Today walking the dogs, I couldn’t help but notice something. The streets were icy from the freezing rain last night, especially closest to the curbs. Of course, this is where the dogs normally like to sniff and pee because it is the closest point of grass. Normally. But unlike normal, the snow covers the grass, and the snow itself is hardened with ice. Not saying the dogs cannot traverse such terrain. The risk is just greater, especially for Garth whose back legs are quite weak. Should Garth never be let take such risks? I believe not, for this would kill him in many worse ways than physical death. However, there is prudence in which risks to take. For our purposes today, he can still enjoy his walk without going over to the sides of the roads all the time and attempting to skate the ice without hurting his back legs. Older dogs’ hips are particularly vulnerable, though he has shown great endurance and resilience at eighteen years of dog years. In fact, I would argue because so many risks were taken and limits pushed when he was younger, it has given him the strength to not only last but continue to walk and even jump on beds these later days.
It is up to me, then, the one concerned about his well-being and holding his leash, to determine what risks are ok to take and what can be avoided, while still allowing for and guarding the joy he receives from going on his walks. This is the worst death, the stripping of joy at the expense of fear of injury. For him, I try to make this call, and even from human to dog, let alone human to human, it is difficult. Who am I to know such things? He clearly wants to continue as he normally does in dry and stable conditions. He continues to pull and gesture over to the sides of the street where he has usually enjoyed lush grass and abundant smells. However, he is also not oblivious. He has encountered snow before and knows of its characteristics. So I must trust this intuition in him. And not to throw it away lightly when I think I know better and can see things clearer. Or when the wind is howling and it is freezing and I would rather him not stop this time to smell because my desire is to get home as soon as possible. This, then, would not be the reason or motivator to disallow his risk-taking in crossing over the ice to get some smells in.
Who makes this call for me? Garth hasn’t asked me to take this sort of responsibility on and maybe he would rather I not. But I have accepted this responsibility as a dog owner and particularly his owner, with his unique needs and abilities. The truth is the dog surprises me every day with what he can still do. And still wants to do. There isn’t a day that goes by mom and I aren’t pestered to go for a walk. I empathize more with him now than I ever did before for two reasons. One is morning walks have become quite special to me. The last thing I want to do when I get up from sleeping is sit and relax again. And there is something about breathing in the morning air after breathing the same air in the same room for seven to nine hours. Two is a lot of things have changed for him over the years. He sleeps a lot more now than he did when he was younger. He mooches for treats a lot more. He doesn’t really like car rides any more. He doesn’t walk quite as far or quite as fast as he once did, but his desire for walks has remained the same. And this is what I must honor as his owner. The dog, at eighteen years old, still finds joy in his daily walks. And if there is nothing else to give him this joy, they must be done and adjustments only made when necessary, while above all, guarding this joy, not even protecting his physical health or indulging my fears or desires.
So we come again to the question, who makes these calls for me in my life? I don’t recall asking anyone to take on the responsibility of guiding me in my walk. Keeping me from the icy parts that aren’t worth the risk but allowing me to traverse some in order to exercise my innate and natural curiosities and experience the joys to be found in meeting challenges and coming out on the other side of them, not necessarily unharmed but unhinged, unhinged from fears or insecurities or doubts. For things such as fear, insecurity and doubt are plagues much more dangerous to my well-being than physical harms. So I guess prudence is in determining which risks will result in greater freedom and which will not, which will foster freedom from fear, insecurity and doubt.
I recently tested positive for covid. Probably the omicron variant, as my symptoms and stages lined up with what most people have experienced. I didn’t go to the hospital. Thank God. I had a gnarly headache the first day and lasting fatigue most days. I lost my sense of smell, and my taste became a bit whack. Maybe the biggest tragedy? Coffee lost its flare. It just didn’t taste good. This is laughable, of course. If the biggest tragedy of my experience with covid is the loss of the lure of coffee, then I should be singing praises from the mountaintops. I am grateful, of course, to be only mildly affected by this disease that has racked the lives of many, I do not deny that, but I also do not deny the difficulty of going without something I have grown so accustomed to enjoying, to feeling entitled to. I had a really rough day about a week into experiencing symptoms. I revolted against being cooped up in the house. Revolted against not being able to smell my amazing Schmidt’s deodorant or my Christmas Cottage candle. Cried out in angry tears about not being able to go to Mass or adoration or Whole Foods. Again, comical. I ought to be more grateful for not getting it worse. I understand this. But again again, I can’t deny my humanity. These things I have grown accustomed to. Mom asked me why being cooped up was so hard for me, why was it something to be so angry about? I told her it made me more angry that I was so angry about something I shouldn’t be angry at all about. I know how dramatic it is. The only way I could explain myself in the moment was from the standpoint of being a professional athlete. As a pro athlete, I had certain expectations for myself as far as activity levels. I had grown accustomed to certain levels of physicality. And in some senses, I depended on them for my day to be ordered rightly in my mind and in my heart. Even proper and adequate rest in the normal training cycles of athletes can be difficult for us. We get used to eating a certain way and looking a certain way. We spend so much time grooming and preparing our bodies and enjoy certain pleasures because of our training volumes. Coming off of these ways of thinking is like coming off of an addiction in some senses (pun intended). Voluntarily is one thing, but being forced to lay them down because of something like sickness is grounds for an internal upheaval and revolt. Who is sickness to keep me from the things I am owed? Entitled to? Who is covid to come in and sweep me off my feet, put me in bed for eighteen hours a day, and take the pleasure of my morning cup of coffee (without even the slightest romantic gesture)?
Well, it did. And the Lord knows I was probably angrier about coffee tasting bad than missing the celebration of the Mass. The celebration of my own wedding with my Lover and Bridegroom. The worship of my God who came in the flesh of man, so I might take part in His divine life. The perfect life of union with the Father. On this day, the celebration of the Lord’s Baptism, I am again baptized with Him. As Bishop Barron said in his Sunday Homily, we are grafted into the Lord Jesus Christ’s Baptism. The Baptism of the Anointed One, so I can also be anointed. And you can be anointed as son or daughter of the King. Listen. You are a son of the King. Hear me, my child, you are a daughter of the King.
This is the joy the Lord used covid to protect for me. He didn’t put me on a leash and force me to walk this way. Rather He redeemed physical illness. Once I gave it over to Him, told Him in my suffering that He is still a good Dad and the Giver of good gifts, then He made it new as only He can. There is a beautiful line in a song called “If I give it all” by Will Reagan that says, “if I give it all to You, will You make it all new? If I open up my hands, will You fill them again?”
I open up my hands with professional athleticism, with physical ability, with entitlements to smelling and tasting, with the pleasure of morning coffee, with health. And He gave me a greater joy to hold onto. A greater joy to receive. Fidelity to my Lord and Lover. His love and faithfulness. The promise all I need is inside of me. Not only does He promise and give Himself to me, but He does it again and again and again when I throw this promise away cheaply. As the Israelites murmured to God about only having manna to eat in the wilderness. WE HAVE BREAD FROM HEAVEN BUT WOULD PREFER MEAT AND SLAVERY. This is my malady. And yours. Sin gives us an identity crisis. We think God is a trickster. He tricked the Israelites into the wilderness, letting them believe He had something better for them, but manna wasn’t quite as tasty as the flesh pots in Egypt. He tricked me into thinking He is a Father who takes good care of me. Who sees me and knows what is best for me. I tricked Garth into thinking he couldn’t ever go over to the grass/snow of the parkway to sniff…
Umm no. Ridiculous. God did have something better than the fleshpots in Egypt for the Israelites. The wilderness was just part of the walk to it. My God is a good Father. Getting sick is just part of my walk. It wasn’t because I didn’t want Garth to enjoy his walk. There was ice. The Israelites had to go through the wilderness to get to the Promised Land. Pain and suffering will come in this life, and it does not disqualify God from His good Fatherhood. If anything, it mostly proves His Goodness because only He can make it new, can make it purposeful, can make it transformative. I think I would only be able to say this this way after the loss of my father. I know God is a good Father because of the loss of my own. I know He is my eternal Father because I had a great dad on this earth. Not only this but I have come to know how desperately I need a father. How desperately we as humans need fathers. We are made to be in a filial relationship. We all need Someone who can make the call for us. Someone who has willingly taken the responsibility to help us avoid the ice at times, walk on it some, and slip on it at others, when it will lead us to greater freedom. We all need Someone who knows us better than we know ourselves. But the doubts creep in, and we believe the lie. I believe the lie that my own Father would try to trick me. That it is better if I take care of myself and depend on no one. I can hold my own leash.
In his homily on the Epiphany, Father Mike Schmitz spoke of one of his favorite quotes from C.S. Lewis, and it goes something like this…”I’ve never had anything other than a mercenary heart, willing to give my love to the highest bidder.” The truth is if I think I will be the one holding my own leash, I am wrong. Left to myself, with my mercenary heart, I will give the command of my life to something because I am a creature. I am not meant to be my own creator. It is just not in my design. I can only love myself the most, friends and strangers the most, when I remember we are all meant to serve one another. To be in one big family, to be a part of one big body where the ears listen and the eyes see and the feet walk. Each has his or her role, and we fit together. I can only love myself and my neighbor and enemy the most when I worship my Creator. When I am in right relationship as creature to the One who made me. Worship of the Creator transforms my mercenary heart into a loyal and rightly ordered loving heart because my Father holds it and protects it. He looks after my joy and stays with me in my sorrows.
One of the famous lines of “The Chosen” series comes from the lips of Mary Magdalene after she meets Jesus in one of the first few episodes of season one. Jesus heals her of her demonic possession after the pharisee Nicodemus tries to help her but cannot. When asked about what happened, Mary tells Nicodemus that this is what she knows.
“I used to be one way, and now I am completely different. And the thing that happened in between was Him.”
Mom gave me a shirt with this line on it for Christmas. It has been on my mind for this reason but also because I want to answer it. I want to see it in my own life. I want to articulate to people through the events of my life how I was one way and now completely different. Not just after one big event, though that can certainly be the case like Mary Magdalene. I don’t know if there has been one major moment of conversion in my life I can point to and say this is THE moment. The loss of my father was certainly monumental, but it threw me into a whirlwind of an emotional journey I am still on. I think rather there has been many small moments, as I have been stubborn and resistant to letting the Lord change me. But as I reflect on how Jesus has changed me, I can see something.
I like people. Genuinely. A lot more.
If you’re a people person, maybe you cannot see how I would need a Savior to change this about me. The best picture I can give you is the Grinch. I used to be like the Grinch. Though still judgmental, I used to be unapologetically critical. Though still self-centered, I used to think my way was perfect. Though still self-righteous, I used to think I had no flaws. Though still dreadfully prideful, I used to think I didn’t need anyone else. Then I got to know Jesus, and like the Grinch, my heart grew many sizes.
Pope Benedict said the closer you are to God, the closer you are to people. You let yourself be loved, you let yourself be a creature, and you let yourself be embraced by your Father.
This I know to be true.
When I told Adam I tested positive for covid, I described the symptoms to him over a text. I told him mostly fatigue and a headache on and off. He noted these were the typical symptoms of the new variant. I asked him if he meant omicron. He said yes, Omicron, the “descendant of Optimus Prime.”
I died. Laughing. Maybe I was delusional from the virus, but I was literally rolling on the floor laughing out loud. It just fits so well. And I also am a big big fan of the Transformer movies, so it hit different. But the reality is omicron was absolutely a transformer for me. It caused me to open up my hands, to open up my heart, so the Lord could make some things new again. Could create some thinner spaces, where heaven and earth are closer together. So I could understand further my job and what I can do ought not to define me because I am not entitled to it. God has been so gracious in bestowing the gift of professional soccer, but it must stay in its proper place, as a good gift and not my identity. Being a professional athlete cannot hold my leash. Cannot make the calls for my life. If I let it, or anything or anyone besides my Father, then I resign myself to only ever having a mercenary heart. Because after soccer is over, it will just be the next thing and then the next thing and then the next thing. Until I am in my place in the dirt with my heart scattered in pieces, belonging to nothing or no one.
But that’s not me. I’m a daughter of the King. I’ve been transformed.
I love you dad,