5 Ways to Supercharge 2021

When we look back at 2020 in the history books one day, I believe the universal theme will be “suffering.” Whether that suffering took the form of illness, death, financial ruin, mental health struggles, or social isolation, it’s safe to say that 2020 took no prisoners.

It has become fashionable to lament the dumpster fire that was this past year, and I’ve indulged in my fair share. But I am also convinced that 2020 had a relatively thick silver lining, and it’s this: all the band-aids came off.

After the past year, I can safely say that I am intimately acquainted with all my scars and shortcomings in a way that leaves no room for doubt. Diagnosis: human. I am frail, I am fallible, and it seems like I found 100 new ways to fail my friends, my family, and my God during the previous 12 months.

What’s so silver about that lining, you might be wondering? Well, it’s this. The masks are off. Er, well, perhaps not the actual masks, but the ones that we wore even before we all knew the term “N95.” The ones that we’d worn so long and so comfortably that we may have forgotten what we looked like behind them. We had names for them like“busyness” and “financially successful” and “resilient and independent” and “unflaggingly optimistic” and “four sport athlete” and “world traveller” and, oh, 100 other names we’d taken on as our primary identities. And then they were gone.

A friend was unburdening her soul in the confessional this past summer of the many fears and frustrations she felt with the draconian new state of affairs and the drumbeat of doom from the media. Father listened with compassion and quiet attention, agreeing that it was really too much for any human being to handle…alone.

“Let us make something new of 2020. Let us create something new in our families and in our homes so that in the future, years from now we can point back to the calendar and say ‘oh, yes, 2020, that’s the year I started praying a daily rosary/going to daily Mass/praying aloud with my spouse every day… Let 2020 be the turning point.’”

I still think about his advice to her, nearly half a year later. And while I’m tapping my foot in anticipation of putting this one on the record books, I know that 2021 can only be truly different if I do something differently. So here are a few ideas:

1. Stop reading the news all day.

It’s making you anxious and crazy, and that’s great news for the media companies and their bottom lines! If you must consume it, either for work or due to an incorrigible personal curiosity (guilty), then pick a set time like you would for an appointment or meeting, set an alarm in your phone or calendar, and restrict yourself to a sane amount of information. I’ve heard it said, anecdotally, that we should spend as many minutes in prayer as we do scrolling our newsfeeds each day. Gulp.

2. Which leads me to…social media.

Do you really need it? I mean really, really? Could you hire it out if it’s for business? Use a third party app like HootSuite to post for you remotely? I read a life-changing book a few years ago called Deep Work by Cal Newport, and it forever changed the way I thought about spending my time. His followup title, Digital Minimalism, is even more relevant to the topic at hand. He advocates for constantly asking oneself, “am I gaining something meaningful from the time I spend in these apps…or are they gaining something from me?” If you’re honest with yourself, as I’ve had to be, I suspect you’ll find little there worth salvaging.

3. Prioritize prayer.

If you’re stumbling out of bed when your kids do, set your alarm five minutes earlier than their earliest intrusion. If you’re commuting and listening to talk radio or jamming out, try 15 minutes of silence instead. It is totally possible to do Lectio Divina with a toddler on your lap, or to practice meditative prayer while sitting in traffic. It’s only a matter of putting ourselves in God’s presence – He does the rest.

4. Don’t neglect your primary vocation.

If 2020 taught us anything, it’s how much of life happens between our own four walls. Wounds that needed to heal were exposed, oftentimes painfully. Ruptures in need of repair were brought to the forefront. Conversations we’d been avoiding for fear of conflict or out of complacency were suddenly…had. And however it may have felt, that’s not a bad thing. We are here on earth to grow in holiness and charity through our vocations: our specific, personal path which leads us to God. The person you promised to love and cherish, the children you’re raising together, the religious community you made vows to – they’re the way and the means by which we’ll get to heaven. Or not. God isn’t going to ask me how clean my floors were or how many books I sold, but I think He is going to crane His neck and look for my husband and children, asking whether I did my best to bring them along.

5. Choose gratitude.

In times of poverty or plenty, when toilet paper abundantly lines the shelves, and when nary a Clorox wipe is to be found… at the end of the day, the only thing I can truly control is my own attitude towards the life I’ve been handed that day. And so, at the end of the day in our family, we give thanks, simply and specifically, recognizing that God is the giver of all good gifts. And if the gifts aren’t good? Well, we work towards the belief that “He works all things for good for those who love him.” 

In the words of St. John Paul II, a personal hero of mine, “remember the past with gratitude. Live the present with enthusiasm. Look forward to the future with confidence.” 

COMING UP: Sin, suicide and the perfect mercy of God

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I love my hair stylist. 

She’s a devoted Christian. So, when I see her, we tend to have much deeper discussions than the usual gossipy hair stylist sessions. And, because it’s a small shop, the discussions often branch out to the other people within earshot, waiting for their appointments or waiting for their color to process. Because she tends to attract a smart and faithful clientele, the discussion is always interesting. 

Yesterday, at my bimonthly appointment, we somehow got onto the topic of suicide — specifically, the insidious way that it spreads among teenagers. One suicide often leads to another, which leads to another. I made the comment “It is demonic.” 

At that point, a woman in the waiting area chimed in. “I disagree. I’m Catholic. It used to be a mortal sin, but they changed it. It’s not any more. It’s mental illness.” 

If a nice Catholic lady at my hair salon could be confused about this, I figured perhaps some of you out there may be as well. Which made me think perhaps it’s time for a little review on the nature of sin — both in general, and specifically as it applies to suicide. 

First, sin in general. The fundamental point here is that the Catholic Church has no power to decide what is a sin and what isn’t. It’s not like there’s a committee that meets periodically to review the list of sins, and decide if any need to be promoted from venial to mortal, or demoted from mortal to venial, or dropped from the list entirely. 

Sins are sins because they are outside of God’s will. And they are outside of God’s will because they have the potential to do tremendous damage to people created in His image and likeness, whom He loves. We know they are sins because it was revealed to us in Scripture, or it has been handed down from the time of Christ in sacred tradition. Sometimes the Church must apply these timeless, God-given principles to new situations, to determine the morality of technologies undreamt of in ancient times. 

The Church has the authority to do that because she received it from Christ, her bridegroom. And once she does declare on a subject, we believe it is done through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. So the Church isn’t going to change her mind. Something can’t be a sin, and then suddenly NOT be a sin. 

“But,” you ask. “What about eating meat on Friday? That was a sin, and now it isn’t.” This is an example of a discipline of the Church. Eating meat has never, in itself, been an objectively sinful behavior — on Fridays or any other day. But the Church was calling us, as Jesus calls us, to do penance. And the Church selected that penance as something we could all, as a Church, do together. The sin was never in the ingestion of the meat. It was in disobeying the Church in this matter. This particular discipline has been dropped. But it doesn’t change our obligation to in some way do penance for our sins and the sins of the world. 

Now, on to suicide. It is obvious that something must have changed in the teachings of the Church. Because, in the olden days, a person who committed suicide couldn’t be buried with a Catholic funeral Mass. And now they can. So what gives? 

Here’s the situation. Taking innocent human life is always a grave evil. (I add the “innocent” qualifier to distinguish this discussion from one about self defense, or about the death penalty — which in a sense is self defense. But those are separate discussions.) God is the author of life, and it is He who decides when our lives will end. To usurp that power always has been, and always will be, a grave moral evil. 

But there is an important distinction we must understand. There is the objective gravity of the sin — the nature of it, and the great damage done by it. Then there is the question of the individual’s moral culpability of that sin. In other words: a great evil was done. But is the person who did it liable to judgment for it? Or were there extenuating circumstances that mean that, while the evil was indeed done, the person who did it was somehow functioning in a diminished capacity that reduces or eliminates their moral responsibility? 

For a person to be culpable for a mortal sin, three conditions must be met. First, the objective act must be gravely sinful. Second and third, the person committing the sin must do so with full knowledge of the sinfulness of the act, and full consent of the will. In the question of suicide, we have learned to much about the psychological condition of a person driven to such a horrible deed. The instinct to self preservation is strong. In order to overcome it, the mental and/or physical suffering is frequently very intense. There may even be, as my friend at the salon mentioned, mental illness involved. All of this can drastically reduce a person’s mental and intellectual capacity to make rational decisions. 

And so, while an objectively horrifying act has occurred, God may very well have tremendous mercy on that person’s soul, given the extreme states of agitation and pain that led up to the act. 

Know that I write all of this as someone who has lost one beloved relative and several friends to suicide. And I am tremendously optimistic in my hope that they are with God. Not because they didn’t do something terrible, or that what they did was somehow justified. But because the God who loves them sees their hearts, and knows that pain and suffering can drive people to acts they wouldn’t possibly consider while in their “right” minds. 

And this is why the Church offers the Rite of Christian Burial to those who die by suicide. Because they need the prayers. And their families need the comfort. And because the Church, too, believes in that the God who embodies perfect justice also embodies perfect mercy. 

And we live in great hope that they are with Him.