Thursday, 15 February 2018

Looking for God this Lent? Read a Book

Have you ever felt bored with God? Just sort of indifferent, wondering what all the fuss is about? Maybe you once had an experience of God, or even intellectually assented to the Christian faith, but life goes on, and now it’s just a not super-relevant part of your life or thoughts. People keep saying, “Pray! Read the bible!” And you try that too, but it’s all so boring, and you can’t stop your mind from wandering to more attractive avenues.
There may be a lot of reasons why you have reached this place. It could be that you are in a state of sin that has dulled your senses to God, and until you choose to face that sin, you’re stuck in this lifeless zone.
It could be that your life is too full of other stuff, fleeting pleasures, quick fixes, that you don’t know how to receive anything more fulfilling. You’ve been eating so much junk food that your body doesn’t remember how good a real meal can taste. (I was going to say a steak and a salad but not sure how that would be received in India.)
This is my theory: (It’s not exactly original, but anyway.) YOU ARE WHAT YOU CONSUME. Or even, you develop a taste for whatever you consume the most of. If you keep reading nothing but romance novels and Sidney Sheldons, your brain slowly turns to mush and can no longer accept anything more solid. If you spend most of your time watching TV shows, your mind will constantly be engaged by the drama you watch, and not have space for anything else. If your life is football, that is what you talk about, think about, fight about, and picture as you drift off to sleep. If you listen to The Greatest Showman soundtrack multiple times every day, you start picturing yourself as the star of a musical and practise dance steps in your head at every idle moment (this has NOTHING to do with my life). If you spend a lot of time talking to, thinking about and finding out more about a particular person, your relationship will probably go deeper.
Our minds are very connected to our hearts. Greater knowledge often leads to greater love. If you want to fall in love with God, you need to allow Him to capture your imagination again. Like Saint Paul said, be transformed by the renewal of your mind. How does that work? You, friend, are privileged enough to know how to read. The riches of the world are at your disposal! I refer, of course, to books.
Read a book! Read a good book about God! “The man who does not read has no advantage over the man who cannot.” I have been reading since I was five. But at the formational years of my life, I read books that captured my imagination, and opened my eyes to how big God is. If all we see of God is the external customs of our family’s religious traditions, no wonder we have grown bored of Him. If we don’t know what treasures are hidden in the Eucharistic God, if we haven’t caught sight of the grandeur and majesty of a Creator God, if we have not yet glimpsed the passionate tenderness of the Lover God, if we have not seen the intricacy and wisdom and faithfulness of the Scriptural God, if we have not seen the transforming power of the Saviour God in broken and wounded human lives, then how can we fall in love with this God?
So, friends, I beg you - read a book this Lent. Read MANY books if you can. Move some stuff out of your life to make room for this book-reading. Make a reading plan, and stick to it. ‘Nothing is more practical than finding God, than falling in Love in a quite absolute, final way. What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination, will affect everything… Fall in love, stay in love and it will decide everything.’ Fr. Pedro Arrupe
Here are some great book suggestions:
Easy Level Reading
1. The Cross and the Switchblade by David Wilkerson
2. The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom HIGHLY RECOMMEND
3. Something Other Than God by Jennifer Fulwiler* HIGHLY RECOMMEND
4. I Dared to Call Him Father: The Miraculous Story of a Muslim Woman’s Encounter With God by Bilquis Shaikh*
5. The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis*
6. Mother Angelica: The remarkable Story of a Nun, Her Nerve and a Network of Miracles by Raymond Arroyo*
7. Death of a Guru by Dave Hunt and Rabindranath Maharaj*
8. Kisses from Katie: A Story of Relentless Love and Redemption by Katie Davis*
9. Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers
10. Daring to Hope: Finding God’s Goodness in the Broken and the Beautiful by Katie Davis Majors
11. The Heavenly Man by Brother Yun
12. Catholicism for Dummies*
Medium Level Reading
1. Saint John Paul the Great: His Five Loves by Jason Evert* HIGHLY RECOMMEND
2. A Father Who Keeps His Promises by Scott Hahn
3. The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis HIGHLY RECOMMEND
4. Signs of Life: 40 Catholic Customs and Their Biblical Roots by Scott Hahn*
5. The Lamb’s Supper: The Mass as Heaven on Earth by Scott Hahn
6. Rome Sweet Home by Scott Hahn
7. Let Go by Fenelon
8. Time for God by Fr. Jacques Philippe*
9. In the School of the Holy Spirit by Fr. Jacques Philippe*
10. Who Does He Say That You Are? Women Transformed by Christ in the Gospels by Colleen Mitchell
11. The Apostasy That Wasn’t by Rod Bennett
12. You by Fulton Sheen
High Level Reading
1. He Leadeth Me by Fr. Walter Ciszek* HIGHLY RECOMMEND
2. Story of a Soul by St. Therese of Lisieux*
3. Sober Intoxication of the Spirit by Fr. Raneiro Cantalamessa*
4. Abandonment to Divine Providence by Jean-Pierre de Caussade*
5. Catechism of the Catholic Church- Section on Prayer*
6. Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis (full disclosure, haven't finished this)
Books I’ve heard of and am waiting to read:
1. My Sisters, the Saints: A Spiritual Memoir by Colleen Carroll Campbell
2. These Beautiful Bones: An Everyday Theology of the Body by Emily Stimpson
3. Confessions by St. Augustine
4. Theology for Beginners by Frank Sheed
5. One Beautiful Dream: The Rollicking Tale of Personal Passions, Family Chaos, and Saying Yes to Them Both by Jennifer Fulwiler
6. Arriving at Amen by Leah Libresco
Of course just reading a book is not enough. Ask God to meet you when you read. Be sensitive to the ways the Spirit is working in you as you read. Dialogue with God as you read. And meet Him in prayer after you read.
Have you read any of these? What are some books that have been transformational in helping you encounter Christ?
*These are books that I own and would be happy to lend you if you live in my city. Most of these books should be available to buy as ebooks. Some are available at local Christian bookshops.

Monday, 5 February 2018

13 Ways Parents Can Help Their Kids Choose Christ

Most of us who had religious parents have semi-funny and semi-frustrated stories of how our parents made us do religious stuff against our will when we were kids. Remember when we HAD to say the rosary every time we travelled on family holidays, only all the kids had strong motion sickness medicine so everyone would start slurring and fall asleep between the Hail Mary and Holy Mary EVERY TIME? Or five minute family morning prayer before we went to school when everyone would be bad-tempered and half-asleep and mumble through the hymn which we HAD to sing? I still can’t stand some of those hymns.

Some kids have parents who used religion as a punishment- “Kneel down before the altar until you’re willing to get along with your sister!” or as an obligation to be fulfilled, and nothing more. No wonder so many of our contemporaries have less than fond memories of their childhood religion, and either have lost their faith, or do the bare minimum as a way to keep the family satisfied.
But some of us have had childhood experiences that have given us a good reason to be open to this Christian faith, to examine its claims, and to open our hearts and minds to the reality of a personal God who created us, loved us, saved us, and in a mysterious way is able to be found in the midst of our normal lives.

What were some of the things our parents did right? What are some things that YOU can do as a parent to help your child make a free decision to choose Christ in a world that is increasingly hostile to anything except religious syncretism, an impersonal spirituality, agnosticism or atheism?

1. Love God: This sounds dumb and obvious, but I mean something more than ‘do religious things’ and ‘be known as a god-fearing person’. One of the biggest influences of my faith was hearing my mum talk about how God spoke to her in her personal prayer time. She wasn’t preaching at me, but sharing a lived experience, answered prayers, intimate words that Jesus spoke to her through the bible as she read it every day. How can we preach a God of love if we do not know Him? Speak to Him with love, and speak of Him with love. Hearing my mum made me wonder, “Could I know God in that way?”

2. Love people: if we are known for being religious, but not for being loving, kind and helpful, we have a problem. Make place in your life for the poor. My parents used to do ‘slum ministry’ years ago, and I’m sure that planted seeds that led me to become a Catholic volunteer who taught in the same slum 15 years later. Be a good neighbour. Be quick to respond to a need. Try not to speak ill of people. Kids notice everything.

3. Admit your fault and ask forgiveness: No parents are perfect. Most parents have their share of issues inherited from their parents, their blind spots and unhealthy habits. But in our culture, parents will never admit that. The parent is ALWAYS right, no matter what. But the Christian faith demands that we accept that we are all sinners, in need of the mercy of God (and each other). My dad has witnessed this to me in a beautiful way as he has admitted his faults to his own children and asked for their forgiveness with tears in his eyes. How many dads do that? I could see that it was his faith that gave him that humility.

4. Make real changes: ‘Our God is a real God who does real things for real people in the real world’. I have seen over the years my parents not just admit their faults, but also allowing God to bring healing and real change. I can see that this faith is not just a comfortable philosophy, but a relationship with a real God who accepts us as we are, but loves us too much to leave us that way. I think that is where the core of my faith has come from- seeing my family relationships slowly being healed, seeing myself and my family members change and grow as we have allowed Christ deeper in.
Being willing to change can be painful sometimes. It means sitting through conversations and tears when you would rather walk away. It means being willing to listen to the other person’s perspective. It means going to Confession, or spiritual direction or receiving pastoral care. It means going to therapy, it means giving up old ways of relating, blame, accusation, criticism and anger, and choosing to try the new way of holding your tongue, patience and mercy. It means letting go of resentment, and turning the other cheek. SO HARD! It means allowing yourself to be accountable to one another.

5. Make prayer a joyful part of your family’s life: If God is important, it has to show in your family’s priorities. Daily family prayer is hugely important. My one caveat is that family prayer should be made meaningful for children, and not be a boring or gloomy experience. The rosary without any reflection can become just meaningless repetition. I like what my family did- each family member was responsible for leading family prayer one day of the week (there were seven of us). So on my day I could choose a hymn to sing, which bible passage we would read, whether we were going to do thanksgiving prayers, or repentance, or petition. We would usually end with a decade of the Rosary.

In my organization, we also do what we call ‘family-style prayer’, which follows the same format every time- a hymn (or praise and worship song), each person prays a thanksgiving prayer, we read a bible passage, and each person shares a brief reflection, or something that God has been doing in their life, and we end with praying for our own and others’ needs. It’s so simple, and everyone can easily participate. You could even do praise and worship together, or the Scriptural Rosary, We have so many ways to pray!

6. Live the Catholic way of life: Go for Sunday Mass as a family, celebrate feasts, talk about the saints, use holy water, go together for Confession, do a family fast for Lent. I remember my family giving up sweets one Lent, and each time we knew we were missing out on a sweet or chocolate, we could put a piece of paper money into a box. At the end of Lent, my dad counted it replaced the fake money with real money, and we used it to buy something for a poor family. Making Mass a normal part of life helps form good habits, and makes it a little easier to be disciplined about it when we are older. After Mass, you could talk about the homily or ask questions about the readings.

7. Encourage your kids to have a personal prayer time: From the time I was about 12, my parents encouraged me to have a personal prayer time in the morning. I would mostly read stories from the bible, especially the inappropriate ones from the Old Testament :-D, so maybe it would be good to guide them about what they could do during that prayer time. Give them a prayer journal, and a children’s book of bile reflections, things like that.

8. Listen to your children: Passing on the faith is not about taking every opportunity to lecture, or catechize, or moralize, or pontificate, as tempting as that may be. It is also about listening to your children’s concerns, and interests, and stories, and questions… because it is only when your children feel comfortable sharing with you about the little things that they will come to you about the big things. My poor parents had me sharing everything with them through my childhood and youth, and that helped me process a lot of things about the faith too.

9. Allow them to express doubts: Don’t feel threatened when they have questions. Listen calmly, respect their freedom, say a prayer to the Holy Spirit and give them good answers for their questions. How we talk about these issues is as important as what we say. If you don’t know the answer, suggest looking it up together. There are so many resources available today- books, articles, videos, podcasts. Be empathetic. “I know it’s hard to understand why God would allow bad things to happen. I remember feeling the same way when…” “Yes I know Mass can seem boring sometimes. Why don’t we look up why Jesus wants us to go anyway? I think there was a good Fr. Mike Schmitz video about that.”

10. Respect their freedom: While it is true that you can make certain decisions for your children when they are in your care, like the expectation to go to Mass every Sunday, when your kids grow up and become independent, they need to feel free to make their own decisions. Faith isn’t faith if it is forced. Love and encourage them to seek answers, and make sure the door is open. But don’t force it.

11. Encourage your kids to be a part of Christian fellowship groups: Many Indian parents would like to be the sole influence of their children. But especially as they become teenagers, they can’t be. Teenagers need to explore the world, and check their family’s views against the reality of the world out there. When I was 14, my family joined a Catholic covenant community, and I became part of a small group with six or seven young women. I was able to talk to my pastoral leader, a single woman in her 30s about some of my questions, which helped me make some good decisions as a teenager. I know one friend whose experience with the Jesus Youth tremendously influenced her faith. Help your kids find fellowship, and encourage their participation even if it means they spend less time at home or studying.

12. Help your kids learn how to discern: Rather than banning everything that is not explicitly Catholic or Christian, or sheltering your kids from every other influence, or being fearful of ‘the world’, help them learn how to evaluate what is good and why, and what is harmful and why. Watch movies with them and talk about them. Read the same books as they do, and talk about them. Teach them to be confident, to see the good in people and cultures and even religions different from theirs, and yet to hold fast to the things they know are true when their beliefs are challenged or belittled.

13. Pray for your kids every day: I know some parents who pray over their kids every night as they sleep. Pray for them daily, pray for their present concerns and struggles, pray with them when they share a fear or a need, and pray for them when they aren’t looking. God loves your kids even more than you do. Just cooperate with Him, let go of your fears and anxieties, and let Him do His thing!

P.S. Many of these suggestions could be helpful for Sunday School teachers, youth animators, and anyone who has young people in their care.

Thursday, 25 January 2018

What Not To Look For in an Indian Spouse

I recently achieved the heights of my ambition a few months ago when someone texted me to ask if I could ‘look for someone for his brother’. I don’t know what I did to deserve this honour. I was under the impression that you had to be a middle-aged auntie with an opinion about everything to have that kind of know-how. Then again I’m practically 32 and I definitely have an opinion about everything, so I suppose it makes sense. Not to mention, I’m kind of a church lady.

I wasn’t sure exactly how to go about this, but it seemed like a good idea to ask for some kind of description of the guy I was supposed to be finding a match for. The answer came back shortly, and I shouldn’t have been surprised, but it included the typical list that a lot of Indians look for in spouses. I wasn’t sure how to react, but then I realized… OF COURSE. I’ll write a blog post. :-D (I did ask the guy who had contacted me why he included those requirements, and it turned out his dad had just made the list based on how he had seen lists like that made.)

So, if you’re the kind of person ‘looking out’ for a spouse in India via the traditional methods (including matrimonial ads), here are some ideas for what not to demand:

1. Fair: You knew I was going to lead with this, didn’t you? Why, oh why, are we still obsessed with fairness of skin? Isn’t it obvious how shallow such a desire is? It’s time to let it go, from our hearts, our thoughts, our conversations and definitely our requirements in our spouses. I know, you’ve been influenced by your culture, by Hollywood and Bollywood, by your mother who talks about that girl at church, “Very fair, so beautiful” as if those two things are interchangeable. But you can re-programme your mind. Look for the beauty in dark skin, in all skin tones, in all faces. You may be ignoring so many wonderful people because they are a darker shade than you. And I hate to break it to you, but if you’re looking for an Indian spouse, um, most of us are *whisper* brown. Which is not white.

2. Tall: Seriously, again, why? Did I miss some study that shows that taller people make better spouses? The average Indian man is 5’4” and the average Indian woman is 5’. Who says tall is better than short? I realize that most guys would like a girl shorter than themselves, and most women would like to be swept off their feet by a taller and I suppose stronger husband. But even that doesn’t matter when it comes down to real people who fall in love.

3. Possessing prestigious degrees: While I agree that it would be good to find a spouse who hasn’t been frittering away his or her life on partying or playing Dota, I don’t think educational qualifications necessarily show you the worth of a life, whether they are industrious, intelligent or motivated. And don’t even get me started on the strange custom of making wedding toasts that list off the educational qualifications of bride and groom.

4. Earning a certain amount of money per year: Again, being able to hold down a stable job and provide for or contribute to the family, that’s good to know. Needing a certain level of wealth in order to have a happy marriage, not so much.

5. Very strict age requirements: I was chatting with some friends recently, and the conversation turned to marriage (as it often does when I’m around). “How much older or how much younger are you open to?” was the question someone asked. To my surprise, both the guys I was talking to had VERY specific ages in mind. “Not more than two years older or three years younger.””Are you serious? So if you met the woman of your dreams and she turns out to be four years younger than you, you’ll say, ‘Sorry, lady, you were born the wrong year’?” I asked. Both these guys have a strong faith and want godly marriages. Why do we make more rules than God makes? I used to think older girls and younger guys was kind of odd (conditioned of course by the world I live in), until I met some friends in my organization with several of the women older than their husbands, some as much as 8 years, but evenly matched in maturity, intelligence and goals. So when did age define that?

6. From the same community/caste/state: Indians are obsessed with this. I understand it might be partly because our cultures are so different, and it might be harder to adjust to someone else’s culture. But how can it be a non-negotiable? There have been so many happy cross-cultural weddings. I do understand far more the desire to find a spouse who shares your faith. But that is because your faith shapes your goals and future, it is not (or should not be) merely a cultural identity.

So what SHOULD you look for, especially when you do need to write something down, or ask someone to ‘look out for someone’ for you?

Why not throw out physical descriptions, and talk more about beliefs, priorities, goals, desires and dreams? And then, here’s a novel idea, why not actually MEET people, get to know them, and then decide, rather than relying on someone else to pick out the right product based on a marketing list you have created? Don’t be in a hurry, don’t let anyone rush you, get to know the unique person that God has created, and discern together if you are called to marriage. Each person is so different, and can’t be reduced to a list of qualities, or descriptors.

When you DO meet someone, look for the things that can’t be figured out via matrimonial column. Are they consistently kind? How do they spend their free time? Are they merely ‘religious’, or are they lovers of God and lovers of people? What are their friends like? How do they deal with stress, or when they don’t get their way? Do they sulk, blame or yell? Are they honest when it causes them inconvenience? What motivates them?

Too many marriages are weak or shaky or crumbling because perhaps they were not built on very firm foundations. Choose wisely this day what you prioritize, because you will most likely reap what you sow.

P.S. Please don’t ask me to “find someone” for you. I apparently have not gotten the hang of it yet.

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

How Do You Feel When You Make a Mistake?

If your answer is, “Guilty, ashamed, furious with myself, embarrassed, like I want to sink into the ground,” you may be one of the many people trained into an unhealthy fear of mistakes by perfectionist parents and teachers from the time you were little.

I started teaching reading in a school last week. Kids who struggle with reading are sent to me and my team mate, and we work with some as a group and some one on one. One of the things I’ve noticed again and again is that students in the Indian system have been trained to fear failure and to mock those who fail. They’re not bad kids. But the instant someone mispronounces a word or makes a mistake, the whole group explodes into giggles. They’re not trying to be mean. It’s a habit that is hard to break, because they’ve seen it, heard it and done it since they were tiny.

When I was in school, every year there were a few students who were held back and made to repeat the year because they had failed their exams. You know what we called them? I cringe as I recall what seemed like a normal label then: ‘Failures.’ I don’t mean that the students made up that name. No, the teachers referred to them as ‘failures’. They were treated with contempt and disdain. It seemed like the most humiliating thing that could happen to one was to repeat the year. Those kids stuck to themselves, and accepted the treatment because we all thought that was normal.

When I was 23 I started teaching eight year olds in a village school (yes, third school story in a row). I thought I was a pretty good teacher. But to my shock, I found that I was doing the same thing- having unrealistically high expectations, and then getting annoyed with the kids when they couldn’t meet them. One day I decided to do some painting with them for the first time. I prepared well. But of course they were EIGHT YEAR OLDS PAINTING FOR THE FIRST TIME. Messes and imperfection was bound to happen. And yet I found myself annoyed! That was one of my wake-up calls.

The other was the surprise I felt when I saw parents of young children who had dropped or broken something. Not a word of rebuke did I hear. Instead they were reassuring and quickly said, “It’s okay. Let me get something to clean it up.” The fact is, I had rarely ever seen mistakes treated with such calmness and kindness.

How do we usually treat people when they make mistakes?

1. Blame them: The first response is that it is always someone’s fault. It is such an automatic response.

2. Rub it in: Point it out, remind people that they need to be more careful, and that they should have listened to us.

3. Dramatize it: Make it a bigger deal than it actually is, like it points to some character flaw or is a prophetic sign of the person’s future.

4. Bring up the past: Remind them of all the times they made mistakes in the past.

5. Wash our hands off them: They made their bed, now they must lie in it.

6. Judge them: Disapprovingly analyze the person and their actions, while smugly feeling like WE would never do such a thing.

Can we please stop? So what if that’s what your parents did to you? It is NOT helpful, holy or kind. Mistakes are NOT sins. Mistakes are not the end of the world. In fact, being willing to make mistakes and fail is a healthy and good thing. Accepting someone’s mistakes doesn’t mean giving them permission to be sloppy or careless or thoughtless. It’s just saying, “Okay, this happened. Now what?” You know what happens when we are afraid to make mistakes, or when we train the people around us to be afraid of mistakes?

You get people suffering from anxiety and depression as they hold themselves up to unrealistic expectation of themselves and constantly feel like they are never good enough. You get students committing suicide when they fail their exams. You get people who never try anything new because anything new requires a risk and a risk implies potential failure. You get people more focussed on not failing than on growing. Or you get people who just give up on trying and hoping. And you get harsh, judgmental and impatient people who impose the same standards on their children and spouses and coworkers.

If we want something different, we have to do something different. If we want to get over our unhealthy fear of mistakes, we need to train ourselves to respond differently.

1. Practise saying, “It’s okay to make mistakes.” Find that hard, don’t you? That’s exactly why you need to practise it.

2. The next time someone makes a mistake or fails, hold your tongue. Bite back the words of blame or correction or even advice. Most times when someone makes a mistake, they ALREADY KNOW. They’re already embarrassed and upset.

3. Instead ask “Are you okay? How can I help?” Whether it’s a broken cup or a broken heart, people need help picking up the pieces. They need to know there are people who are on their side as they try again.

4. Tell them “It’s not that bad.” No matter how bad a mistake is, there is always hope.

5. If you are in a position of authority over them, and you do need to correct them, do it gently and help them find a way to move forward. Show them you haven’t given up on them. Yup, that does need a great deal of patience. Anger almost never helps people change.

6. If you are the one who has made the mistake, follow all the steps above. Every time I make a mistake, I tell myself, “Well, at least I learned something.” If it involves money, I tell myself, "Well, I just paid for a lesson." :-)

How should you feel when you make a mistake? Hopefully, after the first moment of frustration, just acceptance, humility, and a desire and willingness to try again.

Thursday, 11 January 2018

Three Everyday Situations That Stress Socially Anxious Introverts Out

I promise I’m not a complete mess. The calm and capable Sue that many of you know is not just a facade. I’ve learned over the years to deal with anxious and awkward feelings and for the most part, I don’t find the world at large scary and intimidating. That said, I still have remnants of social anxiety and a lot more self-awareness than I used to, and a willingness and desire to talk it out (sorry, fam). So here are some of those situations, just so we Socially Anxious Introverts can feel less alone (while still actually being alone as we read this post on our phones).

Usually only for female introverts: Beauty Salons 

Or as we used to call ‘em, beauty parlours. You know, the place we go to get hair removed from various parts of our bodies as dictated by society (why aren’t unibrows cool yet?), not to mention get our hair trimmed, cut and coloured, our nails manicured and polished, our faces.. um.. treated.. whatever. I’m no beauty expert. In fact, I probably go to these places a lot less than most women I know. Why? Not because I don’t like looking pretty (according to current social norms of pretty). Not even because I’m a sissy who can’t handle the pain of having hair extracted from my forehead. I grit my teeth and offer it up, while pondering whether suffering for the sake of beauty can simultaneously have any spiritual value, and concluding that ‘nothing offered to God is wasted’.

No, my real problem is that every trip to the local beauty salon is a scary adventure fraught with socially awkward situations, kind of like crossing a minefield and trying very hard not to blow up. Extroverts probably think I’m crazy. “Yay! People I might know and can chat too!” Introverts instead think, “Aaargh! People I may know! People who may know me! Not very well! People who know my mum. People who don’t like me! Or my mum! Any and all of these combinations of people could be there when I walk in, or walk in as I sit there defenseless. Small talk! To talk or not to talk? Did that person just not notice me or are they ignoring me? Or do they think am I ignoring them?”

I kid you not, I once went to a beauty salon, saw someone who I thought I knew and had not parted on good terms with. However, I wasn’t totally sure it was her. She looked different. Perhaps a different haircut? Or was it a totally different person? Since we didn’t part well, if it WAS her, I needed to say hello so as to make peace. If it wasn’t her, er... that could be awkward. The awkwardness was compounded by the fact that she was totally ignoring me. But I couldn’t just let it go. I had to do something.

So this is what I did. I said “Hello” in her direction in a not very loud voice. My rationale was that if it WAS her, she would be aware of my presence, would hear me and look up. Common courtesy would compel her to respond to my greeting, and even if she still bore me ill will, well, at least we had said hello. If she was a stranger, she would think she misheard or that I was talking to someone else, and she would just continue staring ahead at the mirror.

She didn’t respond. Okay, maybe she was a stranger? Or maybe she just hadn’t heard me because I wasn’t loud enough? Or maybe she hated my guts so much that she was ignoring my small attempt at reconciliation? AAARGHHHH! So much tension and anxiety! I still don’t know to this day if it was her or not.

This is what I think would be a great idea. Beauty salons with individual cubicles. Why is this not a thing yet? C’mon, I’m sure I’m not the only one with this problem!

Only for Catholic introverts: Receiving Communion 

You think I’m joking, right? I’m the Catholic who can wax eloquent about the beauty of God becoming bread so that He can satisfy our hunger, of the privilege of receiving Him in the Eucharist, of the very real transforming power I experience after receiving Him in this way. And yet, I am not immune from the very real awkwardness connected with actually physically getting into a line and receiving the Host into my body.

First of all, hand or tongue? Lots of Catholics have lots of strong opinions about this, but the fact of the matter is that the Church allows either as long as Jesus in the Host is received with reverence and faith. So then it comes down to practicality. I used to feel like there was more likelihood of it dropping if I received it on the tongue, so I took it in my hand. But then in recent years I decided that I would try receiving it on my tongue. As long as I made up my mind beforehand, and didn’t debate with myself all the way to the front of the Church. (Yeah, I told you my mind is nuts.)

But even after deciding to receive on my tongue, there are so many factors. Like am I opening my mouth right, sticking my tongue out far enough, at the right angle? Because if I get it wrong, the gross and awkward result is that the priest or extraordinary minister’s hand touches my tongue euggh euggh eughh. And then goes on to continue to distribute to Host to hundreds of others. Euggh.

What about the many times I have to figure out whether the priest of extraordinary minister has forgotten to say, “The Body of Christ”, or whether it is merely his timing that is off? Because there I am waiting to say “Amen”, while the impatient priest is waiting for me to open my mouth and stick my tongue out. It is a very delicately timed operation with too many potential ways to fail. I salute you, distributors of Communion, for bravely facing the awkwardness day after day for the sake of spiritually feeding the followers of Christ.

Apart from the awkwardness of the Communion line, there is also the awkwardness of reacting to liturgical abuse, like when the priest passed the communion bowl around at a chapel Mass while communicants ‘took’ Jesus instead of receiving Him. I just wanted to focus on receiving Jesus, instead my mind was racked with questions like, “If I know this is abuse, should I just pass the bowl without receiving? Or go up to the priest and ask that he gave it to me (in the way the Church requires)? Or just take it as it is HIS abuse, not mine, and no matter what, it is still Jesus?” I know, I know, I should stop over-thinking things I can't control, and not sweat the small stuff, and let things go, etc, but more easily said than done.

I wish I could just be caught up in ecstasy like St. Catherine of Siena when she received Communion, but alas, I’m not there yet.

For all introverts: Shopping 

I’m not talking about big supermarkets where you can wander down aisles picking things off shopping racks and popping them into shopping carts. That’s a dream situation for introverts, second only to online shopping. I’m talking about the average Indian shopping experience that involves plenty of conversation, interaction and relating.

When I was a kid, I had such a horror of shops that I would go to extreme lengths to offer any of my siblings bribes to go to the shop for me. If my love of junk food surpassed my fear of shops, I would reluctantly drag myself there practising all the way what exactly I would say, what the shopkeeper’s possible responses would be, and what my response would be in each situation. This phobia was probably caused by the fact that I didn’t speak Hindi as a child, and most shopkeepers didn’t speak English. Also little kids usually got ignored, and were made to wait the longest. Also, my parents hate shopping so that may have had something to do with it as well.

But as an adult who has mostly learned to get around, there are varying degrees of annoying and stressful shopping situations.

Exhausting: Being overstimulated by all the people, options, colours, noise and making rash decisions or no decisions as a result. Or in one unfortunate case throwing up in the middle of a shopping center because it was all too much. (Shout out to my resourceful sister J who rushed into a shop and asked for a plastic bag just in time.)

Annoying: Shop assistants who hover and keep asking you questions or shoving various items of clothing at you (this is usually a clothing store problem). Usually I walk out very soon after this happens.

Awkward: Male shopkeepers at lingerie shops whom you have to converse with about bra size and panty style eeshk.

Frustrating: Having a limited budget and having to try on shoes after shoes after shoes that are not your style and then feeling so stressed out that you just buy the least ugly of the lot, which are still pretty ugly and then you go home and vow you will never go shopping again.

Upsetting: Having a shopping companion who hates shopping just as much as you, and hangs back at every shop y’all enter so that you have to do the talking, but then gets frustrated with your indecisiveness and starts pushing you to make a decision which leads you back to the previous situation.

Stressful: Having to shop on behalf of someone else, try to figure out what exactly they meant when they described a particular style, and hope against hope that if you make another stress-induced extravagant purchase they won’t be mad at you, and hopefully can exchange it and never ask you for such a favour again.

This, friends, is why I thanked God when online shopping came to India about six years ago. But don’t get me started on communicating with online shopping delivery men.

So yes, being a Socially Anxious Introvert is a thing. If you identified with any of these scenarios, you just got yourself a new label! Congratulations!

Other awkwardness and social anxiety related posts:

Social Awkwardness: The Confession Stories 
Awkward Comments in India 
More Awkwardness 
Let's Talk About Awkward Hugs
An Indian Catholic in Catholic America 
Thoughts of an Introvert at a Party 
An INTJ's Guide to Praise and Worship

Sunday, 7 January 2018

The Antidotes to Anxiety

So you know how I've talked about my struggles with anxiety in the past? Apparently, they don’t totally go away, much as I wish they would. Everything seems peaceful and happy and normal (ish), and then suddenly the monster rears its ugly head again.

A small problem – someone mad at me about something, a plan that goes awry, an unpleasant task that I’m avoiding, news about Trump, or hearing about reasonable people who are suspicious of Pope Francis – suddenly begins to feel like a huge problem, a symptom of a larger disease, a doomsday scenario, with everything crashing and burning and pointing to the truth that there is no hope and things are never going to change.

But yesterday at Mass as I struggled with a racing heart and a sense of impending doom, I realized something. This battle, this drama that I am aware of, and is freaking me out, is not happening ‘out there’. It’s happening right here, in my heart and in my mind. It is a battle for my peace.

I am being lied to.

I have been reading an excellent book called ‘Divine Renovation: Bringing your parish from maintenance to mission’ by Fr. James Mallon, and he draws an insightful analogy from The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

‘In J. R. R. Tolkein’s great work, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, we see... Denethor, the high Steward of the ancient Kingdom of Gondor. He is a steward, not the King. The line of kings had ended centuries before to leave the Kingdom under the management of a steward, but Gondor was maintained by an almost supernatural hope that the King would return to reclaim his throne once again, a hope that Denethor has lost… 

Denethor made mistakes that led to his utter loss of hope. First of all, he had forgotten that he was but a steward, not a king, and not the King. In truth, he had forgotten about the King who was promised to return. We in the Church are also but stewards awaiting the return of the King. We are managers whose very role is defined by the fact that the King is coming back to claim what is his own… 

The second mistake is that Denethor has a distorted and edited view of reality… he had been using one of the lost Palantir stones… that let him see what was happening all over Middle Earth. The problem was that the evil Lord Sauron controlled what he saw… Through his edited version of reality, Denethor was manipulated into his loss of hope. We, too, can easily fall prey to viewing what is always an edited reality as being the whole story.’ 

When I hear a voice that says, “This is all hopeless. These people are never going to change. The Church, your country, the world, those people… they are all doomed. They are sinful, angry, closed and wilfully blind. And it’s your fault. There must have been something you could have done. Or something you should have done differently. But it’s too late now. Everything is sad and bad and scary and you have to deal with this scary world alone,” I can be very sure whose voice that is.

The voice of God is never accusing, never despairing, never angry. The voice of God is filled with hope. There will be a challenge, but never condemnation in His words. Those who speak words of cold accusation and condemnation do not speak for Him, but for His Enemy.

Anxiety, negativity and hopelessness spring from believing the lying, insidious voice of Satan. So what’s the solution?

1. Acknowledge the lie: It was such a sense of relief when I held up what I was feeling to the light, and found that it was NOT true. It was all in my head- the magnitude of the problem, the dark despair of the problem. But as long as I clung to the lie, it had power over me.

2. Speak the truth aloud: Say it- “Everything is going to be okay.” “I am loved.” “I am not alone.” It’s not just a platitude. Everything really IS going to be okay. All suffering on this earth is temporary. Social stigma, the failure of our life's work, loss, betrayal, disappointment, persecution, loneliness seem like the worst things in the world, but they're not. They eventually end. Death will come to us all, but suffering and death do not have the final word. The King will return. God is till God. One day He WILL judge the living and the dead, and only what was done in love and for love will remain. No scary outcome can take away that truth.

3. Live a surrendered life: If it is true that I am a steward, NOT the king, or the saviour of this world which for some reason I sometimes think I have to be, and that there IS a true King and Saviour, then I need to let go of that control I cling to so tightly. I don’t need to wait for a big crisis to surrender, but to give to him the little obstacles, problems and fears as they come. Someone has a problem I can’t solve? Instead of letting it escalate in my mind, I need to bring it to Him, ask Him if there is anything I need to do. If there is, I need to do it, and then let it go. If there isn’t, I need to let it go, and trust that He can save the world, and that particular person and their situation. I've seen Him work miracles when I give it to Him, working things out in ways I could never have done myself.

Living anxiously is not a normal or healthy way to live. Fighting for peace is one of the most important battles I will ever fight. It’s a battle for truth, for freedom to see the world and its people the way they are- broken, but not irredeemable. I have to choose to keep fighting. But I trust that it’s a battle that can be won, because I have the Prince of peace who is fighting with me and for me. ‘The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?’

Saturday, 30 December 2017

New Year’s Resolutions for the Motivationally Challenged

You’re trying to avoid it, but you just can’t. Why yes, it is indeed that ‘New year, new me’ time when everyone starts posting inspirational messages about the new year, making resolutions, and setting goals. But not you. You know it’s all a gimmick, just another way to set yourself up for failure. Whose new year’s resolutions last past the first week of the brand new shiny year? Not yours, by George. So why bother? Let’s just post a couple of witty but cynical New Year’s memes and move on. Realistic is your middle name. Any of that sound familiar?

Well I’m here to tell you that’s a load of baloney. Cynicism and negativity don’t look good on Christians. The very concept of new beginnings and second chances is at its heart Christian, the reason Jesus came at all. If we scoff at new beginnings, there is no place in our hearts for salvation. 

Here’s the truth. People CAN change. You can change. I am one of the laziest, least motivated people I know. I could lie on a couch all day every day and do nothing. I am full of faults and weaknesses. (I won’t list them all here, that’s what Confession is for.) I still struggle with many of them. And yet, I too have grown and changed. Change is possible! You can do this!

Here are some tips that might help you.

1. Make a resolution: ‘You’ve got to have a dream, if you don’t have a dream, how you gonna have a dream come true?’ If you aim at something, you may fail. But if you don’t aim at anything, you’ve definitely failed. ‘And you ask “What if I fall?”Oh but my darling, what if you fly?’

2. Small, achievable goals: You can’t change everything overnight. You don’t have to try to do everything that sounds like a good idea. “I’m gonna eat healthy, and start exercising, and go for daily mass, and read the Catechism and all the works of Shakespeare, and be patient and spend less money and help the poor and start volunteering and DO ALL THE THINGS!” Don’t be crazy! Pick one, two or three resolutions, and then break them down to manageable, specific chunks. So rather than saying “I will be a more positive person”, decide to say one encouraging thing to somebody every day whether it is in person, or by text. Instead of deciding to ‘grow in your faith’, decide to read a spiritual book every day before bed for at least 15 minutes. If it’s achievable, it gives you the satisfaction of success which is enough motivation to keep going. It’s okay if it’s so small that it sounds stupid to someone else. You do what you need.

3. Tell someone: The only way I know for sure I am willing to change is when I am willing to humble myself and tell someone the decision I have made. It helps with accountability, and it uses your pride to your advantage (you’re more likely not to take seconds if you’re eating with someone who knows that that is what you have decided). Tell someone to check on you and ask you how you are doing. Or get together with a small group, and share your goals, and decide when you are going to re-meet to share your progress. Just knowing I have to tell someone helps me stay motivated.

4. Remind yourself why it matters: I have a picture of Saint John Paul II on my cupboard in my room. It says, “Are you capable of risking your life for someone? Do it for Christ.” Sometimes when I don’t want to get out of bed, I see it there, and tell myself, “Do it for Christ.” I used to mumble to myself during one challenging Lenten sacrifice, “Remember what you really want.” Ask yourself why it matters, and when you feel like it doesn’t, remind yourself why it did. “Faith is the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods,” says C.S. Lewis. Growth and discipline need that kind of faith.

5. Be patient with yourself: “Always forget the past and never worry about your falls, many as they may be. So long as you get back on your feet, no harm will have been done; whereas, a great deal of harm will occur if you lose heart, or if you berate yourself too much for your failures,” says Ven. Francis Libermann. You get a new chance every time you fall. Just don’t stay down. Don’t give up the fight. If you are fighting for holiness until your last breath you may be assured of heaven, even if you failed that very morning. If God is patient with you, you can afford to be patient with yourself.

6. Be around the right people: Choose to spend your time with people who will help you become the man or woman God has called you to be. If your friend circle or social circle are the ones doing all the stuff you are trying to avoid, or mocking your efforts to grow or change, perhaps you need new friends. '

If you’re still a little nervous about this, here are some ideas for small achievable goals. Don’t forget- don’t pick more than three!

1. Go to sleep on time. Set an alarm for 30 minutes before you want to go to bed, and put away anything that tempts you to stay awake longer- cell phone, books, laptop.

2. Switch off your phone data for a specified amount of time each day (perhaps 10 pm to 8 am).

3. End your day by writing your goals and to do list for the next day, with tasks written in order of importance.

4. Delete time-wasting apps from your phone. Instead, choose one book to read every night before bed. Make a list of books to go through, and make sure they are easily available to you- put them on your bedside table, or on your kindle. (I have plenty of recommendations- Something Other Than God, Searching for and Maintaining Peace, He Leadeth Me, Time for God, Sober Intoxication of the Spirit, the Prayer section of the Catechism, Fill These Hearts.)

5. Every time you catch yourself criticizing someone, or complaining, force yourself to say three good things about the person or situation.

6. Start a prayer journal and write three things you want to thank God for every day.

7. Memorize one bible verse every day. Send it to a friend, or illustrate it it or write it on a white board so you can see it all day.

8. Visit an Adoration chapel for 15 minutes every day before or after work.

9. Go for weekday Mass every day or twice or thrice a week (on pre-assigned days, and tell someone you’re going. It’s too easy to change your mind last minute if you don’t.)

10. Draw a picture every day. Or write every day.

11. Do some Zumba every day.

12. Go for a walk with a friend three times a week.

13. Plan to meet up with or visit one person every week- a friend, family member, or someone who needs a friend.

14. Add Confession to your monthly calendar.

15. Do an Examen at the end of each day.

You have your life ahead of you. It is full of possibilities, full of potential! You CAN become the person God has called you to be! Let us begin.