hear again.”

We live in a world, in a nation, in a culture, where many have not heard the stories of Jesus. This is true even within the church. In my religious education classes it is not uncommon to have high school students who can barely relate to any stories from the Gospel. This can be frustrating at times. But it’s also an opportunity — an opportunity only missionaries get. We get to tell the story of Jesus to listeners for the first time.

Just last week I was with 10 high school students in religious education, and none of them had heard the story of the woman caught in adultery.

“You’ve never heard this story? It’s beautiful. It’s amazing. Here it is. So, these religious scholars, right, they think they’re holier than everyone else. And they don’t like Jesus taking that away from them. So they lay this trap for him. They bring him a woman caught in the very act of adultery …”

At the end of the story, they are silent. “Jesus did that?” one asked.

“Yes, Jesus did that,” I said.

“But that’s so … so … cool?” questioned another.

“Yes,” I said. “He is. Very. He did stuff like that all the time. Is it any wonder so many of us love him?”

“Tell us another one!” a third student said.

To explain these stories to listeners for the first time can be a challenge. It can be especially frustrating when dealing with Catholic students, to think they’ve made it through 10 or more years of life and not understand the basic story that underpins the faith of the church of which they are a member. But mostly it’s a privilege. To explain to people why you fell in love why you are in love with the God who saved you? There is no greater honor nor is there a greater delight.

But you have to be careful. You have to be sure that you don’t stop hearing them. Because if you do, if you cease to hear the story in the re-telling, then the love goes out of your voice, and it’s not the same story any more. Then you can get blindsided when you hurt people with your careless retelling or, worse yet, you bore them. Then you fail to do justice to the story and thereby to the man and the God.

So my Lenten prayer for you is that you are able to hear Jesus’ story for the first time … again. There truly is no more powerful story in heaven or on Earth, if only we have the ears to hear it.

 

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

 

Steven-Cottam-babySteven Cottam serves as youth minister at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. He lives in Mechanicsville, Virginia, with his lovely wife, precocious daughter and adorable infant son. He is an active member of Common Change, a group which seeks to gather and distribute tithe money in a relational and collaborative way. He has been friends with Sister Julia ever since they were students, coworkers, and cooking club members together at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, Illinois. His interests and passions include language learning, gardening, coffee, and becoming a Jedi Master.

Do you know who you’re talking to?

As I walked down the hall and into our parish’s Spanish language youth group meeting after a very trying and somewhat disappointing middle school lesson on the Ten Commandments, I was fully immersed in beleaguered-teacher mode. I entered and quickly began an Advent lesson on Mary. We began reviewing the stories of the Annunciation, the Visitation, and the Nativity, and I was asking questions and giving answers in a pretty rote fashion: What’s the angel’s name? Who does he visit first? Who is Elizabeth the mother of? Yes, that’s right … no, that’s wrong … and so forth. But before long a more engaging question came up from one of the students: why doesn’t Mary get scolded for questioning the angel?

I paused. It’s a decent question. Gabriel shows up to Zechariah and announces a miraculous birth. When Zechariah asks how this shall come to pass given the age of himself and his wife, the angel takes this as a doubt-filled affront and strikes him mute. Fast forward a little bit, when Gabriel shows up to Mary and announces a miraculous birth. Mary asks how this shall come to pass given the circumstances of her virginity. Gabriel, instead of becoming angry, gives a fuller account and praises Mary even further. What gives?

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Henry Ossawa Tanner’s “The Annunciation” (image courtesy commons.wikimedia.org)

The students give various answers. They seem to me insufficient, and I say so; I’m the teacher after all. No, that’s not right. No, I don’t think so. I give some explanation which seems to me semi-convincing, and the kids nod. I prepare to move on. But another hand goes up, “No Mr. Steven, I don’t think that’s right. I think there’s a better explanation.”

“Oh,” I say, skeptical. “And what is that?”

The student continues. “I mean, I just think the angel knows who he is talking to … the mother of the King. In some way his own mother. You cannot talk to your mother that way. Maybe your brothers and sisters, maybe your friends, but not your mother. I would never, and surely the angel is better at these things than I am.”

I had never thought of that before. The student’s response knocked me out of my haze and into a moment of speechless consideration. I’ll admit, I don’t know the real answer to this question (who can pretend to know the minds of the angels? The mind of God?), but I loved his answer and his perception humbled me. I was no longer in teacher modeI was awake now, and pondering this possibility right alongside the rest of the class.

I just think the angel knows who he is talking to.

My student comes from a home where there is a much greater culture of traditional respect than in the home I grew up in. Most of the time, I talked to my parents any which wayif anything, familiarity was a sign of closeness and affection, not respect. And while both have their place, I realized that the discussion with this student meant I had missed somethingI couldn’t see what he could.

It is a lesson I have learned before and which I clearly need to learn again; perhaps one we must learn over and over countless times: we can only see the fullness of truth in a community of faith. Our viewpoints are limited and all those we encounter know something we don’t. We can learn something new from anyone at any time if we are willing to set down the answer book and listen. Just as an adolescent Jewish girl from Nazareth can outrank an angel in holiness, so too can students surpass their teacher’s insight; so too can we all be outmatched in wisdom by those we underestimate. Real wisdom is not ignoring those lessons when they come.

But the student’s answer is also challenging on a different level. As I left class that day I found myself thinking, “Do I know who I am talking to?” My students are kids; kids I am entrusted with teaching and correcting. But do I also recognize them as brothers and sisters and fellow disciples? People with unique experiences of God that frequently surpass my own in holiness? People who had a relationship with God before I stepped in the classroom and who will have one long after they have moved on from our time together?

Do I know who I am talking to in the people I meet every day? Do I know who I am talking to in the person on the street? Do I know who I am talking to when I argue with my enemy? C.S. Lewis once said that there are no ordinary people:

There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization — these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit — immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously — no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner — no mere tolerance or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.

All too often I don’t know this. For me, familiarity might not breed contempt but it can sure breed blindness and ingratitude. The people I see every day my family, my students, my co-workers and acquaintances —  become normal, and I can no longer see them each for the unique word of God that is spoken in them. The unique aspect of the Divine Person that they are in the world.

My student gave me a great gift on the first day of Advent and so it has become my Advent prayer:

Renew my vision. Let me see people as they really are; let me see them as you see them. Let me take no one for granted, and let me recognize your face in all I meet.

Lord, let me see who I am talking to. Amen.

About the Rabble Rouser:

Steven Cottam

Steven-Cottam-babySteven Cottam serves as youth minister at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. He lives in Mechanicsville, Virginia, with his lovely wife, precocious daughter and adorable infant son. He is an active member of Common Change, a group which seeks to gather and distribute tithe money in a relational and collaborative way. He has been friends with Sister Julia ever since they were students, coworkers, and cooking club members together at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, Illinois. His interests and passions include language learning, gardening, coffee, and becoming a Jedi Master.

Toward the fire

In 2002, during the months in which the The Boston Globe released the findings of its investigation into wrong doing on behalf of the Catholic clergy in the Diocese of Boston, I was a high school junior preparing for confirmation. The investigation exposed a widespread pattern of sexual abuse from several Catholic priests, five of them ultimately convicted of criminal charges and another — covered up on behalf of church leaders who knew about or at least suspected the abuse and hid it — for allowing it to continue. The initial investigation garnered national and international attention, and ultimately led to additional investigations in several other dioceses and in other countries like Canada and Ireland.

I remember being heartbroken for the victims and, as someone preparing to be fully initiated into the church, personally humiliated. Many of my classmates, especially those who had been Catholic and who had chosen to leave, sneered at me and asked how I could choose to be part of an institution that supported rapists. I remember sobbing in adoration for the victims, both because of their unfathomable pain and because I felt powerless to help them, powerless to do anything but be a punching bag for the community I loved due to the crimes of men I hated.

My classmates demanded to know how I could continue to support the institution and I realized that to me, the church was not an institution. It was a family. A family I loved. And my family was in trouble. The family homestead was on fire. It turns out that some of my fathers were deadbeat dads … to put it mildly. They weren’t really my fathers at all … they just dressed like they were. They pretended to care for us kids, but instead they violated my brothers and sisters and then set the house on fire. It was burning down around me.

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Image courtesy Pixabay

I remember leaving adoration one night at 2 a.m., standing in front of my parish building with all of this on my mind thinking, “The church is on fire. The only response is to run.” But the question was: which way? “Do I run from the flames, or do I run toward them?”

In the time since that night I have become a youth minister, partly because I have seen how deadly serious, how incredibly important the preparation and protection of our young people is. I have become a facilitator of “Virtus: Protecting God’s Children.” It’s a program responsible for training volunteers in the creation, implementation and enforcement of safe standards for children and youth programming. As part of those training sessions, I show a video that includes confessions from child abuse perpetrators and testimonies given by their victims. It is incredibly hard to watch. I have led dozens of such training sessions … enough times that I have the videos nearly memorized. And so I could do other work while those videos play. I could busy myself with emails or calendaring activities. But I don’t. I watch every time. And every time I burn.

I burn with sorrow for their pain. I burn with anger at the injustice. I burn with conviction that I will do everything I can to build a world of safety and security for my kids, both for the son and daughter who live under my roof and for my little brothers and sisters who live with me in the shared house of our faith.

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Image courtesy Pixabay

I’m not sure why I watch. Perhaps it’s to remind myself of how important this all is. Perhaps it’s a form of self-inflicted penance – not for any crimes I have committed, but on behalf of the wider church and the ways it’s failed. Perhaps it’s that the sheer power of the testimony that calls out for continual witness. But it’s always hard, and I find myself praying, “Holy Spirit, fill me with your fire, so I can stand in these flames of tragedy, until every last one is put out.”

The men who have betrayed the church by victimizing those who trusted them, either in outright abuse or by protecting abusers, are not the church. As Father John Lankeit said in working through his own thoughts on the subject, they are to priests what Judas was to the apostles or the devil himself to the angels … at the moment of their crime they amputated and scarred the body of Christ. They scarred my family. But I love my family, and I’m not going to abandon them – especially in times of trial. They mean everything to me. They introduced me to the Lord, to the Gospel; they have given me a peace that surpasses all understanding, a joy beyond all telling. I will not allow criminals to take from my children the chance to find that same joy and grace, the chance for them to know the church that I have known – the community of quiet saints who don’t make headlines but who serve the poor and live lives of mercy and work every day for justice. I have seen religious sisters save the lives of abandoned orphans, I have watched a priest give food and medicine to a homeless man dying of neglect, and I have seen a thousand small acts of heroism by normal people who are sincerely trying to live and love like Christ. I have seen what the church can and should be. I will not concede my family to monsters, or my house to the flames they set.

I don’t write these words to defend myself or to assure you that I am part of the solution. I write these words only to say what I am absolutely convinced of: the Church of Christ is worth too much to let its betrayers define it. I cannot step away and let that happen. I would rather burn.

Steven Cottam

Steven-Cottam-babySteven Cottam serves as youth minister at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. He lives in Mechanicsville, Virginia, with his lovely wife, precocious daughter and adorable infant son. He is an active member of Common Change, a group which seeks to gather and distribute tithe money in a relational and collaborative way. He has been friends with Sister Julia ever since they were students, coworkers, and cooking club members together at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. His interests and passions include language learning, gardening, coffee, and becoming a Jedi Master.

Namesake

baby

“Lord, have mercy/ On my descendants/ For they know not/ What they do/ For they know not

Who you are.” ~ “Pillar of Truth” by Lucy Dacus

It’s been about four hours since the birth, and now that everyone is calm and happy and relaxing, I take a minute to steal away. I descend softly down the stairs, down the corridor, and into the dim, cool, silent wood and stone chapel. On the side is the naive where the tabernacle waits, the red lamp is lit and glowing. I kneel.

“Thank you. Thank you for the gift of my son. Thank you for the gift of his life, his healthy delivery. For his mother, his sister, our whole family. I’m really overwhelmed with gratitude for these blessings. Thank you. Really.”

I pause. I look around. I breathe in the quiet for a moment.

“If I’m being honest … I’m a bit nervous. About raising a son. It’s a … confusing time to be raising a young man. A confusing time to know what it means to be a man, with so many different, conflicting ideas of manhood competing for attention. Some quite uplifting, but so many so destructive, so toxic … so short of what I hope my son will be and become.

“That’s why we named him after you. Joshua. He’ll know you by a different name of course — the Latin derivative, instead of the Hebrew — but still, he’s named for you. Please teach him, your namesake, by your example of what it means to be a man.

babyMeet baby Joshua (image courtesy of Steven Cottam)

“Teach him that courage does not mean the willingness to inflict pain, but the willingness to endure it for the good.

“Teach him that it is stronger to control anger, greed, and lust than to give it free rein and inflict it upon others.

“Teach him that the proper use of power is the defense of the powerless.

“Teach him that to protect and provide for his family does not stop with those who share his features, but extends to all his brothers and sisters in need.

“Teach him that it is better to die as an innocent, than to live as an oppressor.

“So many have said to me, about my son, ‘How exciting, a son!’

’Yes, exciting!’ I say.

‘He’ll get to be the one to pass on your name.’

‘Well, yes,’ I say. ‘Maybe. Probably. Unless of course he is called to a different path. To be a religious brother. Or a priest. Should we be so blessed.’

‘Well, sure … but you don’t want your only son to be a priest. Who would pass on your name?’

“Hmm. Good question. Who would pass on my name? I’ll be honest Lord. It doesn’t matter to me if my name is passed on. It doesn’t matter to me if my descendants remember me. But please, Lord, let my son pass on your name. Let my descendants remember you. Let them know who you are.

“Please remember this your namesake. Remember him by granting him the grace to remember you — your name, your life, and to call upon you all the days of his.

“Amen.”

Steven Cottam

Steven-Cottam-babySteven Cottam serves as youth minister at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. He lives in Mechanicsville, Virginia, with his lovely wife, precocious daughter and adorable infant son. He is an active member of Common Change, a group which seeks to gather and distribute tithe money in a relational and collaborative way. He has been friends with Sister Julia ever since they were students, coworkers, and cooking club members together at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. His interests and passions include language learning, gardening, coffee, and becoming a Jedi Master.

So naive

“It [grace] strikes us when, year after year, the longed-for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage.”

~ Paul Tillich, “You Are Accepted”

You have to be pretty naive to be a Christian in today’s world.

This thought strikes me frequently and no more so than during the season of Lent. Lent is that season especially dedicated to penance and spiritual self-renewal and every year I treat my Lenten penances as a sort of Catholic version of New Year’s resolutions. This is the year that I am going to finally rid myself of that troublesome vice. This is the year I am going to improve myself beyond that pattern of sinful thought. This is the 40 days in which I will finally mortify my flesh sufficiently and begin living a saintly life.

And while Lent has undoubtedly been good for my soul, it so often falls short of my expectations. Most of my pet sins remain. Most of my largest spiritual struggles are still exactly that, entrenched in my soul as they always have been. This year my self-renunciation is aimed at a spiritual trouble spot that I have been attempting to reform for years. For years.

I am naive to think that this Lent will be any different, any better. It is naive to think that, after falling 70 times seven times, this will be the time I get up and stay up.

Our society is faring no better than I am in its battle against its demons. The problems that have always plagued us plague us still. Columbine was 18 years ago and yet more children than ever are victims of a violence that back then was unthinkable, but now habitual. The sirens about the terrors of climate change have been sounding my entire life; now they are here, with Cape Town set to run out of water in mere months. Dorothy Day died in 1980, and yet her country is more inequitable and more violent than when she departed from it. Yet so many people — faithful people, and people of good will — continue to work and march and witness against injustice all the same.

We are naive to think that we can fix our broken world. It is naive to think that, after failing to heed the warning signs and to learn from the pain for so long, that now is the time things will change.

But here I should confess that I do not consider naiveté a bad quality, especially when it is not something we possess without realizing it but rather something we specifically cultivate. To be naive means to be simple and a little foolish, and it is sometimes simple foolishness that gives us the courage to persevere.

For all the darkness that surrounds us in our lifetimes alone we have seen miracles happen. For all the darkness that fills me I can think of some demons I have beaten, some sins I have shaken.

Naiveté, when chosen, when specifically engendered within ourselves, is the antidote to a cynical word. It means trusting people who are not trustworthy. It means forgiving someone you have already forgiven a multitude of times and believing this will be the last time you will need to. It means thinking they will be better this time. It means thinking you will be better this time.

But this foolish, simple belief is what makes the space, what gives the time for true repentance to occur. Our act of believing translates to endurance in the face of failure, and it is the very thing that helps bring about the conditions for change to be realized.

stonecutter-cartoon-zenpencils.com
Cartoon courtesy zenpencils.com

It takes a lot of telling to make a city know when it is doing wrong. However, that was what I was there for. When it didn’t seem to help, I would go and look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it would split in two, and I knew it was not that blow that did it, but all that had gone before together.

When my fellow-workers smiled, I used to remind them of the Israelites that marched seven times around Jericho and blew their horns before the walls fell. “Well, you go ahead and blow yours,” they said; “you have the faith.” And I did, and the walls did fall, though it took nearly twice seven years. But they came down, as the walls of ignorance and indifference must every time, if you blow hard enough and long enough, with faith in your cause and in your fellow-man. It is just a question of endurance. If you keep it up, they can’t.”

~ Jacob A. Riis (1849-1949), photojournalist and social reformer, on his attempts to improve living conditions for the poor in the slums of New York city. (I was introduced to the quote via this illustrated rendition of it.)

When we look at all the realities of our corrupt world, at our corrupt selves, and choose to try again anyway, we are being naive. But in just such instances, when we choose it freely, ‘to be naive’ means the exact same thing as ‘to have hope.’ And unlike the occasional unsuccessful Lenten resolution, hope is something that does not disappoint.

About the Rabble Rouser:

Steven-CottamSteven Cottam serves as youth minister at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. He lives in the Church Hill neighborhood of Richmond, Virginia, with his lovely wife, adorable daughter and very strange dog. He is an active member of Common Change, a group which seeks to gather and distribute tithe money in a relational and collaborative way. He has been friends with Sister Julia ever since they were students, coworkers, and cooking club members together at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. His interests and passions include Aikido, gardening, coffee, and becoming a Jedi Master.

Don’t blink

There is nothing everyone is so afraid of as of being told how vastly much he is capable of. You are capable of – do you want to know? – you are capable of living in poverty; you are capable of standing almost any kind of maltreatment, abuse, etc. But you do not wish to know about it, isn’t that so? You would be furious with him who told you, and only call that person your friend who bolsters you in saying: “No, this I cannot bear, this is beyond my strength, etc.” – From “The Diary of Soren Kierkegaard”

I turn to Mary when I just can’t take it anymore.

I am a person who can find myself suddenly overwhelmed. Perhaps I am looking out on the sorrow of the world. I read or hear reports of some tragedy – some dreadful violence – and my heart breaks. It’s senseless and staggering, and the grief is as deep as it is sudden. I can’t take it. So I turn away; I think about something else. I turn the page or change the channel. I look away.

Or sometimes I come across a great joy. I watch my daughter do something for the first time; discover something she’s never experienced before. I get a call from a friend finally home from the hospital – the treatment went better than expected. A long-distance friend is stopping by for a visit. I am overjoyed and overcome with gratitude, and get lost in the celebration. My heart is bursting. So I make a joke to break through the sublime, or I trivialize the moment. I look away.

Sometimes I am battered by banality. It’s not the light or the dark that assaults me, but mundane gray. Another hour of chores. Another cold and frustrating traffic-filled commute. Another busy tone while I wait on hold. Another bill, another task. Tedium seeps into my bones and I want to scream. I daydream or imagine I’m elsewhere. I look away.

And in these moments, when I can catch myself, I turn to my mother. Because Mary never looked away. Mary opened her heart to all that God had to give her. One of the most frequently repeated observations about Mary in Scripture is that she watches and listens, then reflects and ponders.

But she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. (Luke 1:29)

And Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart. (Luke 2:19)

Standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother’s sisters, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary of Magdala. (John 19:25)

When Mary was confronted with the glad tidings of the angel, she did not look away. She did not diminish or shirk the joy. She did not, in a moment of self-effacing low self-esteem, deny the blessing and demand God find someone worthier. She embraced it, and cried out in joy thanking God for his blessings and his faithfulness.

pregnant-Mary-joy

 

She did not flee from the suffering of her son. She kept in her heart the prophecy foreseeing that same heart pierced, and she stayed at the foot of the cross through the piercing. She bore witness to it until the end.

Mary accompanied her son and his mission in all the moments in between. She watched and observed her young son faithfully, day in and day out, as he advanced in wisdom and age and favor. She stayed with his disciples after the sorrow, in those strange and fearful and breathless days in the upper room while they all waited for what would come next.

Mary rejoiced and mourned fully, tasting the sweet and the bitter and every flavor in between. She gave each part of her life her full attention and countless hours of reflection, so as to fully receive the gift God was giving her in that moment. I have heard it said that Mary, in her perfect faithfulness, can come off as inhuman – a holy statue, too placid, too “good.” This is not the scriptural Mary. Mary felt more than I have – she felt higher highs and lower lows. In this way, she is more human than I might ever be.

In this new year, I ask for Mary’s strength to be fully present. To sit in my sorrow and that of others and not run or hide from it, and to celebrate with people in their joy and not be embarrassed by it. To take even the dull moments and accept them with open hands, as moments to pause and reflect and to stay faithful.

And when everyone else around me says it’s too much, that it’s beyond my strength, that I have to find a way to shake of these unbearable burdens, I hope I will hear my mother’s voice, clearly and brightly cutting through the din: “You can bear it. You can.

“You are stronger than you feel you are now.”

About the Rabble Rouser:

Steven-CottamSteven Cottam serves as youth minister at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. He lives in the Church Hill neighborhood of Richmond, Virginia, with his lovely wife, adorable daughter and very strange dog. He is an active member of Common Change, a group which seeks to gather and distribute tithe money in a relational and collaborative way. He has been friends with Sister Julia ever since they were students, coworkers, and cooking club members together at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. His interests and passions include Aikido, gardening, coffee, and becoming a Jedi Master.

Again

I tense up slightly as I see my daughter toddling over to me holding the telltale green and blue box, replete with several cartoon dinosaurs staring up at me. “Me want to do dinosaur puzzle,” she says.

“Please,” I entreat. “Not the dinosaur puzzle. We’ve done the dinosaur puzzle six times today.” I can’t take the dinosaur puzzle again. I could put the Iguanadon and his friends together in my sleep. “Please, pick something else.”

Her eyes and chin start to do her trademark wobble, indicating that the begging is about to begin. “But, me want to do dinosaur puzzle with you,” she implores. I quickly scan the room and realize that my options of finding a better activity are, in all honestly, very slim. Even if I could convince her to do something else, what would it be? Pony coloring back? 3 times today. Dress up tea party? 4 times today. Give a stuffed animal a doctor check-up? 8 times today. She is in the age of learning by repetition, and dinosaur puzzle or not, I am being called to sit and watch her do something slowly that I have already sat and watched her do slowly several times today. “Fine,” I sigh. “Dinosaur puzzle.” “Yeah!” She squeals, and she upends its 48 large pieces onto the kitchen floor and ponderously begins unraveling its mysteries once again.

I sit next to her and bear witness to the saga as it unfolds. I’m not allowed to help, she can do it “all by meself;” I am merely supposed to confirm and encourage, and perhaps offer the occasionally helpful “oh, that doesn’t look quite right.”. At moments like this I am often tempted to retreat into a distraction. I pull out my phone and scan the news. I stand up and start to peruse the mail. But I can’t do this long before I get a small scowly face and a chiding, “Daddy, you not watching.” She knows when I’m not paying attention to her, or am only pretending to do so. “Sorry honey. Ok, I’m watching. Oh, look, you got another piece in.”

In my youth I always dreamed of having the chance to suffer mightily on behalf of others. I imagined I would be a missionary, braving cold, hunger, and every deprivation. I have rarely encountered such trials. However, one cross that I have frequently and fruitfully born is that of boredom.

Boredom is a hardship we don’t often think about because it’s so terribly unromantic. In fact, in our distracted, stimulation obsessed age boredom of any intensity, of any length of time, is seen as a vice. We flee from ourselves and our own thoughts, sometimes to the point of preferring pain just so we can have something to focus on.

In our collective flight from boredom, we frequently commit grave sin against ourselves and others. We ignore our children, because their tedious games bore us. We ignore our parents and the elderly, because we’ve already heard the stories they are going to tell. We ignore the dull or those less educated than ourselves, because their uninteresting conversation wastes our valuable time. Recently I had several parishioners tell me how tired they are of hearing about disaster relief and social justice protests – are we still talking about those things? Underlying all of these is the same subtle lie that is embedded in every sin – I am more important than you. My time is more important than your time. What I want is more important than what you need.

But perhaps the person I wound most gravely when I refuse to endure boredom is myself. For isn’t there something really sad and broken about someone, about all of us, when we stop seeing things for what they are? Every person I meet is a gift from God, is a son or daughter of the almighty. My boredom is caused by my blindness. As C.S. Lewis reminds us,

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which,if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship… there are no ordinary people. (The Weight of Glory).

Even boring tasks are frequently a chance to converse with God, and to remind oneself of the raw glory and wonder of mere existence. When I too quickly dismiss boredom with an external panacea, I miss the chance to fight through to the other side, where God renews my sight and becomes my vision.

courtesy of Steven Cottam

So I turn my attention back to the dinosaur puzzle… which is coming together, slowly but surely. The apatosaurus is half done now. My daughter’s toddling, repetitious play is just a phase, and the truth is I will sorely miss it when it has passed. My attention is my gift to her, and her reminder of what matters is her gift to me. Simone Weil said that “attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” I will give it to as many as I can, and I will try to do so gladly. When it is hard I will merely ask God that, like all sacrifices made out of love, it might bear much fruit.

 

About the Rabble Rouser:

Steven-CottamSteven Cottam serves as youth minister at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. He lives in the Church Hill neighborhood of Richmond, Virginia, with his lovely wife, adorable daughter and very strange dog. He is an active member of Common Change, a group which seeks to gather and distribute tithe money in a relational and collaborative way. He has been friends with Sister Julia ever since they were students, coworkers, and cooking club members together at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. His interests and passions include Aikido, gardening, coffee, and becoming a Jedi Master.

I’m so glad you called

His son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son.’ But his father ordered his servants, ‘Quickly bring the finest robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Take the fattened calf and slaughter it. Then let us celebrate with a feast, because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost, and has been found. Then the celebration began. Luke 15: 21-24

In my work as the RCIA coordinator at my parish, I get to meet a lot of people who are coming back to a practice of faith after a long time away. Many of these people are Catholics who were baptized as children but then, for any number of reasons, never finished their other sacraments of initiation. Some are members of other denominations or even other religious faiths who had a practice of prayer or spirituality that was eventually abandoned. In all cases, whatever the reason for the cessation of practice, the fire in their hearts for a relationship with God was never fully extinguished and they are now actively seeking to kindle that relationship once again.

In all of these people I see a spark of excitement. Something in their life has shifted and now, now is the time when they are taking the step to reach out to a community. When they talk about what brought them to my office, why precisely today is the day they decided to come join the parish or join the Church, there is always a light and heat in their voice that is electrifying.

However, all too often, I will see that light dim as they talk about how ashamed or sad they are for having been away for so long. They’ll share some hurtful or harmful thing that they did or that was done to them; that made them walk away from faith.

We were raised Catholic, but then my parents got divorced and we just never went after that.

My parents were Catholic, but I had an awful relationship with them and didn’t want anything to do with their faith.

I was really involved in a parish, but then I had a big falling out with the pastor and just couldn’t bring myself to be involved any more.

In high school I was deeply involved in the Church, but the life I led in college didn’t really match Catholic teachings. I felt like a hypocrite, and just stopped attending Mass.

My husband died and my church didn’t do anything to support me — I couldn’t really forgive God or them for making me go through that alone.

Image courtesy desiringgod.org

Many are angry — some at others, but just as many at themselves. Some are ashamed. More often than not, there is a real sorrow over the choice to walk away. Even if they were in some way a victim, most of them feel the need to apologize for their absence. This regret often takes the form of a personal apology to me, the representative of the Church with them in that moment.

When people apologize to me for their absence from faith, from prayer, I always feel a bit awkward responding. As a single and very flawed minister I do not speak for the whole Church, not even my whole parish, and much less for God Almighty. But in this moment, to this person, I do represent the Church and what I say next may very well make or break their decision to continue on this path. The good news is that I do think I have an inkling of what God might want to express, and it’s what I always try to share with the individual across my desk.

I am so glad you called.

I am so terribly happy you came in. We have been weaker without you, my brother. We have had a hole in our community waiting for you to fill, my sister. I am overjoyed that you want to build a relationship with God now, and I am giddy that you want to do so with this community of believers. I do not care in the slightest where you have been — all I care about is where you are headed, where we are headed, and that’s toward a deeper friendship with our God. Apologize if you must — I’m happy to listen to what you need to say. But when you’re done, I’m going to take you around the parish and show you off and introduce you to everyone and tell them all ‘Rejoice with me, because I have found our lost friend.’

People who have been actively practicing faith for a while can forget how intimidating returning to the Church can be. Even if someone has already decided that the Church is something they want to be a part of — something of beauty they want to return to — there is often some very real fear and trembling. All too often, Christians are seen as stern moralizers who care more about naming and categorizing sin than caring for the human hearts wounded by it, and too many people come back to the faith expecting a lecture. We need to overturn this image with a better one, the image that the Gospel maps out for us — for we have been given a blueprint of response when one of our brethren makes their way back home; do not fall into the sin of the older brother, clucking your tongue in judgement when you should celebrate at the feast. If you are a Christian, do not forget your duty to hospitality (and perhaps consider sharing this blog with someone who might feel conflicted about returning to the Church).

And so I say to everyone who is thinking of returning to the Church — to those who have been disaffected, betrayed, hypocritical, distracted, skeptical or hedonistic — Come home! Reach out! We miss you! Who you were yesterday is of no concern — today is what matters. Come back; you will not be met with judgement or hostility. And if you are, if you sadly happen to come across a rare minister who does not speak words of welcome to you, then call another parish. I guarantee you will not have to walk far down the road of return before you meet a brother or sister who will respond with the joy and celebration that God surely feels at your return home.

Steven Cottam

Steven-Cottam-babySteven Cottam serves as youth minister at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. He lives in the Church Hill neighborhood of Richmond, Virginia, with his lovely wife, adorable daughter and very strange dog. He is an active member of Common Change, a group which seeks to gather and distribute tithe money in a relational and collaborative way. He has been friends with Sister Julia ever since they were students, coworkers, and cooking club members together at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. His interests and passions include Aikido, gardening, coffee, and becoming a Jedi Master.