Ash Me No More Questions – Thoughts on Ash Wednesday

As the day that kicks off the Catholic Church’s season of fasting and repentance, Ash Wednesday can feel like a pretty somber affair. But I don’t see it that way at all. I love Ash Wednesday. It always fills me with a resounding sense of purpose, mission and ownership of my faith.

img_1864Ash Wednesday forces you to come face-to-face with your faith…by putting a symbol of that faith right on your face. I’ve seen a bit of back-and-forth about the recent trend of posting your #Ashtag image of your ashes on social media. Some people say it contradicts the Ash Wednesday reading about not doing flashy signs of your faith in public so that you can get recognition from your peers. I’ve never quite understood this line of thinking. Sure, perhaps when Jesus was preaching there were religious leaders and others who showcased their pious acts in an effort to prove their status and holiness. There are still many people who do those kinds of things today. But I don’t think Jesus was talking about getting ashes on Ash Wednesday.

If anything, wearing ashes in public these days has become an almost countercultural act that is more isolating than empowering. Any reaction of “Oh, look how holy that guy is!” would be dripping with sarcasm, not respect. In today’s secular world, invading a newsfeed full of polarizing political posts and vapid pop culture nonsense with a photo of your ashes  is more an act of evangelizing than self-aggrandizing.

On Ash Wednesday, your Catholicism is no secret. It could be the one day a year that people in your office or at the store find out that you’re a practicing Catholic. Maybe they’ll ask you about it. Maybe they won’t. But maybe they’ll think about it later, and it will plant a seed that ends up making them go to Mass again for the first time in many Lents. If they’re not religious, maybe it will prompt them to discern some larger questions or at least want to know why so many seemingly sane people are walking around with dirt on their foreheads.

Beyond what your ash might do for someone who sees you wearing it, Lent is perhaps the most powerful liturgical season on a personal level—if you let it be. Much like New Year’s, Lent presents a wonderful opportunity to take stock and rejigger. The priest who gave today’s homily at the Mass I attended said that Lent represents God’s way of interrupting your life. This is a perfect way of thinking about it. Lent should upset the apple cart of your daily routine. It starts by making you wear ashes and turning your fingers black every time you unconsciously rub your forehead. Then you introduce the idea of sacrifice: what can you give up or add to your life for the next 40 days? It’s like taking your car in for a tuneup. Sometimes they change the oil or replace worn out tires. Other times they’re fixing the air conditioning or adding a new stereo. Lent is one of the few times when you can add by subtracting. You can rid yourself of that gunky oil. You can replace that flat tire with one that might be more expensive in the short-term but will ultimately get you better mileage.

And it all starts on Ash Wednesday. The possibilities are endless today. You need to have a realistic plan if you’re going to stick with it for the next 40 days, but you also need to believe that you are up for a true challenge, and that God’s grace is there to help you complete this sacrifice if you offer it up for Him. It’s not a holy diet. It’s an act of sacrifice.

This is my daughter’s first Ash Wednesday, which makes it all the more powerful to me. It is both my greatest responsibility and my greatest joy to pass on my Catholic faith to her. The ashes on my forehead are a reminder of my sinfulness, brokenness and failure—as well as the incredible truth that Jesus overcame the cross to rescue me from all of that darkness and lead me to eternal life. These are the things that I will need to help my children to understand. This is why I wear my ashes. And this is why I think everyone should see them–in the street, in the office or on Instagram.

I pray that you have a thoughtful and faithful Lent that leaves you more open to God’s plan for your life, more willing to share the good news of your faith with others, more aware of how temporary our Earthly lives really are, and more focused on what that means for the time you have left.

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Back to The Room Where It Happened

In the epic hip-hop Broadway musical Hamilton, there is a show-stopping number called “The Room Where It Happened,” that details a momentous backroom political deal that had long-lasting results. Over the course of my nearly year-long love affair with Hamilton, the title of the song has slipped into my lexicon to represent (sarcastically or otherwise) places where important things have occurred. Tonight–without sarcasm–I can honestly say that I returned to what is the most significant Room Where It Happened for me.

Tonight marked the first time in nearly four years that I came back to the school auditorium at Saint Mary of the Angels in Chicago. From the outside and the inside, it looks like any other 50-plus-year-old Catholic school facility in the city–certainly not the kind of place where you would expect your life to change.

DCMU3132

But there I was tonight, in the same space where almost exactly four years ago (give or take two months), I met my wife. Four years ago, I was a 29-year-old bachelor showing up for an intermediate swing dancing class with a bunch of Catholic young adults. Looking back, I remember feeling a lot of uncertainty about my life at that point. I was drifting toward my fourth decade with doubts about what exactly I was supposed to be doing with myself. I had a picturesque life–a steady job, a college teaching gig, a nice condo, a great family and friends–but the vocation of marriage and family that I longed for and fully expected to already have achieved by that point would still gnaw at me in my weaker moments. I began to have doubts about what the future would look like.

I trusted in God’s plan for me, but wondered if the blue prints I had drawn for myself didn’t actually match those of the architect. Faced with that conundrum, I guess I decided to sign up for my friend’s swing dancing class and look for pretty girls to date.


Tonight I found myself back in the auditorium and once again surrounded by Catholic young adults, this time for a speaker event sponsored by the Catholic Young Professionals of Chicago. I’m sure I would have attended this event four years ago as well, in search of spiritual wisdom, but also pretty girls to date. Tonight, I came to the event as a 33-year-old married man who is about to become a father for the first time. Consequently, I was able to focus solely on the spiritual wisdom…and that sharpening of my focus was actually one of the points of the speaker’s talk.

If you ever get the chance to hear Jeff Schiefelbein give a speech, make sure you take advantage of the opportunity. He is dynamic and inspiring and wise beyond his 38 years. His passion is contagious and I think I speak for many in the room when I say that his words left me wanting to be a better person and a better Catholic.

The theme that stood out–and played right into the nostalgia of the location for me–was commitment. Jeff posited that when you fully commit yourself to something, it can be a challenge, but ultimately a freeing experience. Based on the ways my life has changed and the commitments I have undertaken in the intervening four years, I couldn’t agree more.

By committing myself to Theresa for the rest of my life–and now bringing a new soul into the world to share in that commitment–I have freed up so much of the energy and attention that I was wasting on meaningless activities like forced relationships, physical and emotional insecurities, fears and doubts. The difficult and permanently binding commitments of marriage and fatherhood have given my life a purpose and fulfilled a vocation that were previously lacking. I am so grateful for the gift of this vocation, and the ways it has challenged me to become closer to being the person I always wanted to be. I know the refining process will continue as Theresa and I prepare to raise our daughter. I know there will be challenges that will sometimes make these commitments difficult to fully keep. But I also know that I have the focus and ambition to keep them–powers of self-mastery that I had not yet realized when I entered that auditorium four years ago.

Jeff’s challenge to the audience tonight was to live a life that honors your commitment to your chosen vocation as well as to your faith…and to live authentically in a way that makes these choices visible to the world. I am well aware of my shortcomings in both of those categories, but I look forward to integrating his advice into my life and helping others that I encounter to understand and respect the commitments I have made, as well as to embrace their own commitments and experience the freedom with which I am now so richly blessed.

Close Encounters of the Papal Kind

Last week was a bit of an epic week for me. On Tuesday, I was all over the news because of Flat Francis in the morning, and I started teaching at Medill again in the evening. On Wednesday, I flew into Washington, D.C. and saw Pope Francis canonize St. Junipero Serra. On Thursday morning, I saw the pope address Congress. On Thursday evening, I was back in Evanston teaching again. On Friday, I rested. On Saturday, I watched Northwestern beat Ball State under the lights and continue their thus far undefeated season. On Sunday, I watched the Chicago Cubs beat the Pittsburgh Pirates under the lights and continue their victory lap before the postseason.

But let’s talk about the pope.

pope and me

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The Flat Francis Effect

Matt & Flat FrancisIn April, I launched the Flat Francis campaign for Catholic Extension as a way to build excitement for Pope Francis’ first visit to the United States and to spread awareness about our organization. On paper, the idea seemed easy enough to execute: create a cartoon cutout version of the pope that could be easily shared online, spread the word via social media asking people to take a photo with the cutout and post it on social media with the hashtag #FlatFrancis, create a website to automatically display the submissions, sit back and hopefully (Popefully?) watch the campaign take off.

What happened in reality exceeded my wildest dreams of success, and developments in the past couple weeks have been particularly exciting.

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No Evidence of Disease

After chronicling my cancer battle for the last eight months, maybe it’s a little ironic that this is one of the most difficult blog posts for me to write.

Yesterday I received the results from my third PET scan, and there is No Evidence of Disease. I am in remission.

I had lots of immediate thoughts. Among others: Hallelujah…Thank you, God…Time to celebrate…and Wow.

I’m DONE WITH LUMPY.

Done With Lumpy!

I don’t have the proper words to thank God for leading me into this storm and guiding me back to a safe and healthy harbor—feeling more loved, more grateful, and more compassionate for having taken the journey. I am blessed beyond measure.

I don’t have the proper words to thank the people—family, friends, acquaintances, and strangers—who took the time to wish me well, say a prayer, send me cards, make me food, knit me a blanket, light me a candle or otherwise support me. Their example has lit a fire within me to somehow pay this forward to those in my life who are in need. I am blessed beyond measure.

I don’t have the proper words to thank my wife for boldly stepping up to face a challenge that few couples encounter just four months after they eat their wedding cake. Day after day for the past eight months, she personified the marital vows she so recently agreed to. This trial and her self-giving, sacrificial response have made our marriage stronger than it ever possibly could have been if our first year as husband and wife had been smooth sailing. I am blessed beyond measure.

I don’t have the proper words to describe how so much good can come from something so seemingly bad, so I’m going to borrow words from J.R.R. Tolkien and Stephen Colbert. In a recent interview, the Catholic comedian quoted Tolkien when talking about how he coped with the tragic death of his father and two brothers as a child. Reflecting on the purpose of something as seemingly awful as death, Tolkien wrote, “What punishments of God are not gifts?” Colbert expounded on this, saying,

“So it would be ungrateful not to take everything with gratitude. It doesn’t mean you want it. I can hold both of those ideas in my head.”

Colbert’s line has been stuck in my head since I read it last week, and it bears repeating, since it’s incredibly appropriate given the last eight months of my life: “It would be ungrateful not to take everything with gratitude.” It makes me think back to my diagnosis. Was I grateful? Nah. Accepting? Eventually. But even my acceptance and understanding of why this had to happen to me has evolved significantly. I think my feelings are summed up rather perfectly by another favorite Catholic of mine, Fr. Robert Barron, who also found wisdom in Colbert’s interview and added a deeper layer to it:

“One of the most potent insights of the spiritual masters is that our lives are not about us, that they are, in fact, ingredient in God’s providential purposes, part of a story that stretches infinitely beyond what we can immediately grasp. Why are we suffering now? Well, it might be so that, in St. Paul’s language, we might comfort someone else with the same consolation we have received in our suffering.”

Blogging about my experience has been a great consolation to me on so many levels, and it makes my heart soar to hear that my oversharing of my experience has inspired others in some way or been informative to fellow cancer patients or made someone think or made someone laugh or made someone pray.

My treatment is over and the cancer is gone, but I want to keep driving the consolation train for those in my life. As I’ve previously mentioned, I have been blessed with an army of people who, by their example, have co-authored a manual on How To Respond. Browse my previous posts and you too will be overwhelmed by the simple (and not so simple!) gestures of support that helped me to endure countless hospital visits, incessant needles, annoying hospital stays, bouts of Chemo Chrappiness™ and more. Make no mistake, if I seemed optimistic and positive during these trials, most of that stemmed from the overwhelming power of my support and not my own indomitable spirit.

I firmly believe that it was God’s plan for my life that I should go through this experience at exactly this moment and under these exact circumstances. Of course this means that it was also God’s will for me to get the “good kind of cancer” and live through the experience, when so many others were not so lucky.One tangible way this experience has changed me forever is that I am no longer capable of praying without offering one up for everyone who has or had cancer, living or dead. I’ve become so much more aware of this insidious disease and the havoc it’s wreaking somewhere every day–complicating lives or ending them too soon. While I trust that their deaths are as much a part of God’s plan as my survival, it doesn’t make it any easier to absorb. And it definitely makes Colbert and Tolkien’s gratitude more difficult to muster.

But here I am. I am alive. I am healthy. I am blessed beyond measure with gifts and talents and family and friends. I don’t know what God has in store for me, but I know it must be something special, and I stand ready to trust in the next stage of His plan.