From the desert, something new

The COVID pandemic has been like a desert sojourn for many of us – barren, exhausting and empty. But even within the desert, the Lord is doing a new thing and creating something beautiful.

By Father Greg Cleveland, O.M.V.

G.K. Chesterton and several other literary figures were asked one evening what book they would prefer to have with them if stranded on a desert isle. One writer said without hesitation: “The complete works of Shakespeare.” Another said, “I’d choose the Bible.” They turned to Chesterton. “How about you?” And Chesterton replied, “I would choose Thomas’s Guide to Practical Ship Building.” 

Like Chesterton, we might be looking to escape our confinement of living in our current circumstances.  We feel imprisoned in our homes, isolated from others, desperately wishing to go back out into society to live our normal lives.  We have felt the devastation of the COVID pandemic – the loss of precious loved ones, the absence of meaningful connection, unemployment, economic ruin, family stress, and the challenge of educating our children. We often feel vulnerable, out of control and fearful.  In many ways, the COVID experience has been a desert existence, stripped down and empty. And yet in the emptiness, many have discovered the fullness of God’s presence. God seems to be clearing away non-essential things to make us realize what is truly important.  

The desert is barren and inhospitable, often the abode of wild animals and snakes, and subject to extremes of temperature. We either don’t want to be there out of reluctance and fear, or we freely go there with some strong and set purpose, which is at least necessary to pass through it.  The desert is a place that symbolizes the test of endurance with two possible outcomes – victory or succumbing. Desert dwellers seek a barren physical environment for the same reason that they seek an undistracted mind, namely, to reduce the struggle to its barest and most essential elements.  The desert affords us the opportunity to unite more fully with the Lord. Jesus, who himself endured the desert, wants us to realize his presence to us in the emptiness we feel in our hearts. He wants us to rediscover the value of prayer, especially with his Word in the Scriptures.  He wants us to hunger and thirst for his Body and Blood in the Eucharist, the manna in the desert which sustains us on our journey through this life to life eternal.  

The desert seems to be barren of plant life.  But the soil is fertile, and with a little rain, old seeds generate new plants. In our stripped-down existence, we may discover new life being generated.  During the pandemic, I have witnessed growth in the virtue of humility in the realization of how little we are in control and need to depend on God and one another. People have been tried in the virtue of patience in bearing with self and one another.  There have been so many opportunities to show charity toward one another, especially those who are poor, weak and needy.  

The pandemic has made us re-examine our priorities and re-evaluate the status quo in our lives.  I know many people who have made extraordinary changes in their lives, reinventing themselves by starting new careers or caring more for family members.  One woman, frustrated in working from home, has decided to transition from her usual work to pursue her dream of becoming a life coach.  Personally, I was frustrated by hardly being able to celebrate my 25th anniversary of ordination during the lockdown.  Instead, I commemorated it by writing a 300-page book on the priesthood over that intense three-month period. Using the imagery of the Song of Songs, I was able to show how the ministerial priest radiates the beauty of Christ the Bridegroom, and perfects the beauty of the Christ’s bride, the Church.

One thing is certain, the COVID crisis has meant suffering for everyone.  We as Christians recognize the Cross as essential to our lives and necessary for spiritual growth.  Jesus explained: “Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things andenter into his glory?” (Lk 24:26).  A scientist once observed a new butterfly struggling in an exhaustive fight to release its wings from the imprisonment of its cocoon. Out of curiosity or pity for the poor insect, he intervened and carefully freed the butterfly by cutting it loose from its thready case.  Later he observed that the wings did not develop normally.  They were smaller and weaker.  Also, the color in the wings was not as bright and beautiful. Finally, sooner than expected, the butterfly died.  His conclusion from this intervention in nature was that the struggle of the butterfly was a necessary step in its development of the strength and stamina required to endure greater the challenges awaiting it. 

Through our sufferings God is making us brighter and more beautiful people, fire-tried gold in the furnace of adversity (Eccl. 2:5).  May the Lord turn the desert of this pandemic into living streams of his love. 

The Lanteri Center offers spiritual encouragement and spiritual direction. If you are committed to growing in a disciplined life of prayer and would like to meet regularly with a mature and experienced guide, contact the Lanteri Center at 303-298-1498, or learn more at omvusa.org/lanteri-center.

Father Greg Cleveland, O.M.V. is the Executive Director of the Lanteri Center for Ignatian Spirituality.

COMING UP: Care for Her Act: A common-sense approach to caring for women and their babies

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The pro-life community is often accused of only being pro-birth; however, a congressman from Nebraska is seeking to not only bring more visibility to the countless organizations which provide care for women experiencing crisis pregnancies through birth and beyond, but to also imitate that care at the federal level and enshrine it into law.

Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R), who serves the first congressional district in Nebraska, is expected to introduce the Care for Her Act to Congress soon, a bill that’s been in the works since last year. The overall goal of the bill is to “[commit] to care for that journey of life through a complementary set of services whereby the government makes a decided choice on behalf of the life of the unborn child and meeting the needs of the expectant mother,” Rep. Fortenberry told the Denver Catholic.

The Care For Act seeks to accomplish this through four basic provisions: A $3,600 tax credit for unborn children which would apply retroactively after the child is born, in addition to the existing tax credit for children; a comprehensive assessment and cataloguing of the programs and resources that are available to expectant mothers; providing federal grants to advance maternal housing, job training mentorships and other educational opportunities for expectant mothers; and lastly, offering financial incentives to communities that improve maternal and child health outcomes.

The Biden Administration recently indicated that they’ll be removing the Hyde Amendment in next year’s budget, which has historically been in place to prohibit pubic funds from going to abortions. The Care for Her Act would circumvent this to some degree, and it would also test whether Rep. Fortenberry’s dissenting colleagues who have in the past expressed that women should be cared for throughout their pregnancies and beyond are willing to stand by their words.

While the conversation around pregnancy and women’s health often centers around abortion, Rep. Fortenberry intentionally crafted the Care for Her Act to not be against abortion, per se, but rather for women and their babies.

“Abortion has caused such a deep wound in the soul of America,” Rep. Fortenberry said. “However, the flip side of this is not only what we are against, because it is so harmful, but what are we for? So many wonderful people throughout this country carry the burden of trying to be with women in that vulnerable moment where there is an unexpected pregnancy and show them the gift of what is possible for that child and for that woman. Let’s do that with government policy as well.”

Congressman Jeff Fortenberry (R) of Nebraska is expected to introduce the Care for Her Act to Congress soon, a bill which seeks to provide a community of care for women facing an unexpected pregnancy. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. House of Representatives)

Even The Washington Post has taken notice of the Care for Her Act. Earlier this year, Rep. Fortenberry introduced the idea to his constituents, and as to be expected, he received mixed feedback. Those who are pro-life were supportive of the idea, while those who support abortions were more apprehensive. Still others shared consternation about what the government ought to or ought not to do, expressing concern about what the Care for Her Act seeks to do.

“My response is, if we’re going to spend money, what is the most important thing? And in my mind, this is it,” Rep. Fortenberry said.

However, he was very encouraged by one response in particular, which for him really illustrates why this bill is so important and needed.

“One woman wrote me and said, ‘Jeff, I had an abortion when I was young. But if I had this complement of services and commitment of community around me, I would have made another decision,'” Rep. Fortenberry recalled. “And I said ‘yes.’ That’s why we are doing this. For her.”

So far, Rep. Fortenberry has been able to usher support from a number of women representatives on his side of the aisle. He is hopeful, though, that support could come from all sides of the political spectrum.

“Is it possible this could be bipartisan? I would certainly hope so, because it should transcend a political divide,” he explained. “We, of course, stand against abortion because it is so detrimental to women and obviously the unborn child. At the same time though, I think that others could join us who maybe don’t have the fullness of our perspective, who want to see the government actually make a choice on behalf of protecting that unborn life.”

Amidst the politically polarizing discussions about pregnancy and unborn life, the Care for Her act is a common-sense approach to caring for women and their babies. It offers women facing an unexpected pregnancy the chance to experience hope in a seemingly hopeless situation and make a life-giving decision for both herself and her child.

“I’m excited by this,” Rep. Fortenberry said. “I think it opens a whole new set of imaginative possibilities for America, a transformative ideal that again makes this moment of vulnerability when there is an unexpected pregnancy, our chance, our commitment as a community of care.”