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I have to admit, I can get scared sometimes.

It is strange how fear works. I can travel around the world all by myself and hardly blink an eye, while I have friends who would find just getting on the airplane to be nerve-wracking. Forget spending months on end in a foreign country all alone.

Yet sometimes, if I am reading or discussing a scary topic, all my bravery goes right out the window and I am left wishing I had purchased more lamps for my bedroom. Like maybe 10 more.

This happened to me last night. Too many scary topics and too much thought.

The former Pope John Paul II was known to say, "do not be afraid!"

Then suddenly, I saw the former Pope John Paul II in my mind. I imagined him standing there saying “Do not be afraid!” as he did so many times during his pontificate. My creative version of his person seemed to show him looking up towards heaven, and I felt strongly the impression to just focus on the goal and never turn away. Just focus on Heaven.

Tunnel vision. Heavenly tunnel vision.

Tunnel vision can actually be an incredible help, and I have used it many times in other situations. For example, when I moved to London I went through a myriad of challenges that could have sent me packing back home if I had not been determined enough to stick them through. But I did, and it was largely due to my repeated focus on my goal. I forced myself into living life with nothing but tunnel vision for the future.

I was so completely into utilizing tunnel vision that I would stand on the underground platforms morning and evening, silently bopping to my iPod, and just focus on my dreams, as if I was looking through a tunnel and had to filter out everything but my goal. Much of why I succeeded was because of that.

So the thought of using tunnel vision in the spiritual life really caught my attention. Was this what the saints did? Did people like Pope John Paul II always have Heaven as their one goal, ever before their eyes?

And when thinking about Heaven as their goal, what did they think about? Did they think about the joy of meeting Christ in person? Of finally getting to know Mary, the Mother of God, face to face? Of wiping away every tear they had ever shed and every fear that had ever haunted them, and living eternally in peace and bliss? Of finally seeing all the scoffers gaping wide-eyed in awe at the truth they had denied?

St. Therese of Lisieux even used to say that as a young girl, she dreamed of Heaven. When she went through her dark night, and her mind was clouded by dark obsessions, it was the thought of Heaven that had once given her such great joy that she most seemed to miss. And not the Heaven of rewards – for her it was the Heaven of just loving and being loved that she dreamed of, without anything to stand in her way.

Heaven. Tunnel Vision. Heaven.

Yet tunnel vision is not always easy to maintain. Anyone who has read the Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis knows that life has many plots and plans to divert our attention away from the meaningful to the trivial and the mundane. The TV, news, the internet, the radio – anything, said the little devil in the Screwtape Letters, to distract souls from their goal of Heaven.

So what can we do to fight back? How can we develop such tunnel vision for Heaven in our lives if we are so inclined?

One tactic that always helped me in the secular life was to make a list of my goals, with the most important at number one and then descending in their value to my life. Not only did I make this list once, but I re-wrote it over and over. Changing it, editing it, copying it – it did not matter what I did to it. I just wrote it time and time again.

I would be hanging out with friends and all of a sudden I would start making my list (I was not rude though – I only did it if the opportunity was right), or at night I would sit and re-write. I would pin it to the wall in my bathroom, and read it while I was brushing my teeth.

While I did not accomplish every goal that I made on that list, and there are places where I failed, I accomplished enough of them to feel good about it. Yet I also accomplished enough secular goals to know that they alone do not make a person truly happy.

This is why Heaven is my true goal. The Heaven of love, where all is love and no one can think a thought or lift a finger without love for God and others.

If more people had this goal ever in their sight, what would the world be like? If we all had little “Post-Its” on our TVs, computers, mirrors, notebooks, day planners, iPods, cell phones – everywhere – that said “Goal: Heaven! Is what you are doing right now going to help get you there?” I wonder how that would change our lives.

I for one am going to start making a new list, with Heaven at the top and my vision of why Heaven is so amazing underneath it. This is my new tunnel vision for my spiritual life, and I am liking it.

Goal: Heaven! To one day live forever in a place where love is given and received endlessly, and without any selfishness or ugliness ever interfering. HEAVEN!”

I wonder if the great Pope John Paul II is smiling in Heaven and saying, “you go girl! Adjust the focus of your mental lens! And always remember, do not be afraid!”

High-five to you John Paul! The focusing is on!

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Now that I have shared all the reasons why no one should ever read my blog again (you are back – brave you), I thought it might be appropriate to share what it was that made me “revert” to the Catholic faith. After all, this is a Catholic blog so I suppose I should address the question of “why are you Catholic?”

So, here we go!

By the time I was in my early 20s, life had pretty much set me up to become a raving anti-Catholic. And I mean raving. Foaming liberals would have had nothing on me! I was livid come to life in a pair of jeans! (My poor Catholic grandma, God rest her soul. She would just stare at me with shock and then promptly head to battle – with her rosary. Thank heavens for my grandma!)

Yep, this was my definition for the Catholic Church in my early days.

My anti-Catholicism set-up was classic. Liberal Catholic school (do parents really expect their children to come out of that experience feeling good about the Catholic faith?), a “one hour Catholic family” (you know, Sunday Mass and then five minutes after leaving the church you are wondering if they heard a word the priest said), a nun who threw me into a wall…the list goes on and on.

Then there was the matter of books. In my late teens, I somehow managed to get my hands on a pile of information relating to the Catholic Church and it’s history. I devoured all that I could, and soon it was my passionate mission to educate everyone that the reason Catholicism was so lousy today was because of how lousy it was a hundred years ago, two hundred years ago, five hundred years ago…in short, it was just plain lousy in every century of history for the last two thousand years and what was wrong with everyone that they could not see this? Did I have to bang it into people’s heads that this was one messed up Church? Can head banging get you into trouble if it is not your head you are banging?

Well armed and loaded with ammunition, I was sure I could take out anyone who attempted to defend such a “rotten” organization.

All this was until the day I came across one little innocent Penguin Classics book neatly hidden away on the shelf of a Barnes & Noble bookstore.

I can still remember the day I found that book. I pulled it out from its  nestled perch, turned it over, read the back, and became almost instantly intrigued by it’s description. Something about an unbalanced woman who still managed to find God despite everything that was against her. Hmmm…that sounded a little close to home! Maybe I could relate to this. I turned it over in my hands and inspected the cover.

“The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila by Herself.”

An autobiography of a saint.

But what made me actually buy this book? I mean, Catholicism was not exactly high on my list of favorite topics, unless I could get all the juicy dirt to launch my next attack. I think I even put the book back once or twice but kept taking it back out. Something about that book called to me. Finally, I felt I had to read it.

The cover of the book that I dog-eared and smudged to no end as I toted it everywhere I went

For the next month or so, I carried that book with me everywhere. It went with me to the islands, where I snuck away from my friends and found a little hermits nest to freely live in my nerdy little world of Spanish nuns and reformation spirituality. It went with me on camping trips to the forest, where I would hide in the car, trying to get some good light rather than join everyone near the bonfire. I was addicted.

I had also met my match.

By the time I finished that book, all I could think was “wow.”

One big, gigantic, over-the-top, jaw-dropping, deer-in-the-headlights, “wow.”

Then, silence.

The next thought was a little more timid, but it went something like this; “is that really what the Catholic Church is supposed to be like?”

Hmmm…

The third thought was completely foreign, but bravely announced itself to my anti-Catholic self; “if that is what the Catholic Church is really supposed to be like, then that is the Church that I want to be apart of! Not the lousy, wishy-washy, hypocritical, spiritless Church I grew up with – but that church! Saint Teresa of Avila’s Church! The Catholic Church of the saints!

I think I heard squealing breaks and smelled burning rubber. I definitely felt some whiplash from an almost instantaneous 180 degree turn.

What just happened?

All of a sudden, I wanted to be Catholic. Again.

A split had suddenly occurred inside of me. Like an earthquake that shook the ground and then drove a massive divide into the foundation of a building, a gigantic rift had shot straight through me, changing everything.

On one side of this rift was the modern version of Catholicism that I knew, with the increasingly barren churches, the watered down faith, the endless lines of hypocrites going back through the centuries. You know, the Catholic Church that so many love to hate. I don’t think I have to elaborate too much on that.

Then there was this version of Catholicism. This passionately devoted, deeply spiritual, intensely loving, all-consuming, close relationship with God version that most “do you have a personal relationship with Christ?” Protestants would probably pass out from the extreme intimacy if they ever got near it.

I was simply taken by it. Caught up in the fire of the burning bush taken. I probably would have removed my shoes and approached in awe if I could have.

St. Teresa of Avila somehow managed to snatch up my little narrow brain that could only see the failures of others and the hollow externals, gave it a few good whacks to kick out the dust, and then liberally poured everything she had straight into it.

I still had a few rational “kinks” that needed ironed out before I could get over my “embarrassment” of heading back to Church and participating in the Catholic life (you know, sitting in the pews with all those hypocrites) but once I did there was nothing holding me back. I knew what I wanted.

I wanted the type of relationship with God that Saint Teresa had. I wanted to know such an all-consuming love first hand. I wanted to dwell in the heights that skeptics scoff at and angels guard. I wanted to know such joy, such bliss, such beauty. I wanted to become a saint.

I found my way home and I found it entirely through the example of one woman’s life.

My entire view of the Catholic faith up until that point had been skewed not because I somehow had opened the right window to the “rotten” soul of the faith, but because the examples of everyone around me that I was seeing or reading (in the case of history) were skewed.

I saw the people who failed. I saw what it looked like when they failed. I saw the hypocrisy, the ugliness, the sheer blackness of failure when someone preaches such a high creed in word but not in deed. I saw what the teachings of the Church looked like when humanity failed to live them. It was not pretty. When people fall from tall heights, you do not want to be there to pick up the remains.

Yet one good example, just one, of a woman who lived her faith in fulness, devotion, intensity, and rich closeness to God had the strength to turn all those years of bad examples completely around and open an entirely new window to the faith. The true window. One good example revealed the living heart of the Church as it could be lived, and it was alive with a love I had never dreamed of.

I reverted because of example, and because of that I know example is everything. We can preach and teach, write and write again, but in the end it is example that speaks the loudest. I think that is something that it is important to remember. Especially in this time when so many examples continue to set many afire with a vengeance against what they think is the Church. We know they are fighting those who failed the Church, but they think they are fighting the Church.

How can they ever know the Church except through example?

So I guess the question remains, what will our examples be?

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Anne Catherine Emmerich, the great German mystic who died in 1824, once said that it was revealed to her in a vision that most medieval souls prepared for spiritual events with a devotion greater than what was present even in her own day. She explained that this fervor of deep religious spirituality which existed in the Middle Ages could not be comprehended by the people of her time, who had lost such a profound inclination.

Medieval pilgrims clothing

If this is so, then how much more must we, almost 200 years later, be unable to comprehend the inner world of the devout medieval pilgrim preparing for his spiritual adventure. Yet I cannot help but feel that it may be worth considering what these preparations were like and what this can say for my own daily pilgrimage here in Italy and throughout the greater pilgrimage of life.

The externals of the pilgrims spiritual preparation are historically documented and easy to come by. Encouraged to prepare for the well-being of their soul, there was an assortment of rituals or personal actions that they could take. These included:

  • attending a consecration ceremony where they would obtain the Church’s blessings on their souls and their journeys.
  • confessing their sins to the priest and being “shriven.”
  • being sprinkled with Holy Water.
  • given a staff to carry on their journey. This became a symbol announcing to the world that they were a pilgrim and not a traveller with less honorable motives. There was even a blessing for this staff which would be imparted.
  • fasting.
  • speaking with an elder who had experienced pilgrimage first hand, gaining wisdom and insight for the road.
  • making vows, such as not to speak unnecessarily or to abstain from sex, all in an effort to focus on their inner experience of the journey.

These are just some of the external actions that could be taken and can today be historically studied. What is more elusive  is the effect that these exterior actions had on the souls of the pilgrims and what other private devotions they may have added. In a nutshell, what was the spiritual life of a pilgrim preparing for such a journey like?

A pilgrim as pictured on the side of a medieval cathedral in England

This is where we enter into the undocumented realm of private devotions, prayers, meditations, and contemplations. If Anne Catherine Emmerich is right, and many medieval souls were far more devout in their preparations for great events, then we can only begin to imagine what intensity their prayer lives and personal devotions must have reached and the resulting richness they could have experienced.

It is likely that they prayed more and may have spent more time in meditation and contemplation. They may have asked for spiritual illumination and profound experiences that would change them in powerful ways. They may have asked for saints to intercede for them, guardian angels to look after them and they may have tried to approach each day as sacred while remaining open to signs and clues along their path.

Of course, this is just my speculation, but as a Catholic I am fortunate in that I possess one direct link back to this mindset, and that is my faith. What I believe today was believed 800 years ago, and thus while my external experience may never be the same my internal one has the potential to resonate strongly with that of the medieval pilgrim if only on the level of personal spirituality.

As I try to piece together what their secret preparations must have been like, I begin to see that it was a mental realm of intense faith unlike that of what we understand today.

For my own pilgrimage here in Italy and for the voyage of my life, I find in their example a need to cultivate this faith in the supernatural to levels that are the exact opposite of what our modern society expects from us. I see the importance of approaching each day as sacred and as a journey in itself. 

Only then will the richness of a soul seeking the divine be able to flourish and only then will I understand what it truly is to be a pilgrim here in Italy and throughout my life.

Perhaps I will also be able to understand something of what is was like centuries ago as well.

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