How do Catholics have a “personal” relationship with Jesus?

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Emmaus

From “Christ on the Road to Emmaus” by Duccio (1311)

Just a few days ago, an acquaintance asked me and some other friends, “How do you develop and foster your personal relationship with Jesus?

That phrase — “personal relationship with Jesus” — might remind us of evangelical Protestants more than Catholics.  But Pope Benedict XVI, addressing the world’s youth in 2011, confirmed that our faith “is not only a matter of believing that certain things are true, but above all a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. […] When we enter into a personal relationship with him, Christ reveals our true identity and, in friendship with him, our life grows towards complete fulfillment.”

To answer Krystin’s question, I reflected: What makes any relationship “personal”?

  1. We get to know one another.
  2. We have heartfelt, authentic conversations.
  3. We listen to each other.
  4. We forgive one another.
  5. We visit each other.

1. Get Acquainted.

How much do you know about Jesus?  As with any relationship, the foundation of our relationship with Jesus is built on ‘getting to know’ him.

Each morning before breakfast, I spend 10 – 20 minutes reading the Bible.  You can find the Daily Readings on the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ website.  The Old Testament teaches us about our Heavenly Father and how he prepared us for his Son.  The New Testament reveals Jesus’ earthly life, his hometown, his family, and his friends.

I also learned so much about Jesus by making a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.  Our small group ate some of the foods Jesus ate, walked the terrain, visited important sites related to his life, and so on.  What a difference it makes to visit a loved one’s neighborhood and homeland — especially that of Jesus.

There are many other ways to learn about Jesus, like reading the pope’s daily teachings, signing up for a Bible study, or other class at your parish.

2. Heart-to-Heart Conversation

What distinguishes “personal” relationships from relationships we have with coworkers or neighbors?  I say it’s the ability to speak honestly and openly, sharing our deepest concerns.  Throughout my day, I speak this way with Jesus – either aloud or in my heart – about anything / everything, including my concerns and my joys.

But how did this habit begin if I can’t physically see Jesus’ face and speak with him, like I do with others?  How can I remember to speak with Jesus throughout a busy day?

As I was growing up, my parents surrounded my sister and I with ‘holy reminders': pictures and statues of Jesus in every room of the house.  We had many conversations about Jesus, and our parents taught us to speak with Jesus.  Since Jesus has always been a member of our family, always on my mind and heart, it was easy for me to continue this habit of welcoming Jesus into my daily, adult life.

If this wasn’t your story, set up your own ‘holy reminders’!  Place images of Jesus throughout your home. Have one at your desk, on your smartphone background, in your car.  Let these remind you to converse with him.  He is always ready to listen.

3. Listen.

Of course, any close relationship requires that we listen to one another.  Listening to Jesus – who is not only our friend, but our God – is essential.

During weekdays, I make a few minutes of ‘quiet time’ in the morning, mid-day, and evening.  I sit in a designated place, remain still, and open myself to listen.  Journaling with Scripture helps me focus on this in the mornings. It can be very difficult, with all my responsibilities and daily distractions, to stay committed to these ‘listening times’.  I’ve learned, however, that when I don’t schedule time to listen, my life becomes even more chaotic and stressful.

As Pope Benedict XVI said, Jesus helps us understand our true selves.  He is our Lord and God, who loves us and has a purpose for our life.  When I don’t listen to Jesus, I easily get caught up in the circumstances of my life, lose sight of his love, and forget life’s ultimate, deeper meaning.  When we don’t listen to Jesus, we can’t order our lives according to his mission for us.  Our life will become disordered.

4. Forgiveness

When someone hurts us and seeks our forgiveness, we repair our relationship by forgiving them.  Hearing a loved one forgive us is an enormous relief.  Why wouldn’t Jesus want the same for our relationship with him?

He does.  This is why he gave us the Sacrament of Reconciliation (cf. John 20:21-23), so that we can not only seek his forgiveness, but also hear and even see Jesus forgiving us through the ministry of the priest.  Not only that, but participating in this Sacrament shows Jesus that we ‘forgive’ him for the times we felt hurt by him — I recall the time I was so angry at God for allowing my chronic pain condition.

Coming to Jesus in the Sacrament of Reconciliation is such a profound gift to our relationship with him.

5. Visit.

Perhaps the most life-giving and important way that I deepen my relationship with Jesus is spending time with him.  Weekdays, I sit and visit Jesus in a Eucharistic Chapel for a few minutes.  On Sundays, I go to church early so that I can spend a few quiet minutes visiting with him.

Jesus also comes to visit me, especially when I welcome him “under my roof” during Holy Communion.

If I solely talked with Jesus in prayer, but never visited him physically, it would be like having a relationship with someone over the phone or online. We would be capable of becoming very close to each other, but missing the element of touch and physical presence.  The Eucharist allows our relationship with Jesus to become far more intimate.

A Church Like That

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Prostitutes Around a Dinner Table – Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, c. 1893-1894

This past weekend, the Pilgrim Center of Hope hosted the Catholic Seniors’ Conference. During the Q&A time, guest speaker, Dr. Margarett Schlientz, proposed that we pray for ISIS. This hit a raw nerve with a man in the audience who asked whether she would pray for the Devil. Dr. Schlientz responded that we must pray for all souls. Having been a clinical psychologist for years, she saw many cases of people who were deeply wounded from experiences in their past that shaped their misguided thinking.

Wounded and twisted, but only God can know if they are beyond redemption or hope. And so we pray for even those who are the worst among us. And I ask myself, “Do churches and religious people make friends easily with those who are looked down on in society: jailbirds, prostitutes, drug addicts, drunks, thieves?” After all, “they” are surely not as close to God as the sinners who attend church. I’d like to tell you a true story…

Tony, a college professor of sociology, told the story of his visit to Honolulu. On his first night, he awoke at 3:00 am and left the hotel in search of something to eat. Tony found himself the only customer in a coffee shop until, suddenly, the place was filled with girls. From their conversation he learned a lot about Honolulu’s night life, for the girls were discussing their night’s work and their male clients. These girls were prostitutes.

Tony overheard Agnes, the girl sitting beside him, say, “Tomorrow’s my birthday. I’m going to be thirty-nine.” Her friend responded in a nasty tone, “So what do you want from me? A birthday party? Ya want me to get you a cake and sing ‘Happy Birthday?'” Agnes responded, “Why do you have to be so mean? I was just telling you, that’s all. I mean, why should you give me a birthday party? I’ve never had a birthday party in my whole life. Why should I have one now?”

When he heard that, Tony made a decision. After the girls left the restaurant, Tony and Harry, the manager, discussed throwing a surprise birthday party, after all the girls came in there every night. The men got together in the afternoon and decorated the place and prepared a beautiful cake.

The next day, at 3:30 am, the door of the diner swung open and in came Agnes and her friends. Everyone screamed, “Happy birthday!” Tony said he had never seen a person so flabbergasted…so stunned. Agnes’ mouth fell open. Her friend grabbed her arm to steady her. Then everyone sang “Happy Birthday.” Her eyes moistened. When the birthday cake with all the candles was carried out, she lost it and just openly cried.

Agnes looked down at the cake. Then without taking her eyes off it, she softly said, “Is it OK with you if I keep the cake a little while? I mean is it all right if we don’t eat it right away? I live just down the street. I want to take the cake home, OK? I’ll be right back. Honest!” And, carrying it like it was the Holy Grail, walked slowly toward the door. When the door closed there was a stunned silence. Not knowing what else to do, Tony said, “What do you say we pray?” And they prayed for Agnes.

When finished, Harry said, with a trace of hostility in his voice, “Hay! You never told me you were a preacher. What kind of church do you belong to?” In one of those moments when just the right words come, Tony answered, “I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning.” Harry sneered as he answered, “No you don’t. There’s no church like that. If there was, I’d join it. I’d join a church like that!”

And perhaps if he found a church like that he would give himself to a Savior like that.

The Catholicism of Creation

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During Friday Mass at my private middle school, the choir occasionally instructed us from the green Gather hymnal thusly:

The heavens are telling the glory of God, / and all creation is shouting for joy! / Come dance in the forest, come play in the field! / And sing, sing to the glory of the Lord!

It was a bit much to ask from young boys in their first throes of puberty, but the Marty Haugen-leaning taste of our choir director prevailed against this fact and others, such as that Americans had changed a great deal since the 60s, and were much less inclined to be seen dancing in forests. What’s stuck with me over time, though, is that first line, which is adapted from Psalm 19, the “Psalm of the Sun”:

The heavens declare the glory of God; the firmament proclaims the works of his hands. Day unto day pours forth speech; night unto night whispers knowledge.

It occurs to me that, if Christ is Catholic (as Hans Urs von Balthasar noted, he is), and if “[a]ll things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be”, then Creation must have some sort of Catholicism. Amen, amen, “What came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race” (Jn 1:3-4).

Creation harbors a sort of protoevangelium, or primitive gospel. Paul tells us, “Ever since the creation of the world his (God’s) eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made” (Rom 1:20). How so? Well, “from the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator” (Wis 13:5). As Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
crushed
(from “God’s Grandeur”)

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GLORY be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.
(“Pied Beauty”)



Flower
When perceiving something beautiful, the natural thing is to want to thank somebody, even if imperceptibly. But nature is not all sunshine and dewdrops, of course. Animals eat each other. Some insects enslave and zombify each other. The jewel wasp, for example, stings a cockroach with venom that blocks it’s escape instinct neurotransmitters, then leads it back to a burrow by the antlers where it deposits an egg in its abdomen, and then leaves before closing the burrow entrance with pebbles.

Nature can be ruthless, unruly and undependable. “It’s not for no reason that Christ called Satan the Prince of this world,” observed Simone Weil, and human hearts aren’t the only things that death touched when it entered. But that whole sentence Weil refers to is, “Now is the time of judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out” (Jn 12:31), and just a few verses earlier Jesus uses this poignant nature metaphor:

Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.

If even nature was thrown into a warp by the sin of our first parents, the redemption of Christ will extend literally to the ends of the earth. “The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them” (Isa. 11:6). Paul’s “O death, where is your sting?” (1 Cor. 15:55) will apply to the redemption of man as well as the ant-decapitating, honey bee mind-controlling phorid fly. In the mean time, closeness to nature provides Catholics with a God-given description of our faith. In “The May Magnificat”, Hopkins compares Mary to Spring:

All things rising, all things sizing
Mary sees, sympathizing
With that world of good,
Nature’s motherhood

Czeslaw Milosz saw this implied familiarity between nature and faith when he wrote his trio of poems on “Faith”, “Hope” and “Love”. The last one goes:

Love means to learn to look at yourself
The way one looks at distant things
For you are only one among many.
And whoever sees that way heals his heart,
Without knowing it, from various ills–
A bird and a tree say to him: Friend.
Then he wants to use himself and things
So that they stand in the glow of ripeness.
It doesn’t matter whether he knows what he serves:



boytree

Stand in the glow of ripeness. That is, in the light of beauty, goodness and truth; in their full incarnation. That’s as good a definition of holiness as any. That’s an excellent description of evangelization, in my opinion. While we wait for nature’s odd couples to settle their differences, we can wonder at, and participate in, the flux of death and resurrection that ripples out across the universe, encompassing grains of wheat and white dwarf stars, from the center of the Cross – indeed, the heart of the Church. So let’s occasionally break free from the four walls, the flourescent light, the manicured lawns, and keep up with our old Mother Earth, visiting her from time to time.

For,
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
    And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
    And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
    There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
    Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
    World broods with warm breast and with
ah! bright wings.
(from “God’s Grandeur”)
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Be Contrary!

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“The Elevation of the Cross” by Rembrandt, c. 1633

“Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted. (Luke 2:34)

In meditating on Christ, we see many of His signs of contradiction: God who is All became nothing. The Infinite chose to be finite. Rich became poor. First became last. Giving is receiving. To Reign is to serve. Strength is in weakness. Power is wielded in meekness . . . just to name a few.

God, in Christ, reveals that what appears to the world is not actually what is in reality: surrendering brings victory, being nailed to the cross is freedom, death means life.

So how can we imitate Christ in a culture that promotes the opposite of His life and message, where might makes right, power is in wealth and putting ourselves first promises happiness? How can we refrain from the lure to be cynical, judgmental and depressed when we are not mighty, not wealthy and never seem to get ahead?

Lent offers us a great way in its 40-day call to watch, pray and fast.

Watch! Be on the look-out for all the many ways in a day we are tempted to sin.
Pray! The second you are tempted, call out to God for help, “Come Holy Spirit, now!”
Fast! Deny what tempts you by making no provision for the flesh (Romans 13:14) and opening room for God to act so that . . . .
When tempted to pride, choose to be humble.
When tempted to greed, give.
When lust attracts, practice chastity.
When anger rises, douse it in patience.
When tempted to indulge, abstain instead.
When envy enters, push it away with kindness.
When sloth creeps in, persevere with diligence.
Be consistently grateful, constantly praising and ceaselessly proclaiming, “I can do all things in Christ who strengthens me!” (Philippians 4:13)

Easter will come and perhaps you will not be mighty, wealthy or first, but certainly more humble, generous, pure, patient, prudent, kind and energetic.

First Sunday of Lent

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“Madonna of Charity” by El Greco. c. 1604

Our readings today are short and to the point. We have just begun our forty days of Lent and the first reading recalls for us the first event in Scripture that lasted forty days: the purification of the earth by the waters of the Great Flood. Humanity had been decadent, so God decided to make a new beginning with Noah, his family and with all the creatures with him. Then He formed a covenant with Noah saying, “…never again shall all bodily creatures be destroyed by waters of a flood.” The sign of the covenant of course was the rainbow.

In the second reading, a connection is made between the purification of the earth by the Great Flood and the purification of our souls by the waters of baptism. In baptism we become children of God and He makes a new beginning with us. He makes it possible for us to enter into an intimate, personal relationship with Him so that we might reach our potential for happiness in this life and for all eternity. The sign of this covenant is water and the sign of the cross. We are baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit as water is poured over us. The cross is traced on our forehead by the minister, our parents and our godparents.

In the Gospel we are reminded of the forty days Jesus spent in the desert in preparation for his public ministry. The temptations he experiences are symbolic of the temptations we experience. Even though we have been claimed by God in baptism, the same one who tempted Jesus in the desert will tempt us. The devil knows our weaknesses and he knows how to discourage us, but he does not have power over us unless we give it to him.

Wednesday, ashes were placed on our heads in the form of a cross and we heard the words, “Repent and believe in the Gospel,” the very words of Jesus. What does it mean to repent? It means to have a sincere sorrow for our sins because we have offended an all loving God, and we have offended ourselves and others. It means we want to change for the better. If we do not repent, our sins become habitual and begin to shape our lives in a selfish, disordered way which leads to sadness at the very least and possibly to hopelessness.

Again, the words of Jesus: “Repent and believe in the Gospel.” What does it mean to believe in the Gospel? It means to accept Jesus, the Word of God, as our Lord and Savior and to faithfully follow him and all he has revealed to us. It means that there is nothing in our lives more important than God and our relationship with Him, and no matter how difficult our circumstances might be, we put our total trust in Him, because He is God and has proven His love for us by sending Jesus to die on the cross for our sins.

These forty days are a time for all of us to take God seriously and to make a new beginning with God, whom we often take for granted. There are three focal points to help us during this Lenten season: prayer, almsgiving and fasting.

First there is prayer. No prayer means no faith. One measurement of our faith is the amount of time we spend in prayer. We should begin our day in prayer and pray throughout the day because prayer is our connection to God. We need His help in all we do. We should pray in private, but we also should pray with the people we love. It is critical that husbands and wives should pray together because in Holy Matrimony two became one in Christ, and it is Christ who will help your marriage and your family. And of course we should pray together with our faith community. The highest form of prayer is the Mass because it makes present to us the Paschal mystery and gives us the opportunity to receive the real presence of Jesus Christ. If daily Mass is not part of your routine, Lent is a good time to make the effort; you will be glad you did.

Next there is almsgiving. This is not just dropping a dollar in the collection basket. Almsgiving is having a generous heart because you realize the source of your blessings, and we trust that if we are generous, God will continue to be generous with us. Almsgiving helps us overcome our temptation to be selfish as we become more aware of the needs of others. Almsgiving helps us to learn the great lesson of divine providence and develop a profound trust in God.

Finally, we have fasting, denying our selves of something. The purpose is to take charge of our senses; to gain control of our passions. Without self control we will never reach spiritual maturity. When we think of fasting we usually think of food, but it could take other forms. We could fast from television, from excessive computer time, from things we enjoy but do not need. We could fast from being impatient with the people we love, and with others as well. We could even drive the speed limit as a form of conquering our impatience. Jesus said that if we are to be his disciples we must deny ourselves, and that is exactly what fasting is about.

The Church has given us this season of Lent because she knows we need it. Jesus knows we need it. We all need a new beginning with God. If we take God seriously during these forty days, and from our heart we “repent and believe in the Gospel,” these could be the best days of our lives, because we will certainly draw closer to God. There is nothing more important than being connected to God, because He is the source of our happiness and our eternity.

Touching the Place Where Jesus Fed the Multitudes

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In the Gospel of Matthew Chapter 14, there is a beautiful account that took place at the Sea of Galilee. It is one of Jesus feeding the thousands who had gathered to listen to Him. When evening came, the apostles were concerned for them and asked the Lord to send them away for food. What was Jesus’ response? He told the Apostles, “Give them some food yourselves.” They only had two fish and five loaves, and so they presented these to Jesus. After ordering the crowds to sit on the grass, he looked up to heaven, said a blessing, and distributed the loaves and fish – and miraculously, all those who were gathered ate. Jesus multiplied what was brought to him.

There is a Church called Tabgha in the Holy Land by the Sea of Galilee built over the area this event happened. As you enter the Church, the foundation is mostly mosaic, some of it dating to the 5th century! The main altar is made of limestone, very simple; however, under the Altar is a large stone that was part of the original ground marking the area where the multiplication of the fish and loaves took place. Alongside the stone is a mosaic from the 5th century of two fish and a basket with several round loaves of bread.

When we lead pilgrimages to the Holy Land, the pilgrims want to venerate this rock. To kneel and touch this area where our Lord performed this miracle is something one cannot forget. Imagine reading that scripture account and standing at the very place it happened!

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Pilgrim kissing, venerating the rock.

A Franciscan living in the Galilee area told me that I should I do the same: offer my fish and loaves to the Lord, asking Him to multiply it according to His will. This miracle can still happen today.

Jesus waits for us to present Him our fish and loaves: our gifts, our talents, our desire to improve our relationships, our love, and yes, our concerns as well. All can be brought to Jesus.

He will receive them as He received the two fish and loaves and grant us the graces needed for what we ask according to His will. Through our prayer, Jesus will help us to know what he wants to multiply in us.

As we begin the Lenten season on Ash Wednesday, consider these 40 days as a journey with Jesus. Read the stories about Jesus in one or all of the four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John). Then imagine yourself in each time and place with Jesus. For me, this has helped to ponder the scriptures and seek a deeper knowledge of Christ.

An addition to reading the scriptures, praying the Gospel Prayer, the Rosary, is a way to ponder the scriptures. You might especially focus on the sorrowful mysteries, those related to the Lord’s Passion and Death.

My husband, Deacon Tom, has written a Holy Land Rosary Booklet with meditations related to the holy sites in the Holy Land. The cost of $6.95 for each book goes directly to support this ministry of evangelization. You can order yours through our website or call (210) 521-3377. Booklets can be picked up at the Pilgrim Center of Hope or shipped to you for an additional $1.75.

“Lent stimulates us to let the Word of God penetrate our life and in this way to know the fundamental truth: who we are, where we come from, where we must go, what path we must take in life…”
— Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI

Getting to Know the Holy Spirit

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"Pentecost" by Titian (c. 1545)

“Pentecost” by Titian (c. 1545)

Last weekend, I was privileged to assist at a retreat for teens preparing to receive the Sacrament of Confirmation.  Although I began working in high school ministry about eight years ago, I experienced something on this retreat that I’ve never encountered.

Our parish is involved with the Catholic Charismatic Renewal movement, colloquially known for its “Pentecostal” style of prayer.  I, however, am still quite new to ‘extraordinary’ manifestations of the Holy Spirit, since I was raised without exposure to charismatic prayer, and have only recently begun attending this parish.

The teens had gone to Confession, and after celebrating Mass, our retreat had reached its climax.  Four teams of adults and youth leaders were to pray over individual retreatants, invoking the Holy Spirit.  Not five minutes after this began, I was asked to lead one of those prayer teams!

My mind became a bit scrambled.  We’d all received instruction for this moment, but I’d never been in such a position, and I don’t consider myself “a charismatic Catholic”.  Nevertheless, I pushed aside my qualms and trusted that God knew what He was doing.

That’s when it began to happen.

I raised my hand over a teen’s forehead, and began to praise God.  Slowly, I felt like God was whispering words into my heart, and my mouth would speak them: prayers for healing, prayers for joy, words of encouragement and love.  Sometimes, our team would stand and wait for a retreatant to approach us.  In that silence, I would “hear” God speaking to my heart.  “The next teen has fear—much fear—in their life. Assure them that my family is their family.”  These words stirred in my heart until a teen approachedand asked us to pray for his incarcerated family member.

I received many such “words of knowledge” in my heart.  Sometimes, the truth of those words were confirmed by the teen’s specific prayer request.  Other times, I saw confirmation only in their tear-filled eyes.  Several teens initially seemed astonished at what had just occurred.  That would quickly morph into an incredibly peaceful smile, and they’d hug us in gratitude.  Some of them would “rest in the Spirit” as I prayed, falling down or backwards, and my husband would gently catch them.  Many later testified that they’d seen beautiful visions or experienced a release of their anger, pain, worries, or fears — a feeling they described as “light” and having been touched by Jesus’ love.

Perhaps this all seems strange to you.  If so, I understand!  From that night, I learned several truths experientially which I had previously known intellectually:

The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” (Romans 8:26) – Interpersonal communication intimidates me; especially with people I don’t know well.  Yet, the Holy Spirit made up for my weakness 1,000-fold!  While prayers came from my heart and mouth, I knew without a doubt that it was God working through me.

There are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Spirit…To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit.” (1 Corinthians 12:4,7) – God gave me extraordinary gifts that night.  Those gifts were not meant for me to keep; they were meant for me to share.  I felt as if God’s goodness flowed through me.  I didn’t know why I said certain things, but I trusted that God had placed those words in my mouth for that teen.  Other leaders exhibited other spiritual gifts; only God knows why!

All of us who have received one and the same Spirit, that is, the Holy Spirit, are in a sense blended together with one another and with God.” (St. Cyril of Alexandria) – A profound unity grew among the teens. We saw imaginary lines created by stereotypes and cliques, dissolve, as they comforted and cared for one another. I myself felt exactly as Cyril describes: “blended together” with everyone.

The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” (Galatians 5:22) – As I prayed, I exhibited all of these.  No words can describe exactly what that felt like.  All I could do was praise and thank God.

If you’re in need of hope, comfort, joy, patience, or anything… pray to the Holy Spirit.  Open yourself to the Holy Spirit.  Say a simple prayer and invite the Holy Spirit into your heart.  As someone who once felt unsure when speaking about the Holy Spiritand who considered charismatic prayer downright strange, I want to encourage you to not be afraid of the Spirit.   The Holy Spirit is the Father & Jesus’ gift to us.  You received this same Spirit when you were baptized.  Don’t be afraid… don’t hesitate any longer: unwrap your gift!

Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

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“The Calling of Peter and Andrew”, Duccio di Buoninsegna (1255 – 1318)

 

Why are the first two readings relevant to Sunday’s Gospel? They speak of the need for conversion and the attachment to things of God instead of the things of this world, which will pass away. We all must make choices that not only affect our lives, but also the lives of others. If we only live for ourselves and what the world has to offer we are destined for sadness and we will have a negative impact on our families and on the Body of Christ.

In the Gospel we see Jesus call the first Apostles. What compelled Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John to immediately leave everything and follow Jesus? They were already disciples of John the Baptist who was preparing the way for the Lord and they were prayerful men looking for the Messiah who was to come. They had set their hearts on something greater than what the world had to offer them. They were given the grace to see that in Jesus the longing of their hearts would satisfied.

The question to each one of us is; on what have we set our hearts? What is most important in our lives? Of course there are a lot of things that are very important, but what is most important for us as Christians? As the Lord commands us, we must love the Lord our God with all our mind, heart, soul and strength and our neighbor as our self. This is what is most fundamental and affects all our relationships, especially with family.

Because of our fallen nature, we have a tendency make our needs and wants our priority, which is destructive. Jesus says, “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the Gospel will save it. What profit is there for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?” (Mk 8:35-36). In other words, when our relationship with God is our priority we are not only destined for eternal life, we also have the possibility of reaching our potential for happiness in this life.

Of course this demands an effort on our part. “We must deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Christ.” We can’t just do everything we want to do. We cannot allow our appetites and desires to control our lives. To be a Christian is not a casual thing. If we are truly Christian we cannot be attached to the things of this world. Certainly we must plan for our future and that of our loved ones, but only by being good stewards of what Our Lord has given us. We must remember that all good things come from God and He expects us to be generous with what we have received from Him as he is generous with us. Our resources are important, but they are not as important as our dependence on God, which is the fruit of our conversion and a desire to fulfill his will in our lives. Even those who have amassed great material wealth are not secure from the tribulations of this life. During our time on this earth, Our Lord expects things from us that we can only accomplish with the help of his grace which he makes available to us through the Sacraments of our Church. Our only true security is a complete trust in God which is a consequence of faithful discipleship.

Peter, Andrew, James, and John embraced the message of John the Baptist to prepare the way for the Lord through a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. So when Jesus said, “This is the time of fulfillment. The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the Gospel,” they immediately followed him. Because they put their total trust in Jesus, they became the first Apostles and the foundation of his Church.

We are not called to be Apostles, but we are called to be faithful disciples, which require us to make the Kingdom of God our priority. We received our call in baptism when we received the gifts of Faith, Hope and Charity and the gifts of the Holy Spirit. That is why a child at an early age may think that God has a special plan for them. I have heard priests say that even as early as age four they believed they were called to the priesthood. This is why parents and godparents should encourage children to think about their relationship with God and the possibility of the religious life.

At a pilgrimage reunion a few months ago one of the pilgrims said that when he was sharing his experience with his family he noticed that his grandson was showing a lot of interest. He felt the notion to ask him if he ever thought about being a priest. He said he had not, but now that it was mentioned to him he would. We just need to plant the seed and let God do the rest. There may be girls and boys among your family or friends for which God has a special vocation that will help them to find great happiness in this life and for all eternity as they respond to his call. Maybe they just need your invitation.

Our readings today are about conversion and discipleship, both of which are necessary for real happiness in this life and for all eternity. The path is the same for us as it has been through the ages; faithfulness to what God has revealed through the Church and the Scriptures, daily prayer, living the sacramental life, and continuing to grow in the Faith by being good stewards of our time, talent and treasure. Only in God can we find real and lasting happiness and peace.

The Spiritual Battle

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“St. Michael dedicating his weapons to the Virgin” by the Le Nain Brothers

Sometimes I wonder whether to turn on the news …it’s just so gloomy: terror strikes the heart of Paris, forces of Isis gathering strength, etc. It serves to remind me that this precious life we have been given is a gift to be cherished and lived well, but it is not all fun and games. There are lessons to be learned, souls to be saved, and battles to be won.

But still we cry, “Why Lord? Why do you allow these things to happen?” God does not fed-ex His grace ahead of time to alleviate the discomfort of what we ourselves must do.   In fact, we are called to action. Did you ever notice how our Lord never seems to show up too soon but “just in the nick of time”? That is, not until we are on the verge of moving forward in His will for us does He send His assistance.

We are called upon to make a better world better, to actually engage in spiritual combat with the forces of darkness; seeking to rescue, through the power of God, lost souls held captive by the enemy of our souls. Pray – and never underestimate the power of prayer.

We only have one opportunity for all eternity to attack the gates of hell: Right here…right now. But so many of us underestimate this high calling that is entrusted to all the people of God and not limited to the clergy and religious.

In Holy Spirit’s perfect timing, as I was writing this blog, I received an email from the office of Alan Ames (Catholic mystic, writer and healer) with a similar message:

“It is in this spiritual battle where we persevere with our prayers for peace and for the conversion of others that he (the evil one) is losing and this he hates. So his hatred is poured out on the world through those he can get to do his will. Let us not be cowered by evils actions in the world. Let us all stand firm in our love of God and of others as warriors of faith who fight for the eternal souls of our brothers and sisters around the world. Our weapons are love of God and of others; the Sacraments, Holy Scripture, prayer, forgiveness and obedience to God’s will no matter what the cost.” – Alan Ames

Feast of the Baptism of the Lord

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A few Friday nights ago saw me with a couple of friends at Culver’s - a sort of cross between Dairy Queen and Carl’s Jr. and the new Heaven and new Earth, specifically the new Wisconsin. The menu features “ButterBurgers”, frozen custards and concretes, and fried cheese curds. They offer a freebee “daily flavor” of frozen desserts, which is really a combination of syrups and mix-ins rather than a single flavor, in addition to your choice of candies or cookies or whatever you may want to add. Yes, it was my idea to go.

In some of the circles I travel in, the conversation always turns to spirituality at some point. So I wasn’t surprised when we rounded the corner from Niagara Falls to a light chat about spiritual growth. My friend to the left, I’ll call him Ray, had been to the falls as a seminarian in New York, before deciding to return to his native Texas. He said he had been too young to make that decision for life; he wanted to stay open for a while. Now he is in love and taking a second glance at college.

To my right, our mutual friend, I’ll call him John, talked about his life with addiction. He no longer felt gripped by the physiological craving and mental obsession that had plagued him and plunged him into chaos. He thanked God for helping him through his ongoing recovery. We nodded and laughed, and continued making small talk of the more ridiculous decisions we’d all made.

But the longer we stayed, the more I noticed a nervous, restless affect sprouting in John’s appearance. He was more eager to share from his own experience, strength and hope than Ray and I. His insistence on telling his story and wisdom-won was more than we invited by our own relaxed demeanors.

He reminded me of my younger self, all gung-ho passion and opinion and roiling impatience. Back then, I was much worse than being a little emphatic. Sometimes I’m still this way, but life has worn many of the harder edges of my prematurity into good ol’ nubular immaturity.

John said that now that he has some recovery under his belt, he notices the difference between someone who’s “egoistical” and someone who’s “spiritual” by the way they talk. Which set off a small alarm in me.

Early convert’s mistake, I thought. And isn’t it? As Catholic author and speaker Simcha Fisher has said:

“The human heart is a strange and tangled jungle of motivations and desires. We keep things hidden even from ourselves, and only God knows who is guilty and who is only wounded.”

Initial conversion, whether explicitly religious or to a better way in general, often makes temporary zealots of people. It’s like taking off sunglasses after wearing them for so long you’d forgotten how vivid the world really is. Do you see this tree? Look at it! Oh my gosh, the leaves are so green, not yellowish brown at all! PEOPLE, STOP STARING AT YOUR PHONES!

Which is good. Never begrudge the enthusiasm of a convert. But people tend to make the mistake of embracing a sublime new life by tamping their perspectives with fresh, wonderful, incomplete knowledge. We resist the mellowing and chock-full gradualness of life, which always requires responsibility for keener discernment and deeper relationships.

This is rooted in both ignorance and fear. Ignorance of some aspect(s) of the Gospel. Fear, for example, of “backsliding” into the bad old ways, or of not doing our conversion right and therefore being a failure. Old insecurities and selfish desires have yet to be worked through. We’ve only begun to take up our cross, but now we have something to help us feel better.

Leticia Adams, Round Rock blogger at Ramblings of a Crazy Face, host of a Real Life Radio show bearing the same name, and self-described “hot mess convert who loves Jesus”, said of her neophyte blunders:

I was just walking around as if life was great and acting so “high and mighty” as I’ve been told, as I arrogantly proclaimed how my life was so wonderful because I knew all the rules and was following them while other people suffered because they weren’t following them. When the hard times started coming I had the nerve to look at Jesus on the Cross and accuse Him of abandoning me when I was “doing everything right”. No I wasn’t. I was doing it all to impress everyone around me. Maybe even to impress myself. I wrapped myself in every single political cause that I could and made it my life’s mission to be outspoken about them all even if it meant losing close friends, because if they left then I could add that to my persecuted complex while patting myself on the back for being such a good Catholic.

On her radio show, she’s commented that she initially pushed (and pushed and pushed) her newfound faith on her family. Her husband eventually complained that he felt he couldn’t be himself around her. Her oldest son recently told her that he’s an atheist, which she sees in part due to her using religion to control him (at the time wanting her family to measure up to other Catholics’ perceived expectations).

At Culver’s, I was reminded of this quote by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn:

If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

Eventually, we learn that our cross only partially consists of everyone else’s failures to do things right, to love us enough. Mostly it’s bearing our own sinfulness, being brought to our knees again and again, becoming dependent upon God rather than being self-sufficient, and yielding to a narrow road for ourselves. There are times for teaching and correcting others, sure. Parents have the responsibility to raise children in the truth. Spouses and singles have the responsibility to love in the truth. With children, sometimes a little nagging is required.

But the truth should not be used to effect submission. When the latter is habitually done out of fear or laziness or the desire for us to be loved, it injects the poisonous aspect of domination into relationships. Because so many people are codependent, seeking unhealthy relief from past wounds, it may take a long time to realize that trying to control others is a sort of spiritual and psychological violence.

We need grace! We need the Holy Spirit. And we need the help of others who can teach us to live from a place of greater wholeness and love.

Leticia (I’ve talked to her a few times on Facebook and via email) is learning to love, support, and appreciate her family with the grace of God. The Catholic faith has taught her not to use them to satisfy her own needs, just as it teaches all of us to love humbly, and helps us to find healing. That’s the fruit of the Good News right there.

Which reminds me of last Sunday’s readings:

not crying out, not shouting,
not making his voice heard in the street.
a bruised reed he shall not break,
and a smoldering wick he shall not quench,
until he establishes justice on the earth;
the coastlands will wait for his teaching.
(Isaiah 42:2-4)

For just as from the heavens
the rain and snow come down
and do not return there
till they have watered the earth,
making it fertile and fruitful,
giving seed to the one who sows
and bread to the one who eats,
so shall my word be
that goes forth from my mouth;
my word shall not return to me void,
but shall do my will,
achieving the end for which I sent it.
(Isaiah 55:10-11)

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“Die Taufe”, Adi Holzer.