Archive for the ‘spirituality’ Tag

on discernment

Happy Feast Day of St. Ignatius of Loyola!

So there’s an old joke that goes something like: a Franciscan, a Dominican, and a Jesuit are concelebrating Mass. During the liturgy the light in the Church goes out. The Franciscan praises God for the opportunity to live more simply. The Dominican gives a learned homily about how Christ is the light of the world. And the Jesuit changes the light bulb.

I had the opportunity to learn this practical side of Ignatian spirituality while I was an undergrad at Boston College. I knew little to nothing about St. Ignatius of Loyola before I arrived at Boston College nearly 10 years ago, but it is safe to say that St. Ignatius has been one of the most influential saints in my spiritual development.  His was a spirituality grounded in the everyday human experience of each and every individual person encountering God.

When I arrived at Boston College—a Jesuit institution— as a bright-eyed freshman, I was ready to take on the world. I had signed on to be a double major in Biology and Psychology to fulfill my dreams of going to medical school and becoming a pediatric cardiologist. I started my first semester of courses—Molecular Cell Biology, Behavioral Neuroscience, Chemistry, Calculus, and a freshmen cornerstone class. Within days of the first week of classes, I began to sense that something was wrong.  I didn’t enjoy any of my work (and believe me, I love school.) I began dreading going to class and my grades were plummeting.  I had never received less than a B+ in my life, and suddenly I was getting C’s and D’s for the semester.  I could not, for the life of me, understand how I could be failing at something that I “wanted” so badly.

Around this time I got involved with Campus Ministry at BC and began to learn more about the Jesuits and Ignatian Spirituality.  St. Ignatius development a method of discernment that seemed to really make sense to me.  I learned that St. Ignatius believed that God speaks to us in the desires of our heart—anDSC01255d that if we look really carefully at our feelings—what brings us joy (our consolations) and what doesn’t (our desolations)—that God speaks to us in these desires about his will for our lives.

It became abundantly clear that I really didn’t want to become a doctor. I loved the idea of being a medical professional, but it was definitely not in the plan for me. I found no joy, whatsoever, in my pursuit of this goal. That is not to say that life should be without its challenges. But Ignatius would probably say that God speaks to us even in the challenges, and that I would still feel some joy or fulfillment as I strove onward toward my goal.  But there was no joy or fulfillment in my pre-med classes.

I went home that Christmas to break the news to my parents that I wasn’t going to be a pre-med major anymore.  When I returned to BC in the spring, I took a few random classes to fulfill my core requirements for graduation while I figured out what I wanted to do with my life.  One of those random classes happened to be “The Biblical Heritage.”

In this course on the Old Testament I was introduced to what would become one of my greatest passions.  I became obsessed with the study of the Old Testament. I hung on every single word, loved the nuances and the poetry and more than anything, I loved the development of God’s relationship with his people.  It became abundantly clear that theology was what I was meant to study.  I finally knew what it felt like to be passionate about my work.  I was thrilled.

I could write a book on how Ignatian spirituality has shaped my life, but it is this practical experience—the experience of figuring out what God wanted me to do with my gifts—that left the most profound impact on me.

Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty,
my memory, my understanding,
and my entire will,

 All I have and call my own.

You have given all to me.
To you, Lord, I return it.

Everything is yours; do with it what you will.
Give me only your love a
nd your grace,
that is enough for me.

– St. Ignatius of Loyola

organic family planning

As a result of the HHS Mandate, the Catholic Church’s teachings on contraception have garnered an abundance of media attention.   It is clear from the  headlines that Catholics are depicted as a people divided when it comes to contraception.  It is widely—though erroneously —reported that 98% of Catholic women will use a form of contraception at some point in their lifetime.  With numbers like these, and headlines like, “Catholics Take Sides over Health Law’s Birth Control Policy,” what’s a Catholic to do?  Many Catholics know that the Church views contraception as immoral, but are unsure exactly why.  Catholics may be unfamiliar or have misconceptions about what options are considered morally licit.  So while everyone is clear that the Church disallows contraception, the Church’s side of the story is not widely known.

With this in mind, last year I pitched Church teaching on contraception to my classroom of high school students. I began the conversation by asking them what they thought about the recent trend of environmental activism: everything nowadays is about “being green” and farming organically and cleaning with elements found in nature rather than chemicals. Everyone chimed in with examples from their own lives or advertisements they had seen on TV.  I then posed the question, If we are concerned with the chemicals that we put in our bodies, if we spend extra money to buy organic produce, use botantical cleaning supplies, and eat only antibiotic-free meat, why, then, are we so quick to use chemicals to control a woman’s fertility?

The room was quiet for a few moments—a small feat in an all-girls environment—and then the conversation really picked up.  I explained that the Church encourages married couples to use Natural Family Planning, or NFP, to plan their families.  Natural Family Planning can be used to achieve or to avoid pregnancies.  There are several different methods, but each works in conjunction with a woman’s menstrual cycle to determine the days that she is able to conceive.   NFP does not use any chemicals and does not involve any act before, during, or after intercourse to prevent a pregnancy from occurring.  Upon hearing this one student remarked, “It’s organic family planning!”  The real beauty of NFP, though, is that it fosters care for the whole person, body and spirit.

Marriage has two essential qualities: it is unitive—bringing the couple together in body and in spirit—but it is also procreative—that is to say, open to life.  As Pope Paul VI writes in Humanae Vitae,

“…the  fundamental nature of the marriage act, while uniting husband and wife in the closest intimacy, also renders them capable of generating new life—and this as a result of laws written into the actual nature of man and of woman. And if each of these essential qualities, the unitive and the procreative, is preserved, the use of marriage fully retains its sense of true mutual love and its ordination to the supreme responsibility of parenthood to which man is called.”

When we deliberately remove the procreative element of sex through contraception,  we are removing an essential quality of the marital act.

That is why NFP is not considered contraception or birth control; it involves an awareness of naturally occurring times of fertility and infertility.  Couples who wish to avoid a pregnancy simply abstain from intercourse during the woman’s fertile phase.  Contrary to popular belief, NFP is 99% effective if a couple seeks to avoid a pregnancy and uses the system correctly.

More than anything, though, NFP requires a couple to embody agape love, that is, sacrificial love.  It requires sacrifice because short periods of abstinence are required if a couple is trying to avoid a pregnancy.  It calls couples beyond themselves to a mutual responsibility for their fertility.  It does not rely solely on the woman or the man—it necessarily requires mutual responsibility. It is a remarkable exercise in authentic self-gift. In fact, couples who use NFP report that it strengthens their marriage because it fosters communication and a deeper appreciation for the other.

Natural Family Planning acknowledges that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made” and it promotes a deep respect for our bodies’ natural cycles of fertility.  In a society where “being green” is so prized, we shouldn’t settle for using chemicals to alter what is a remarkable natural cycle.  This week is NFP Awareness week –take the opportunity to learn more about authentic Church teaching on contraception. For more information on NFP, I’d urge you to check out the US Conference of Catholic Bishops website.  In addition, the book Women, Sex, and the Church: A Case for Catholic Teaching, edited by Erika Bachiochi, is filled with essays (written by brilliant, academic women) about the theology and the history behind these teachings.


A few weeks ago, I had the joy of escaping my chilly New England home to visit my parents in bright, warm Florida. I’ve lived away from home now for quite some time, and each time I go back to visit I love to wait for the moment when we turn a corner and my house comes into view.   My favorite tree is right on the corner of the lot; my family planted it when we moved into this house many years ago.  I love this house for everything that it represents and all of the memories that it holds.

But this past visit when we pulled up to the house I did not get to relish that moment that I love. I had just heard a few minutes earlier that there had been two explosions at the Boston Marathon.  My body was there in Florida, but my heart was back in Boston, worried about my family and friends there.

Later that evening when I went out for a walk with my Mom, I noticed that my favorite tree had been completely cut down. At least, that’s what it looked like from my vantage point.  I expressed my shock and sadness to my Mom, who just laughed and exclaimed, “Oh, that’s Knuckles!” She went on to explain that she was gardening over the weekend and decided that the tree needed to be pruned.

The tree post-pruning!

The tree post-pruning!


Pruned, yes, I argued. But not completely cut down. Every single one of the tree’s branches was gone. It looked like the Giving Tree at the end of Shel Silverstein’s iconic book.  It was tragic. I couldn’t believe that she had nearly killed this tree.

And my mother—in her infinite wisdom—patiently explained that yes, the tree looked dead.  But it needed to be pruned so that later it would grow even taller, even fuller. Sure, it was ugly. By all outward appearances, it was never coming back. But new life was just waiting to burst forth.  Sure enough, right before I left home a few days later, Mom pointed out the brand new little branches that were springing forth.

These were the memories that were in my heart this morning as I heard today’s Gospel.

Jesus said to his disciples:
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower.
He takes away every branch in me that does not bear fruit,
and everyone that does he prunes so that it bears more fruit.
You are already pruned because of the word that I spoke to you.

Remain in me, as I remain in you.

Just as a branch cannot bear fruit on its own
unless it remains on the vine,
so neither can you unless you remain in me.
I am the vine, you are the branches.”

I suppose, then, that perhaps I should look at challenges, suffering, and pain as a kind of spiritual “pruning.”  Perhaps God is a Master Gardener, up there in the clouds with a giant pair of shears just waiting to cut away anything that hinders his plan for me, for you. It hurts. It’s ugly. By all appearances it doesn’t seem like anything is going to change, or improve. But then when we least expect it, life and beauty spring forth in great abundance.

Prune away.


peace in the kitchen

Yesterday I was in a major funk.

I wanted so badly to write, but no thoughts came. I sat in front of my computer for two hours, my cup of tea in hand, willing the words to come. My thoughts were all over the place. I am quite homesick, and filled with uncertainty about my life.  I wrote up a draft, then tossed it—too many loose ends. I did all of the usual things to help me get out of this foul mood—I went to the gym, made dinner. No improvement. I resorted to my secret weapon for times like this—baking.

I’ve written before about my love for “The Barefoot Contessa” show on the Food Network.  But baking really does get me through difficult emotional times.  So last night I pulled out our KitchenAid mixer, my measuring cups, jars of flour, sugar, baking powder, and I started to feel calm. I measured out all of my ingredients, followed my recipe exactly, and put my delicious-smelling banana bread in the oven. And some weight on my shoulders is lifted and I feel like “me” again.

As I was cleaning up after baking, my husband remarked that baking always makes me feel better, he can see the difference. I quickly responded without thinking, “I love baking because I can control it. It’s precise.  I know exactly how much I need to measure, and if I measure everything exactly, I will have a beautiful, delicious product in the end.”

Only while I was laying in bed last night did the significance of that thought dawn on me.  I like baking because it makes me feel like I am in control of my life, even for an hour. When I think about it, the majority of my anxiety comes from feeling like I can’t control my life—I’m not sure what God is calling me to do with my life, I miss my family, my friends, and I still feel so very new and out of sorts in my new life.  What I need to do is trust that God is working in my life, God is the master baker, measuring, teasing out exactly who God created me to be.

Today my prayer is that I can learn to rely on God to bring me peace, instead of relying on my KitchenAid. I will, of course, continue to bake my banana bread and scones and other delights (I’d have a riot on my hands if I stopped…), but I need to rely on God more. Here’s to hoping.

Bob Rice

Catholic speaker, musician, author, teacher

domestic diva, M.D.

my mother raised the perfect housewife...then I went to med school

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The Spiritual Evolution of a Faulty Catholic

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