Monday, 26 August 2019

Practical Suggestions for How to Live Gospel Poverty

"It's ridiculous how wealthy those people are. They live in mansions, own several cars, and spend crores on weddings." You know, practically everyone compares themselves with someone wealthier and feel a sense of self-righteousness about how wasteful THEY are compared with us. But most of you reading this blog are probably privileged compared to the vast majority of the world and especially India.

- Are you fairly fluent in English? Many jobs and opportunities are open to you.
- Do you have an income big enough to be able to spend on little and big luxuries like eating out, going on holidays and buying non-essentials?
- Have you had the opportunity to travel abroad?
- Do you have a secure job and a steady income? Do you have savings?
- Do you have free time that allows you to spend hours on social media every day?
- Have you got an education or skills that enable you to earn money?
- Do you have friends and connections in the upper and upper-middle social classes?

Even if only some of these apply to you, you are privileged, and so am I. The point is not to feel guilty about our privilege - it is rarely helpful or productive - but to accept that we are indeed privileged, and therefore our conscience and our God expect us use our privilege well. 'From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required.' Lk 2:48

So let's get down to it. What practical steps can you take to start embracing a life of Gospel poverty?

1. Ask God to open your eyes and open your heart: No one can force you to give up your privilege. You have to freely choose to detach yourself, and that is hard. I'd like to care less about 'stuff', but I love my stuff too much. But even wanting it is a great first step. God can work with that. Ask Him to soften your heart to those in need. 'Let my heart be broken by the things that break the heart of God.'

2. Get to know some poor people: Theorizing about 'the poor' doesn't change anything. Then Gospel poverty just becomes a quirky hobby like minimalism often appears to be. Start somewhere. Visit the home of your maid or watchman. Ask her if she knows anyone in need in her neighborhood. Ask your local parish if there is a family you can visit and adopt. Get to know them and their needs. Don't come in as a benefactor, but as a friend who is genuinely interested in them. Or get personally involved in a charity.

My group was once given a sum of money to give away, so I contacted a teacher at the school I was working with to ask if there were any families we could give groceries to. The teacher told me about students who couldn't afford three meals every day, and sometimes drank a glass of water in the night instead of eating. It shook me. That's what my little luxuries were worth to someone else.

3. Go through your stuff: Pull everything out section by section, and ask yourself if you have used each item in the past year, and if you really even need it. It's amazing how may things we keep just because we think we MAY use it sometime. If you're not sure, put the maybe items in one area, and check again in a few months if you need them. Regularly make bags of giveaways and connect with someone who serves the poor directly. (Don't put ragged or filthy or unusable clothes in there!)

“When someone steals another's clothes, we call them a thief. Should we not give the same name to one who could clothe the naked and does not?" Saint Basil

4. Start tithing: Set aside (at least) ten percent of your income to give away. If you find it hard to remember, withdraw it, put the cash in an envelope, and label it. Ask God to show you to whom you should give it. Part of it could be to your church or faith community, but don't forget the poor. When you tell God you're available and your stuff is His stuff, He will take you at your word.

5. Evaluate your spending habits: Start keeping track of how much you spend on luxuries. Snacks, eating out, clothes and shoes, books, alcohol, parties, make-up and other beauty products, fancy ingredients, phones... you know your own temptations.

It's not bad to occasionally splurge, but when luxuries become habits and needs, then you know it's time to cut down. Ask God, "Where can I simplify? What can I cut down on? What can I give up this month?" Give up restaurants and outside food for a month. Or anything non-essential. Then take the money you would have spent and add it to the Giving envelope. (Pro-tip: If you are an impulse buyer, train yourself to wait 24 hours before buying something you are SURE you need. Leave it in the online shopping cart and close the tab. Most likely 24 hours later you'll change your mind.) Stay away from places and people who tempt you to waste money. Replace them with simpler pleasures.

"Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver." 2 Cor 9: 6-8

6. Make a budget: Easier said than done, I can attest to that. But prayerfully plan for your month (with your spouse if you have one), and ask God how He wants you to be a good steward of what you have. Be responsible, but err on the side of generosity.

"At the end of life we will not be judged by how many diplomas we have received, how much money we have made, how many great things we have done. We will be judged by 'I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat, I was naked and you clothed me. I was homeless, and you took me in.'" Mother Teresa

7. Give away something you are too attached to: Ask God to show you if there is something that you love more than Him, more than the people around you. I often share about an inspiring young Catholic missionary I met who told me he lived by the philosophy "Never own anything you cannot give away." Our possessions start to possess us, as Father Dubay puts it in Happy are You Poor, so we need to be proactive in exorcising these demons.

8. Give to all who ask: Give something to all who ask, even if it's a smile and an acknowledgment (when you feel uncomfortable about giving to what seem like professional beggars). Be willing to lend when someone asks for help instead of viewing everyone in need with suspicion. It is not a sin to be in need. If someone asks if they can stay with you, be hospitable. Offer a glass of water to the salesman who knocks on your door. Lend your stuff to those who ask. Don't make it a big deal if someone loses or damages your stuff. It's just stuff. Listen to the person who seems like they need someone to unburden to. When you know you are not able to give any more, when you are stretched too thin, it's okay to say no (kindly). But most of us are capable of more than we think we are.

9. Start a Gospel poverty Whatsapp group: Connect with people who have the same heart and desire. Share the needs you come across, or the stuff you want to give way. Let's use networking to benefit the poor. Do a book study of 'Happy are You Poor'. Read the Letter of James together. Plan a pilgrimage to Kolkata to be inspired by Mother Teresa. Read her writings.

In the end, we will only keep what we give away. If you could look at the last month and weigh what you gave away with what you spent on yourself, would you have an uneasy conscience? If so, today is the chance to begin again. Jesus is waiting for us to cut through the layers of our own stuff, and meet Him in the 'least of his brethren'. 

Related Reading

My Forays Into Gospel Poverty

When I was about six years old, I got a pink silk dress for my birthday. I remember how it looked and felt. It delighted my soul. It wasn't brand new, but it felt new. Brand new clothes were very rare in my home. There were five of us, and not a lot of extra money. People regularly gave us bags of hand-me-downs which we counted as 'new' clothes and were quite happy to accept and pick through....

Not Just Random Acts of Kindness

...The other thing I decided to do was buy a few bags of non-perishable groceries, and give them away to people the Lord pointed out to me, or poor people I saw on the streets. Unfortunately I hadn’t considered that carrying extra bags of groceries around was not the most practical idea, especially since I tend to overload my little two-wheeler on normal rides anywhere. So I did carry one bag out with me once, didn’t see anyone, and just brought the bag back and left it at home....

The Two Big Missing Pieces of Our Catholic Faith

... But most of us want to remain in our comfortable bubbles, our social circles of equally privileged friends and family and communities. We do our bible studies and prayer meetings and conferences and retreats. And we give a small percentage, making sure that it will not affect our hobbies and lifestyles. We live in our (sometimes metaphorical) gated communities occasionally making a quick awkward visit to an orphanage at Christmas, and then rush back to our comfy lives and our ministry among those like us. Gospel poverty is for a select few, we say, like Mother Teresa....

Seven Ways We Made Frugality a Way of Life or Yes, My Family is Weird 

So nowadays everybody's all about making good use of our resources, caring for the environment, not wasting stuff, reducing one's carbon footprint, reduce, reuse, recycle, etc. They think this is a new concept. They haven't met my family. While our family is usually known as the 'crazy Christian family with five kids', most people don't know that we are also the Original Recycling Family....

Monday, 19 August 2019

My Forays Into Gospel Poverty

When I was about six years old, I got a pink silk dress for my birthday. I remember how it looked and felt. It delighted my soul. It wasn't brand new, but it felt new. Brand new clothes were very rare in my home. There were five of us, and not a lot of extra money. People regularly gave us bags of hand-me-downs which we counted as 'new' clothes and were quite happy to accept and pick through. The Indian custom of new clothes at festivals (Christmas for Christians) or at birthdays didn't make it to our home. We didn't think it necessary and were quite happy to have pretty and appropriate 'church clothes' wherever they came from.

But that silk dress was something special. I had a birthday party and wore the dress and felt every bit as special as a little birthday girl should. I hung the dress up in my cupboard, and treasured it as my own birthday-magic dress. The following December, my parents sat down the five of us to have a little talk. They told us about a family in the nearby slum they had visited.

"They have five children too, around the same ages as you all. But they live in a small one room house. They have much less than we have. Would you each like to select one of your nice outfits to give them as a Christmas gift?"

They gave us the freedom to decide what we wanted to give, and I remember going to the church clothes cupboard, and pulling out my pink silk dress. And I still remember the sense of satisfaction and joy that I got to give that special dress to some little girl who probably didn't get nice things very often. Did I regret it later? Did I miss that pink silk dress? Maybe. But I don't remember that part of the experience.


When I was 24, I left my job to join a volunteer organization that focussed on evangelization and service to the poor. We were encouraged to find ways to live simply, and in solidarity with the poor. We fundraised our own salaries, and budgeted what we had to provide for our needs and give the rest to the poor. My first year was in the Philippines, and we had very little extra money. So my team mate and I ate canned tuna, rice and salad for most meals. Compared to the variety of food I had growing up, that was not the most interesting cuisine. But it was a small way to identify with those who had even less than we did. Over my nine years as a full-timer, I have usually cooked only vegetarian food at home (except when we had guests), rarely eaten at expensive restaurants, rarely bought new clothes or shoes, and took the cheapest transport whenever it was safe.

Outdoor tuition classes in the poor community we worked with in the Philippines

During my second year in the Philippines, my team bought a big sack of rice at the beginning of the month, and whenever anyone came to our door asking for help because their family had run out of food, we'd give them a bag of rice. One day we were low on funds and with not a lot of food in the house. A priest friend of ours turned up at the door with bananas, mangoes, oranges, a pineapple and eggs from a mass he had celebrated. An hour later our house was filled with our friends from the poor community we worked with. They had just taken their babies for doctor visits with some of our volunteers. We set before them fruits and egg rice, a feast provided by the Lord. We had little, but we always had enough.

I have always seen God provide me with much more than I have given away or given up. I have never bought a phone in my life. I have rarely paid for housing. I have always had appropriate clothes for fancy occasions.


I have not always been successful at living simply or being as generous as I should have. I have bought unnecessary things at times, and regretted it later. I have been affected by wanting to look as cute or as cool as my contemporaries and wasted money trying to achieve that. I have wandered through malls with hungry eyes, wanting more, more, more and thinking "I need that! And that! And that!" I have filled my Amazon cart with things that I 'need', and then realized later that I didn't really NEED them. But the Lord has been patient with me, and I have learned to be patient with myself.

But each time I have been obedient I have experienced a new freedom, a spiritual openness, and a connection with Jesus in the poor.


Today's Gospel is about the rich young man who Jesus asked to sell all he had, give to the poor and then go follow Jesus. He turned away sad because he had many possessions. Most people interpret that reading to mean we shouldn't be too attached to material possessions. Have them, but don't be too attached to them. But Thomas Dubay in the book 'Happy are You Poor' says that maybe Jesus really IS calling all of us who claim to follow Him to ACTUAL gospel poverty, not just detachment from our stuff.

But he says Gospel poverty isn't what we think it is. It isn't deprivation of our basic necessities. It doesn't mean not enjoying the pleasures of life. If we would like 'the poor' to have all they need and more, then God, our loving Father wants that for us too. It doesn't mean wearing shabby clothes or shoes with holes. It doesn't mean we shouldn't own homes or invest money or throw parties. So what is it then?

Gospel poverty is a lifestyle through which all I have is at the service of God and His children; a life of downward mobility, where I choose to live more simply in order to be able to give away more; a life where I ask God to guide my decisions of how much I should keep, save, spend, and give away; a life lived closer to actual poor people, forming real friendships, instead of in a bubble of other people as wealthy as I am.

It's going to look different for different people. It's going to look different for the same people at different stages of their life. It's going to look different for people in different states of life, vocations, and with different responsibilities and demands on their life. But that shouldn't stop us from starting somewhere, and allowing God to move our hearts and influence our decisions about our money and our possessions.

Next week: Practical Suggestions for How to Live Gospel Poverty

For more stories of my experiences in the Philippines, sign up as a patron, and receive my ebook for free.

Monday, 12 August 2019

Thoughts of a Typical Catholic at Sunday Mass aka Sixty Minutes of Daydreaming

(Enter church) Oh no, there’s someone in my usual pew! How annoying, don’t they know that’s where WE usually sit? People nowadays.

Who ARE all these people? So many new people in the parish. Not like the old days when we used to know everyone. Where is Hubby going now? He knows I don’t like to sit under the fan. Okay this works. Why won’t that lady scoot in? Maybe if I nudge her with my hip. Done.

(Briefly kneel) Thank God I got here on time and got place to sit. Hubby is always ironing his clothes last minute. And they say women are always late! I wish I had eaten breakfast.

(Sit) Oh, I see the D’Souzas. Is that their son? Must be home from the ship. So tall and handsome. That moustache is not a good idea though. They must be planning to get him settled soon, he must be 27 years old by now. High time.

(Stand for entrance hymn, join in ‘Enter His Gates’) The choir is sounding kind of screechy. May be it’s the mics. Usually I like this choir. They choose nice lively hymns. But this song we used to sing since I was in Sunday school. I like that girl’s outfit, very stylish. My goodness, that lector is wearing such a short skirt. And so much make up. Don’t they have a dress code? My blouse goes nicely with my skirt. But do the shoes really match? Oh no, my nail polish is all chipped! I should have worn my closed shoes. Hopefully no one looks at my feet.

(Priest:… who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever) Amen!

(Sits down) I should pay attention to the readings, I never remember what they’re about after Mass. That reader has a really funny accent. They should pick people who speak English properly. Did she just say meditate instead of mediate? And dessert instead of desert? Ha ha, that would make a good joke. Man, I just want some dessert. May be we can pick up some gulab jamun on the way home. But Hubby will make some comment about my diet. He better not! If he does, I’ll say…

(Reader: The word of the Lord.) Thanks be to God. Oh no, I missed the whole reading. What was it about? No idea. Oh well, I’m probably not the only one. Look at everyone else, they look so sober and staid. But I bet they are also thinking about dessert and lunch. Good thing I marinaded the chicken earlier. It shouldn’t take long to get lunch ready. I should have taken out another packet though… I don’t think it will be enough for dinner also.

(Stand up for acclamation and Gospel) This is a nice tune. Why is he saying Alleluia again? Didn’t the choir already sing it? I’m pretty sure you don’t have to sing it AND say it. Oh, I know this story! The lost sheep, nice one. But does it really make sense to leave all the other sheep to go after the one that’s lost. Not very logical. Maybe Father will bring out some meaning. Why does Father always talk in that way? Maybe he learned it at seminary, for emphasis. But I feel like he’s emphasizing all the wrong words. I wonder if I could imitate it. Hubby would laugh. Oh no, that’s not very respectful. We shouldn’t be disrespectful to priests. Or to the dead. Who can we be disrespectful to? Or at least make jokes about? Politicians, I suppose.

(Sit down for homily) I hope Father doesn’t talk too long. I don’t think that’s the correct pronunciation of Maximilian Kolbe. I wonder if anyone else in the church knows that, or if they will all start calling Saint Kolb! Or wait, maybe I’m wrong. No, I’m pretty sure I’m right. One should always admit it when one is wrong. I like being right though. When was the last time I said, “You’re right, I guess I got that wrong?” Wow, I’m having such a spiritual introspective moment right now, so appropriate for Mass.

But what is Father talking about? I missed the whole story he just told. Oh, he’s connecting the lost sheep with prison ministry Sunday. I’ve never been to a prison. I wonder what it would be like. I remember reading that book about that Communist guy from Mumbai talking about his experiences in prison. Or is it jail? I can never remember the difference. It was really horrific. Chilli powder and torture... ugh. I need to think about something else. What’s Father saying now? I’m feeling so sleepy. I shouldn’t have stayed up so late last night. At least I got some coffee before coming. Arrey! Hubby is dozing off! That’s why God gave him a wife! To poke him in the ribs. I bet he’d make an Adam and Eve and rib joke if I said that aloud. (Poke) Ha ha, he got such a shock. I hope no one else saw. I remember when I was a kid the Mass used to feel so long. It still feels long though. Especially when I’m sleepy and hungry. Oh, the chicken curry is going to taste so good. Is this homily ever going to end?

(Stand for the I Believe) Oh no, he’s taking the long version. No one knows it anyway. I guess I can look at the hymnal, but then I’ll look stupid. Guess I’ll just mumble at the parts I forget.. consubstantial with the Father.. Lord, the giver of life… I really should know this by now. It’s okay, even Father stumbles over some of the words.

(Sit for Offertory) Oh I like this song. But they’re talking it too high again. Hello, we want to join in too! I guess I can just croak along. God loves a cheerful singer. Or is it a cheerful giver? I forgot my purse. Did Hubby bring some cash? There’s a second offering after Communion but I don’t have two notes. Now what to do? Hopefully others will give more. I wonder if the main collection goes down when there’s a second collection. I wonder if offertory means offering our money. But it has something to do with the bread and wine. How do they choose who takes the bread and wine to the altar? I wonder if they’ll ever choose Hubby and me.

(Stand for Eucharistic prayer) We’ve got to be at least halfway through Mass by now. Why do I come to Mass? I guess it wouldn’t feel like Sunday if I didn’t come. I can’t even imagine how Mummy and Daddy would react if I stopped coming for Sunday Mass. I know Katie and Allen don’t come any more. They have such nice lazy Sunday mornings. I wish I could wake up late on Sunday... no, I shouldn’t think like that. I know Sunday Mass is important. I’m sure God will bless Hubby and me for being here.

(Kneel after the Sanctus) God, please bless Hubby and me, and our parents, and our work. Thank you for giving us such good jobs. Oh no, the presentation is due tomorrow. I have so much left to do. Maybe if we have an early lunch, I take a quick nap, I can spend the evening working on it. I know Hubby wanted to go see the parents, but now what to do? He can go alone, and I’ll have the house to myself.

(After the Consecration) Ugh, I can never remember if we’re supposed to stand or keep kneeling now. Why are half the people standing? Do they know something we don’t? Are the people kneeling holier than the people standing? Why can’t Father just give us clear instructions? I’ll just stay kneeling, it’ll look stupid to stand up now.

(Great Amen) Okay, NOW everyone is standing. Oh, people are opening their hands for the Our Father. Are they just imitating the priest? Or do they want me to hold their hand? I know many people hold hands for the Our Father. But how weird would it be if I held a stranger’s hand when he was just trying to pray. Awkward! I should do it just for the laugh. But I don’t really want to hold anyone’s hands. Except for Hubby. Remember when we used to hold hands all the time during our courtship?

(Sign of Peace) I always turn to the wrong side. Why do I feel like everyone I turn to show peace to is always wishing someone else? There’s like six people around me and I only manage to make eye contact with two. Is this deliberate? Why doesn’t anyone give a real smile? Oh! That lady just flashed me a huge smile. That’ll teach me not to be so judgy. Unless she actually knows me? She looks vaguely familiar.

(Communion Service – kneel briefly, then sit) The choir is very talented, but I feel the sopranos should be a little softer. Some people just like feeling like pop stars. Well, I guess in the US, many pop stars did start singing in their church choirs… though I suppose most of them get sucked into the wild celebrity life pretty soon. Wow, that Kaitlyn’s hair is very pretty. I wonder if I should colour my hair again. Just highlights. Not sure if Hubby really likes that or not. But I got lots of compliments last time.

(Get up to join Communion line) Wow, Kaitlyn is towering over me in those heels. I would be worried about stumbling in front of everyone if my heels were that high. Oh, the other line is getting shorter. Should I join it to even it out? But then it’s harder to get back to my side of the church. Anyway, Father is on this side and that old auntie is distributing Communion on the other side, so I’ll stay here. I know extraordinary ministers of communion are fine, but she probably has less experience than Father. Should I receive by hand or tongue? I read somewhere it’s more reverent to receive by tongue. But suppose Father’s hand touches my tongue accidentally, euggh. Or suppose his hand touched someone else’s tongue and they’re sick? I’ll just receive by hand.

(Returning to place and kneeling) Yuck, Kaitlyn’s hair is in my face. I wish she wouldn’t sit so far back. Dear Jesus., thank you for coming into my heart like they told me at my first Communion. But I guess You’re literally entering my digestive system right now. Does that mean your grace is filling my full body right now? If that’s the case, can you please heal my painful shoulder, and my stomach issues too. That may have been the food we ate outside last night. Anyway, Jesus, like I was saying earlier, bless me, bless my family, keep us all in good health, bless my work. Help Hubby and me to meet our work goals so we can get down to buying our own flat. Rent is so expensive. I guess we could have lived with his Mum and Dad but I think it’s better we’re on our own. Oh, I’m getting distracted again. Anyway thank you, Jesus for all your blessings. Amen.

(Sits) Who all are here for 8.30 am mass? It’s so packed. Will anyone notice if I sneak a glance around? Otherwise I can only see the people in front of me. Oh no, someone looked back at me! Oh well, they were probably doing the same thing as I was. Wow, that is a beautiful saree. I should wear sarees more often. But it’s such a pain draping them. They should have saree-draping lessons in school instead of cross-stitch, it would have been more useful.

(Stands as priest says ‘Let us pray’, then sits again) That always feels like it should be the end of Mass, but now there’ll be ten minutes of announcements. Oh no, it’s going to be even longer because of banns. Wait a minute, Sheena, daughter of Martin and Assunta? Wasn’t she in school with me? She’s marrying a guy from Mumbai. I wonder if it was love or arranged. Most people assume if you’ve crossed thirty it must be arranged. But who knows? The prayer group gets an announcement every week. I wonder if anyone goes for their talks. I wouldn’t go unless I knew it was going to be a really good speaker and a really good topic. Why do I assume most talks in church are going to be boring or not relatable? I guess word of mouth advertising and personal invitations always work better than announcements. Aren’t they over yet? What time is it? The people for the next Mass must be waiting outside. I think it’s getting over… wow, that is a LOT of money they get in collections. I suppose it takes a lot for the upkeep of the church. I wonder what percentage is spent on outreach to the poor. I suppose I could find out if I really cared.

OH NO! Now they’re having felicitations for the tenth standard students! This is ridiculous! It’s a hostage situation. Just because Father hasn’t given the final blessing, I’m stuck here. Hubby is looking restless too. Probably thinking of his bacon and eggs.

(Stands for Final Blessing. “Mass is ended. Go in peace.”) THANKS BE TO GOD! I’M OUT OF HERE!

[Keep watching this space for follow up posts on how NOT to be this typical Catholic.]

Thursday, 8 August 2019

What Saint John Paul II is Teaching Me About Love

Over the past seventeen years, I have thought, and read, and talked a LOT about love. It seemed pretty obvious pretty soon that different people had different understandings of what love was.

The most common understanding is that love is something that just happens to you, randomly and magically, an irresistible force that sweeps over you and cannot be controlled or tamed or even understood. Most love songs and movies push this idea very insistently. This idea of love works with divorce, adultery and gay marriage and even polyamory, because 'you can't help whom you love'. It seems like it could be quite tragic too, when you love someone who can't love you back, or you are trapped in a loveless marriage, and your life seems ruined.

Then there is the much more practical understanding of love which states that love is a choice, not a feeling. You can choose whom you love. Arranged marriages are built on this premise - that you choose to love the person you are married to. You find someone whom you are somewhat compatible with, and you make it work.

Then there are the cynics who don't believe in love at all. According to them, love is a purely biological mating drive, neurons firing and hormones releasing, your body fooling you into making lifelong commitments, which are destined to failure.

There are seeds of truth in all these ideas, but all of them leave me with unanswered questions.'

- If love is something that happens to you, then how can you promise to love someone forever?
- How do you know if you have missed your soulmate because they or you made a mistake?
- Or what's to prevent you from meeting someone better suited to you after marrying someone else?
- How can you know it is love and not just attraction?
- If love is just a choice, does it make absolutely no difference whom you marry since you can make it work with anyone?
- If it's just biological, how have we seen so many examples of long-lasting and sacrificial and faithful marriages?

More practically, when it came to deciding whether I should marry my boyfriend,

- How could I know the feelings I was feeling would last?
- On days when I didn't feel crazy in love, did it mean I didn't really love him?
- Was what I was feeling AS magical as everyone else's descriptions and experiences of love?
- What if married life became mundane or boring?
- Did I love him as much as he deserved to be loved?
- What if we faced a major crisis in our marriage like losing a child or a job or severe postpartum depression, and one of us changed a lot, became withdrawn or angry? Would we have what it takes to keep going?
- Would our different cultural backgrounds and difference in our personalities weaken our love at some point?

I had some answers, but I wanted clarity. When I went on my silent retreat, I decided to read excerpts of Saint John Paul's Love and Responsibility (because I didn't have the book, and I found a pdf with excerpts online.)

Saint John Paul (1920 -2005) had also studied and thought deeply about all these questions. He had worked with many young couples, and realized the need to speak about and explain the Christian understanding of love. So here are some of the quotes that answered the deepest questions of my own heart and gave me the confidence and courage to say yes to an authentic love.

'Love in human relationships is not something ready-made. It begins as a principle or idea which people must somehow live up to in their behavior.'

Romcoms kept whispering the lie that LOVE is a noun. But JP2 says love is not a finished product, or an unchanging reality. It is more a verb than a noun, something that is always a process, that is becoming what it should be, especially at the beginning of a relationship. It isn't a done deal, but a promise.

'Love between persons is essentially a creation of human free will.'

I loved this because it puts the power back into our hands. We are not just victims to whom things happen, we have POWER to create and sustain something beautiful. I don't have to hang back wondering, "What am I experiencing? Is it enough?" I can instead choose to pour myself into this relationship.

'There must be a direct attraction to the person: in other words, response to particular qualities inherent in a person must go with a simultaneous response to the qualities of the person as such, an awareness that a person as such is a value, and not merely attractive because of certain qualities which he or she possesses.' 

Attraction IS important. But it can't be just "I'm attracted to your long hair, and your kindness, and your intelligence, and your honesty." I have to be attracted to the PERSON himself, to see him not just a collection of traits but as a unique unrepeatable creation of God.

'It is not enough to long for a person as a good for oneself, one must also, and above all, long for that person’s good.'

If my primary focus is on how the other person makes me feel, I have not yet reached true love. Love means desiring the other person's good, wanting THEM to be holy and happy and fulfilled.

'Love is by its very nature not unilateral but bilateral, something ‘between’ two persons, something shared. Fully realized, it is essentially an interpersonal, not an individual matter. It is a force which joins and unites.'

This differentiates real love from infatuation or crushes or unrequited 'love'. It is not just feelings I have, or attraction or admiration, or a desire or longing for another person. It only becomes LOVE when it is shared, when it is reciprocal, when it joins two people. I've met so many people who have been hung up for years on the same person, unable to let go, sure that there must be something there because of their feelings. But that isn't love, but an unhealthy attachment, and such people were made for something better - someone who will receive and return their love.

'People should always carefully ‘verify’ their love before exchanging declarations.'

That is why I didn't want to say the words "I love you" even though I felt an attraction and desire and sense of belonging to my boyfriend. I wanted to make sure the words I was saying were based on truth, not just the emotion of the moment. I'know people who have been badly hurt by others using those words, without having made a firm commitment to follow through on them.

'Sympathy is a manifestation of experience rather than of activity: people succumb to it in ways which they sometimes find incomprehensible themselves, and the will is captured by the pull of emotions and sensations which bring two people closer together regardless of whether one of them has consciously chosen the other.'

JP2 uses the word 'sympathy' here to mean affinity, a feeling or experience of attraction. I think in many ways THIS is what people talk about when they say they 'fell in love'. It IS an experience that can just happen to one. It doesn't happen with everybody, but it could happen with more than one person over a lifetime. 'There's something about the way you look tonight, the turn of your head, the sweetness of your smile, the flash in your eyes as you look at me.' This actually can be very beautiful, and can in many ways supply the spark to start a fire.

'Mere intellectual recognition of another person’s worth, however wholehearted, is not love.'

Sympathy or affinity can be missing from a relationship. Just recognizing that someone is a nice person isn't enough to fall in love or build a marriage. My mum used to ask me sometimes, "What about so-and-so? Or so-and-so? Why don't you consider them?" And I used to tell her, "They're nice, but I know for sure there's nothing there."

'Yet sympathy is not by any means the whole of love, any more than excitement and emotion are the whole of a human being’s inner life — it is only one element among others. The most profound, by far the most important element is the will, in which the power to create love in a human being and between people is vested.'

So while sympathy, or affinity, or attraction is important, it is definitely not enough on its own. People have fallen in love multiple times. During tough times or dry times, spouses may have turned to someone else and experienced this sense of excitement and emotion. But is this love? NO, says JP2. So what IS the most important aspect or element? THE WILL! What an amazing superpower we have in the depths of our being - to be able to CREATE love!

'Love between a man and a woman cannot remain on the level of mere sympathy but must become friendship. For in friendship — and here it is unlike mere sympathy — the decisive part is played by the will... [Comradeship] rests on such objective foundations as joint work, common goals, shared concerns, etc. Comradeship gives a man and a woman an objective common interest, whereas sympathy links them only in a subjective way.'

By Bartolom√© Esteban Murillo - [2], Public Domain, Link

This is a great way to check whether there is more to a relationship than just attraction. You can't just gaze into each other's eyes forever. You need to become a team, working together towards common goals. That is the beautiful thing about becoming a family and raising children. You are both in it together. But raising children is not the only common goal. You could work together to serve the poor, to make a home, to start a business, to do ministry together. When you are not yet married, you could start a project together (yay wedding planning!). If you do not care about any of the same things, or do not have a common goal, your love may fade. Also, if you're not interested in each other's personal goals and lives and interests apart from each other, that doesn't sound like you are friends.

'The emotions themselves are, as experience shows, rather fickle... If ‘love’ remains just sensuality, just a matter of ‘sex appeal’, it will not be love at all, but only the utilization of one person by another, or of two persons by each other... There can be no question of slurring over or neglecting the ‘sexual’ values to which the senses and emotions react. Our concern is simply to bind these values tightly to the value of the person, since love is directed not towards ‘the body’ alone, nor yet towards ‘a human being of the other sex’, but precisely towards a person.'

This understanding of love does not diminish the importance of emotions, sexual attraction and desire. But it says that we need to 'bind these values tightly to the value of the person', so that all these aspects are integrated into a commitment and responsibility to a PERSON, not just a desire that any warm body could satisfy. If someone better looking, more attractive, holier, better qualified, less demanding, and more fun showed up and was interested in you, would you still choose THIS person?

'The lover ‘goes outside’ the self to find a fuller existence in another... Take away from love the fullness of self surrender, the completeness of personal commitment, and what remains will be a total denial and negation of it.'

Finally, love becomes love when you surrender yourself to another person, when you make a commitment, when you make a mutual gift of yourselves, when you allow yourself to be vulnerable to another person. You cannot stand in the doorway forever, but have to cross the threshold. If either of you is holding back, it will never become real love.

'The greater the feeling of responsibility for the person the more true love there is... The strength of such a love emerges most clearly when the beloved person stumbles, when his or her weaknesses or even sins come into the open. One who truly loves does not then withdraw his love, but loves all the more, loves in full consciousness of the other’s shortcomings and faults, and without in the least approving of them.'

The sooner the disillusionment comes, the better. Even better if we start without illusions, when we are able to see each other as we really are, with both our strengths and weaknesses, our heroic moments, and our shameful failures. Because your reaction will show you how far you have progressed in love, or if it still superficial or selfish. Have you seen your beloved's sins come into the open? "I still love you and I will help you to get up again and move forward." That is the response of love.

So what am I learning about love? That I can confidently say to my bridegroom on our wedding day "I will love you and honour you all the days of my life" not because I'm sure I've hit the jackpot, but because I have chosen him, and he has chosen me; and because we both have been given the superpower of being able to renew and create love every day; and because God is love, and we both have recourse to Him to aid us in this vocation.

Related Reading

The Proposal

How (And Why) Not to Fall in Love

How to Love Well - Some Practical Tips

All posts related to Romance and Relationships

Saturday, 3 August 2019

The Proposal

“Have you bought a ring yet?”

My boyfriend looked at me with shock.

“Er.. no.”

I continued, “In that case, I just wanted you to know, I don’t want a diamond because of Blood Diamond, and it shouldn’t be too expensive. That’s it. I’m never talking about this again.”

He continued to look at me with shock and hope.

“Wait. What? Does this mean what I think it means?”

I smiled at him. “We can talk about it later. I just wanted to make sure you didn’t buy an expensive diamond ring.”

It was a few days before Christmas and we were together in Mumbai. We had a day trip planned to Panchgani a few days later, and I wanted to keep all my special revelations for that romantic spot. We had known each other for less than four months, but had entered a very intentional dating and courtship period quite soon. We were both in our thirties and ready for something real and lasting.

Part of the whole ‘intentional’ thing was being very honest after every date about where we thought we were, talking about our non-negotiables and ideas of marriage and family, meeting with a Christian couple we liked and respected to get their advice and hear how they were doing Christian marriage.

Since we didn’t know each other’s friends, I also had the novel idea of asking some of our friends to write an honest testimonial about each other. Several of Joel’s friends did write to me, and I found their emails helpful as they wrote about both his strengths and weaknesses. Only one of my friends wrote to Joel, and she managed to tactfully say nice things but also be honest about the things that I was working on. Everyone needs some friends like that.

Everything seemed right, every box was getting checked in spite of our different cultures and backgrounds. Of course his faith was the biggest factor, but it wasn’t the only one. He was calm and kind, real and honest. He was intelligent and balanced. He respected me and didn’t seem intimidated by me at all. We could have real conversations. But he was also tender and ardent. He wooed me, and made me feel beautiful, and I was beginning to fall in love with him.

“I feel like this guy really sees me and I can totally be myself with him,” I shared with my brother on a video call.

“Wow. What are you waiting for then?”

Because I was waiting. I didn’t want to say the L word until I was convinced I meant it, and it was more than a feeling. And I knew that once I talked about love, that was it for me. But how could I know if it was really love? What was the difference between attraction, compatibility and love? How could I make a commitment that I was sure I would follow through on? How could I know I would continue to feel these feelings of love?

Saint John Paul had all these answers and more. In December, we both took a few days to have a silent retreat away from each other. I read excerpts from ‘Love and Responsibility’ and a video called ‘How to Know if You’ve found "The One"’. (INTJs don’t stop being INTJs just because they fall in love.) I brought all my thoughts and feelings and fears and questions to the Lord. And in the quiet and peace of that silent retreat, I felt a confidence and desire to move forward with this man. I was ready to say ‘I love you’ and I was ready to say ‘Yes’ if and when he asked me to share my life with him.

But when was that going to be? I was pretty sure he had made up his mind already. He had said, “I love you” a few weeks earlier as we walked together after a late night date in Mumbai. But he still had his silent retreat to go. And then he needed a ring. And his family’s approval. And a romantic spot to propose. Not so easy when you live in a city! Where are the romantic secluded benches and gardens we see in the movies? In Indian cities, you’re never alone, and the gardens are all locked in the night. I secretly had my heart set on being proposed to in Panchgani.

But life and reality intruded. We did go to Panchgani just before Christmas, just after both our retreats, and I did get to share the words I had been waiting to share. It was exactly as special as I had hoped, sitting on the edge of a mountain (in spite of his discomfort with heights), overlooking the most beautiful view in the world. There were no rings yet, but our decision was made.

My family already knew where I was. They kept expecting an announcement. I successfully pranked my family by sending them a stock photo of a girl’s hand with a ring on it (as a follow up of my brother attempting to prank us by posting a stock photo of a new born baby when my sister-in-law was about to give birth any day then).

But his family needed some time to get used to the idea, as they had expected that he would have followed the arranged marriage system, and they would have been more involved. So weeks passed, and still there was no proposal.

We went to Panchgani again in January. His family was finally happy and at peace about us moving forward. I was very sure he was planning to propose, but it was just at a point when I had some major concerns that I felt we hadn’t talked about. Thankfully he talked to my mum, and she told him to pause the proposal plans until we had talked about those issues. We had a beautiful time in Panchgani (with my great-uncle playing chaperone), and we were able to clear up everything I was worried about. But it was no longer proposal weekend.

“When is he going to propose? Poor guy, he probably thinks it has to be Panchgani now.” But it was very difficult to make such a long trip with his work schedule.

"You know it doesn't have to be Panchgani, right?"

"Oh, are you trying to arrange this thing?"

"No, just wanted you to know. I'm not going to say anything more."

It was on my mind all the time, but it was the one topic I didn’t want to talk about. I knew we wanted to marry each other, but somehow I felt a ring would make it more real, especially with us living in different cities.

“When is that boyfriend of yours going to propose?” he asked me one day.

“I have no idea!” I told him. (Oh, so we’re talking about it?)

“You should tell him to get on with it!”

“I would, but I’m trying not to interfere or control this.”

“If only he was the kind of guy who had a plan!”

“I know, I wish!”

Joel was notorious for his spontaneity and lack of a plan. I fully expected that he was carrying the ring around in his pocket, and was just waiting for an opportune moment to pull it out and propose.

But I had underestimated him.

Valentine’s Day was coming up, and we planned to meet, even though we agreed it was a made-up special day and not that big a deal. “I hope he doesn’t propose then! That would be SO cheesy!”

The previous weekend I had a retreat with my team in Goa, and I knew we wouldn’t meet. I was leading the retreat and he told me he would try not to contact me too much so I could focus on the retreat. On Saturday night after a long, tiring day, I texted him. “Can we talk?” We usually talked every night, and all I wanted was to hear his voice before I went to sleep. He was online, but didn’t answer. “That’s weird,” I thought. I texted again. “I’m really tired, can we just say goodnight at least?” To my surprise, he made an excuse and said we could talk the next day. A feeling of loneliness swept over me. “It’s okay, he’s probably just busy.”

As I walked to my bedroom, one of the girls on the retreat came up to me.

“What time are you waking up tomorrow?”

“Uh.. just before breakfast.. why?”

“Well, I needed to talk to you.”

“Oh no,” I thought. “There is some huge problem I’m not aware of, and I’m too tired to deal with it.”

Still I said, “Do you want to talk now?”

“No, I’m really tired. Let’s talk tomorrow.”

I agreed, hoping that whatever the problem was, it would settle down, and wouldn’t need my intervention the next day.

But the next day, I woke up and saw a text from her. “We really need to talk. I’m out on the rocks. Can you meet me?” The retreat center was perched on the edge of a rocky beach, so I immediately headed out. “Oh no, the crisis had worsened if she REALLY needs to talk. How could it have gotten worse in the night?”

I was dressed in a salwar kameez that I had brought for Mass, and my hair was dirty because I knew I wasn’t meeting Joel that weekend so I hadn’t planned on looking my best.

As I walked out, I began to think, “What if this is all an elaborate ruse and it’s really Joel waiting for me on the rocks? It was kind of odd that he didn’t talk to me last night. But no, it’s very unlikely he would have come all the way here. It’s too long a journey, and anyway we’re meeting in four days. But what if it is? How great would that be! Okay, stop! If you go round the curve and it’s really Remil waiting there and not Joel, you are in for quite the disappointment. You need to prepare yourself for a painful heart to heart counselling session, not a romantic assignation.”

I rounded the corner… and there was Remil sitting on a rock. I swallowed my disappointment and said, “Hey! What’s happening?” She immediately jumped up and with a guilty look on her face said, “Let’s walk!”

All my spidey-senses were tingling at this point. A few seconds later, my heart leapt as I saw what had become the most beloved face in the world on the rocks below. My boyfriend had taken a twelve hour train ride just to surprise me… and yes, to propose to me.

I was in his arms a few seconds later, holding on tight. But then I let him go, as I realized (always practical) that he probably couldn’t propose if I didn’t let him go. He got down on one knee, pulled out a ring box, and made a speech. I don’t remember a word that he said except “Will you marry me?” I can’t remember what I said either, but it was probably, “Of course!” He had a ring specially designed for me, it was not a diamond and it was very pretty.

We went to Mass with my community members (we were late!), and after that I still had to lead parts of the retreat, but we managed to spend some blissful hours together before he got on an uncomfortable bus, travelled all night, and went straight to work the next morning. He even left me his neck pillow for my journey home. True love, amirite?

I know proposals aren’t the most important part of relationships, but it was pretty special that this man went the extra (almost 400) mile(s) to make it a memorable one... and that the Lord gave us a gorgeous scenic location instead of a dirty city street. God surprised me with a man who loves me just a little bit like He loves me, with an extravagant, thoughtful, sacrificial love. Who could ask for more?