Verso L’Alto!

In the early 1920s, a certain Pier Giorgio Frassati, of Turin, Italy, inscribed the above photo of him climbing a mountain with the words “Verso L’Alto.” This Pier Giorgio died a few years later of polio, which he likely contracted from the poor he was so fond of ministering to.

Today, we know this man as Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, a “man of the Beatitudes,” as Saint John Paul II called him. Born to a wealthy, non-practicing Catholic family, he dedicated his short life to helping the poor with all the money, time, and energy he had; sneaking out to daily Mass in the morning and returning to his bed before his parents knew he had left; frequenting all-night Eucharistic Adoration (while his parents thought he must have been out carousing); and working for social reform in Italy, among other things.

I could definitely write a whole blog post just on Frassati alone, but that’s not what I want this post to be about. What I really want to talk about is this well-known inscription of his–Verso L’Alto, which means “Towards The Top.”

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about my spiritual growth over the past couple of years. (Probably because it’s Lent; ’tis the season for reflection, right?) At this point, I feel, I dunno, I guess kind of good about my progress. After all, I go to Mass more than just Sunday and on Holy Days of Obligation, I generally go for an hour of Eucharistic Adoration per week, I go to Confession every 1 to 2 months, I pray every night, and I fast on the days I’m supposed to fast on.

But let’s get real. Couldn’t I be doing more? Why not go to Eucharistic Adoration 2 hours a week instead of 1? Why not fast on days other than Ash Wednesday and Good Friday? Why not volunteer more? Why not pray the Rosary more? Why not pray longer at night?

Verso L’Alto!

Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati wasn’t just a “good Catholic.” He was a really good Catholic. We can’t reach sainthood and become whom God meant us to be just by sitting complacently where ever we are in our spiritual life. We always have to go towards to top, upward, as high as we can go.

God wants us to radically orient our lives towards Him. Not just turn to Him in a way that makes us comfortable, but in a way that makes us a little uncomfortable. As Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI once said, “The world offers you comfort; but you were not made for comfort. You were made for greatness.”

I think that when we feel a little too comfortable where we are spiritually, pride can seep in. You can kind of settle down and just be like, “At least I’m a better Catholic than Joe Shmoe down the road. I’m better than most, not a saint, but pretty good. Might as well stop climbing now.” ( <—- BAD! )

Verso L’Alto!

Always do more relative to where you are at. The latter half of that sentence is really important: relative to where you are at. You’re in competition with yourself, not others.

On Pride and Humility

I’ve been thinking and praying a lot about humility in the past year or so. Longer than a year actually. I’m a junior in college now, and I’ve been pondering humility since maybe my senior year in high school. A while back, I started praying for it.

But what was I actually praying for? To be honest, I had no idea, not then. (And do I really know now? Probably not completely.) I just knew it was a good thing to pray for.

Humility is the opposite of pride. Having humility doesn’t mean that you have to put yourself down all the time or something like that. And of course it’s fine for you to feel good about yourself and to have self-confidence. I think that what separates self-confidence from pride is one simple concept: Truth.

Maybe you do really well in math class. You don’t have to internally pretend that you are bad at math for the sake of humility. The truth is that you’re good at math. And you can be self-confident about that. Self-confidence becomes pride when you somehow think that you’re a more worthwhile human being due to your talent in math, that you’re above others. The truth is that all are equal before God and that your skills in math are gifts from God.

This sort of pride is easy to recognize in our own lives. I think that the majority of easily-recognizable sins tend to be indicative of some deeper spiritual issue. What I mean is, feeling cocky about your talents is just scratching the surface of the abyss that is pride.

When I was a freshman in college, I read C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity over a break. I was particularly struck by this passage about pride and humility:

The vice I am talking of is Pride or Self-Conceit: and the virtue opposite to it, in Christian morals, is called Humility. You may remember, when I was talking about sexual morality, I warned you that the centre of Christian morals did not lie there. Well, now, we have come to the centre. According to Christian teachers, the essential vice, the utmost evil, is Pride. Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that, are mere fleabites in comparison: it was through Pride that the devil became the devil: Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind.

This passage has been fermenting in my mind since then. I was surprised that C.S. Lewis considered pride the most central sin of the entire spiritual life. What could he mean by that? In the past couple of years, I’ve been observing my sins to see if they’re rooted in pride. And 9 times out of 10, they are. More like 99 out of 100, or even 999/1000. Or maybe straight-up 100%.

Take judgment, for example. When we think poorly of others it’s usually because we think we’re better than another in some moral aspect (Oh, the irony!). And somehow, we pridefully think that we can judge like God judges. That doesn’t mean that we can’t recognize when others sin; we just have to remember that we sin too, so it’s not like the sins of others somehow elevate us.

I think that pride also prevents us from taking advantage of all the gifts God wants to give us. God wants us to be able to trust in Him and to cast all our burdens upon Him. As Jesus says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). Pride can prevent us from trusting in God enough to leave Him in charge of our problems. It’s prideful to think that God can’t possibly handle our problems better than us.

The moral of the story is, pray for humility, or the ability to see yourself accurately, in Truth.

Judgment and Evangelization

I’m not precisely sure what my goal is for this post. I haven’t fully reached any conclusions about the issues I’m going to raise, hut I think this topic is worth thinking about: how people perceive us and how that impacts our evangelization efforts.

For a long time, I never gave a second thought to how non-Catholics (who knew I was Catholic) viewed me. I was aware of the prejudices some people have against Catholicism, but the people I was dealing with are reasonable people: they wouldn’t have those prejudices, right?

Upon further reflection, I think many do have these prejudices, but they are either too polite to verbalize anything or don’t really realize that they’re making assumptions. Honestly, “assumptions” is a much better word for my purposes than “prejudices.” The term “prejudices” implies some sort of malicious intent, which often isn’t the case. People are very subtly fed lies about the Catholic Church by the media and the secular world at large. (I think this is also a reason why many people in my age group are turned away from the Church; we are exposed to a great deal of secular media all the time, and if you aren’t well-versed in your faith, it’s easy to be fooled by lies, often unintentionally told, about the Church.)

What do I think is one of the biggest problems plaguing innocent Catholics who are trying to evangelize? The perception that Catholicism is somehow inherently judgmental. We certainly can learn from this perception; after all, I don’t think that perceptions come from nowhere. Some Catholics are blatantly judgmental. Many of us can think or act judgmentally without knowing it. Also, the mere act of striving for sainthood might give you a “holier-than-thou” image.

We want people to know we’re Catholic, right, so that we can witness to them? But the minute you say you’re Catholic, people start subconsciously assuming things. In the past, I used to basically be like, “Hi, my name is <my name here> and I’m Catholic!” because I am so excited about my faith. Bad idea, guys. Let them know you’re normal first. Make sure they find out for themselves what type of person you are before you say you’re Catholic. Then, when they find out you’re Catholic, it might challenge the perceptions they have about our faith.

 

Oftentimes people whom I know swear will clean up their language around me. Guys, it’s really not necessary; it’s sweet of you, but I can handle it. I’ve even had one person say to me, “I tend to cuss a lot. I know you’re Catholic; will you be offended if I cuss around you?” I honestly don’t understand these situations well. Do people think I’ll judge them if they swear? Do people think I’m some goodie-two-shoes whom they can’t relate to? Either way, for the sake of evangelization, I’d rather be perceived as (and authentically be) non-judgmental and relatable. Amusingly, some people will accidentally say something scandalous (not really that scandalous) around me, and then they’ll look over to me first in a kind of panicked way. I try my best to just laugh it off. If I’m silent with regards to what they said, I automatically seem judgmental. If it were super scandalous and harmful, it would make sense to say something, but usually it isn’t that bad.

I feel like I’ve been doing something right lately because people swear around me now and talk about being drunk. Seriously, this is a good sign! I know there’s some irony in that, but it shows that people don’t think I’m going to judge them.

To an extent, we can’t really do anything about how people perceive us based on our Catholic identity. But here’s what I think we can do:

  1. We can pray for humility so that we are authentically not as judgmental. We can also pray to be self-aware enough to realize when we are being judgmental. Good for the soul as well as evangelization.
  2. We can always give people the benefit of the doubt. I think that the more we realize how broken we are and the more we experience our own hard times, the more we realize how much people’s circumstances impact their actions.
  3. We can genuinely love others even if we disagree with their lifestyle choices.

In summary, don’t be this guy:

Matthew 7:3

Matthew 7:3

picture credit: http://www.newsrealblog.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/eyelog1.jpg

 

 

When Academics Become God

It seems like, for a lot of people, religion is a source of self-discipline. And it is for me too, but I possessed a great deal of self-discipline before I ever had my conversion experience at the age of 16. And I’m not saying that to “toot my own horn,” so to speak. Even though we usually think of self-discipline as a good thing, it’s only good in moderation. And before I started taking my faith seriously, my self-discipline as it related to academics was…well, way overboard.

Now don’t get me wrong. It’s good to study hard. Doing well in school allows you to learn about God’s creation and the magnificence of it all. It also gives you a means by which to use your God-given talents to contribute to society. But here’s what I think the thing to remember is: academics is a means, not an end. That can be a particularly hard thing for people such as myself to understand.

When you have the natural tendency to work ridiculously hard (i.e. spending 7+ hours on homework per night, studying till 1 AM, resisting the urge to join the neighbors having a good time outside your window, etc.), it’s really easy to start to, quite frankly, worship academics. Now, I don’t think that it’s necessarily a bad thing to spend a lot of time on homework or stay up late doing it or stay inside when you have business to attend to. In fact, my studying practices in these regards are still very much the same. The big difference, I think, is how you view it all– there’s a big difference between worshipping academics and serving God via academics.

Before my conversion experience towards the end of my sophomore year in high school, I studied for — now, this will sound weird — no particular purpose that I was conscious of. My parents had always placed a great emphasis on school, so I was just kind of responding to that, maybe? But it’s not like I was thinking that. I probably also liked how it felt to get good grades– perhaps I was addicted to the pride that comes with getting good grades in school? Whatever my reasons were, I was hooked for reasons I was unaware of. By the end of that sophomore year, I started to have a slight existential crisis: “Why am I doing this?”; “Why do I continue on studying even when it isn’t fun?”; “What purpose does this all serve?”

— ENTER GOD —

When I received the Sacrament of Confirmation, something changed within me. For the first time in my life I was on fire for God, and I wanted everyone else to know about the Good News, and I became a practicing Catholic. (Praise the Holy Spirit.) (Although there was one definitive moment when the trajectory of my life changed, conversion doesn’t happen all at once. In fact, it is still happening; it is a lifelong process.)

My conversion drastically changed my views regarding academics. In 10th grade, academics were for me. In fact, school was basically what gave my life meaning. Now (as a rising college sophomore) I see my pursuing of academics as my current vocation as a student, as utilizing the particular skill set God gave me, and as a means by which to eventually serve my neighbor. In 10th grade, I saw church-related activities (including Mass) as interfering with my studying. Now I go to Mass approximately 4-6 times a week during the school year.

Maybe skeptics would view these changes in me as some overstressed kid trying to escape the pressure she puts on herself. Not so. It’s not like I used God as some excuse to stop working hard. I still study for many hours a day. I still stay up late to study– even until 3 AM or 4 AM sometimes. I still sit myself down and work even when there are other things I’d rather be doing. My sense of purpose in my study habits is what changed– it’s for God, not me. And that is truly what makes all the difference.

Another breed of skeptics may think it’s crazy to ever put God before school. And I can relate to that line of thinking since that’s totally where I was 3 years ago. But I promise you: making God the purpose for your hard work and making time to worship Him will bear many fruits in your studies (and more importantly, in your life in general). Seriously. And it’s way better for your soul. Plus, let’s face it: eternity is way more important than this life.

So, is self-discipline bad? No! Not in itself! It allows you to be dedicated in serving God. But all good things can become perverted. Eve provides us with a good example of this. Satan told her that eating the forbidden fruit would allow her to become more like God. God is good, right? Eve wanted to be good like God. In trying to become “good,” Eve caused the Fall of humanity. Likewise, in pursuing self-discipline (or any other seemingly good quality) to an excess, you can pervert it and be the cause of your own personal Fall.

Doing well in school is certainly not a bad thing at all. In fact, it’s very good! But know why you strive to do well. Make your academic successes a means for you to serve God, not an end for yourself. If you have a rather academically “intense” personality like me, harness that and make it a virtue, not a vice.

 

Daily Mass (!!!!!)

Why must Masses be seven whole days apart!!? Come about Tuesday-Wednesday-Thursday, my soul is just aching the greatest prayer of all time! Know what I mean? You want that busy week broken up with some legit Jesus time. 

Well, welcome to #23419287413847893274018 on why the spiritual scene in college is so much more awesome than the spiritual scene in high school. 

The Catholic Center at my college holds daily Mass once a week. And it’s not at 8 AM. It’s in the evening, when adolescents can actually function (and don’t have classes). I’ve been going, and it’s fantastic! I highly recommend daily Mass to my fellow college students.

Reasons Daily Mass is Great

1. It allows you to see the true and simple beauty of the Mass. At my Catholic Center, anyway, daily Mass isn’t as elaborate as Sunday Mass: there’s no music; there aren’t too too many people (ten undergraduates at best). So, perhaps one would logically think that the Mass would lose its profundity. Not so. It’s still just as amazing, if not more amazing. 

2. It breaks up the stressed, fast-paced rhythm of college life. It’s like taking a breather. I always feel so much more at ease after daily Mass. It’s a much more fulfilling study break than drinking your stresses away. 

3. It puts life into perspective. So, you’ve got this HUGE test tomorrow that counts for, like, 25% of your grade! And then you go to Mass, and you see that this test isn’t the end-all. Sure, you still have to work hard and study, but eternal life is the true aim. 

4. It creates fellowship. Chances are, the other people who go to daily Mass are pretty similar to you. So you make some great friends that way!

Off to College!

I am at a crossroads in my life. I will be starting my freshman year of college very soon.

For the past month or so, I’ve been really excited about it, but also very nervous. The rest of my life will be determined, to an extent, by what I do during the next four years. What should I major in? What kind of profession do I want? There are so many question marks in my future. Understandably, this has made me uneasy.

But today was the culmination of all my reflection. Today I feel a lot of joy about all this uncertainty. This is an opportunity to grow in my faith. All I need to do is place my future in God’s hands. He will guide me. This is easier said than done; I am a control freak like most human beings are. But I just need to let it all go and give myself to God.

Gosh, I’m excited! God has a plan for everyone, and I’m excited to find out what’s in store for me! Through the good and the bad, God will be there for me. ❤

Fortunately, my college also has a very active Catholic Newman Center, which factored into my choosing of this school.

Here's to a joy-filled four years!