Blessed are the Pure of Heart

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“The Eucharist and other people are the two most sacred objects you will ever lay eyes on.” – St. Teresa of Avila

“Christ did not die for the good and the beautiful” – Shusaku Endo

I haven’t identified as “pro-life” since college, not because I disagree with pro-life principles, but because movements give me the jibblies. But pro-lifers are doing good work, and lately I’ve been especially impressed.

Abby Johnson, former Kyle, Texas Planned Parenthood Director, pro-life author, speaker, and founder of And Then There Were None (offering financial, emotional, and legal support for anyone wanting to leave the abortion industry), spoke alongside Sister Helen Prejean, CSJ, leading advocate against the death penalty. They presented at the Consistent Life Ethic Conference in Austin, Texas.

Consistent Life Ethic (CLE) is a term used to describe opposition to abortion, capital punishment, assisted suicide, euthanasia, and unjust war, as forms of violence against the ultimate dignity of the person. Joseph Cardinal Bernadin promoted the idea after the Catholic pacifist Eileen Egan challenged 1970’s pro-lifers to adopt a holistic defense of all human life. “When human life is considered ‘cheap’ or easily expendable in one area, eventually nothing is held as sacred and all lives are in jeopardy,” Cardinal Bernadin told a Portland, Oregon audience.

At the conference in Austin, topics included abortion, racism, feminism, and the death penalty. The latter presentation garnered a low turnout, but it was an applause-worthy effort to get people talking about all of these issues under the same roof.

Especially interesting was that the feminism talk was given by Destiny Herndon-De La Rosa and Kristen Walker Hatten of New Wave Feminists, a group of pro-life and good humored feminists whose work I’ve come to admire more and more.

New Wave Feminists-1

Destiny Herndon-De La Rosa, left; Kristen Walkter Hatten, right.

Another proud moment: not long ago I opened Facebook to see this conversation from a pro-life friend, two days after a woman was arrested for throwing a molotov cocktail at a group keeping vigil in front of an Austin Planned Parenthood.

LConvo

My friends, this is exactly the way that Christ flips the world upside down.

Christ Overturning the Money Changer's Table - Stanley Spencer (1921)

Christ Overturning the Money Changer’s Table – Stanley Spencer (1921)

Of course, I can hear the objections. Let her get angry if she wants to! The world will always hate those who stand up for the Truth, but how is she going to learn the Truth if you don’t tell her! More than giving her toothpaste, love means teaching people the Truth even if they’ll get mad. She may just think some pro-choice people sent her the money.

There are problems with this way of thinking.

First, have you ever received a gift that wasn’t really a gift? Your friend buys you a stick of deodorant, and you’re like, Oh, how thoughtful. It’s like that, especially if for some reason you were someone violently opposed to deodorant.

Second, Christ didn’t say, “Love your enemies so that you might win them over or convert them.” He said, “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you . . . [your heavenly Father] makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust. . . . So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect,” (Matthew 5:43-48).

Kindness, mercy, love of enemies are all part of the truth, part of the “light of the world”. They don’t need to be attached to another message in order to scatter the darkness, and indeed, shining too much light on someone who’s lived under lacquered skies can be too unsettling to be much help. Yes, Christ “told it like it is” when push came to shove, but that’s not a license for Christians to SHOVE SHOVE SHOVE because maybe it’ll help.

Third, if she doesn’t know pro-lifers sent her money, so what? We can’t fastidiously ensure every single scattered seed takes root in the way we see fit. Such an approach is not only doomed to fail, it’s terrible for our own spiritual health. Our own hearts are knotted with good intentions and bad intentions, wounds and selfishness, and charades that only God sees through. Other people’s hearts are ever more shrouded in mystery. Yes, the world is in bad shape, and we are called to do our part. But only God sees clearly, only God is the source of all grace, and because of our limitations, we must seek to imitate God’s respect for human freedom.

Freedom is what dignifies us and enables us to live as temples of the Holy Spirit, and we are not to bring our own schemes into the temples of our Father. We must learn how to love while respecting their freedom – not always an easy task. When we persist in trying to change people when they’re cornered and have no choice, we aren’t reflecting God. Instead, we come across looking like terrible sea lions.

Terrible Sea Lion

Maybe in a year the woman who threw a molotov cocktail will still be pro-choice. Maybe she’ll die pro-choice. But she’ll receive mercy in prison, and that’s reason enough. Hopefully too, she’ll be more predisposed to receive mercy on the last day. And in the mean time, you know, find less reasons to firebomb people.

Scatter and move on. The rest is God’s business.

You’ll notice that these reasons are for both parties: the gift giver and the receiver. This is because every single person is a living image and likeness of God.We are brothers and sisters to Christ. We are equals in the eyes of the Lamb of God. What one person needs to receive, another person needs to give. That’s another foundation corner of the consistent life ethic: we need each other. No matter what sins we’re guilty of, we need each other.

Pray that God will give us a pure heart to see this.

“Beatitude 6 – Consciousness” – Stanley Spencer
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (in other people).
Matthew 5:8

The Right Way to Break a Heart

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Prayer

Then he told them a parable about the necessity for them to pray always without becoming weary. He said, “There was a judge in a certain town who neither feared God nor respected any human being. In that city was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, “Grant me justice against my opponent.” ’For a long time the judge was unwilling, but eventually he thought, ‘While it is true that I neither fear God nor respect any human being, because this widow keeps bothering me I will grant her justice, so she may not wear me out by continually coming. The Lord said, “Pay attention to what the dishonest judge says. Will not God then secure the rights of his chosen ones who call out to him day and night? Will he be slow to answer them? I tell you, he will see to it that justice is done for them speedily. But when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Luke 18:1-8)

In the prayer series I am facilitating at Pilgrim Center of Hope called Lord, Teach Me to Pray, we are taught the Ignatian Spiritual Exercise of ‘sitting’ with the Gospel. We are instructed to read a passage three times very slowly. Each time we are to take notice of a phrase or even a word that sticks out. We learn it is the Holy Spirit that uses the Word, this two-edged sword, to cut through our imagination, memory and perceptions and teaches us how to know, love and serve God.

The formula is quite easy:
1. Find a quiet place for a space of 15 minutes.
2. Ask our Lord to sit with you, “Come Lord Jesus.”
3. Ask for a particular grace/virtue you are trying to cultivate (perseverance, for instance.)
4. Read a Gospel passage three times slowly.
5. ‘Sit’ with a word or phrase from the passage that strikes you with each reading.
6. Ask the Holy Spirit about it.
7. Listen.
8. End with an Our Father.

It is through the Word, conversing with the Holy Spirit and praying to the Father that God, in all three Persons of the Trinity, reveals Himself to us and reveals who we are to Him.

Let’s take the passage on the persistent widow above as an example of how this works:

I am trying to cultivate the virtue of perseverance and I struggle with how God does not quickly answer my prayers even though I am confident what I am asking is a good prayer. What gives? This is the question that hangs in my heart.

First reading: The word/phrase that strikes me is: ‘kept’ as in “In that city was a widow who kept coming to him. . . ” and also, Will he be slow to answer them? I tell you, he will see to it that justice is done for them speedily.

Obviously, I am struck by what I am struggling with and so I ask, “Why do we have to keep coming to ask? Why is once not enough when You are God and you obviously know what we are going to ask before we do?”

Second reading: The phrase that hits me is, “Grant me justice against my opponent.”

The Holy Spirit is now asking me to contemplate so I sit with this phrase for a few minutes and respond, “How bold she is! She knew what justice is, she knew it was due her and she was not going to stop coming until she got it. How often do I ask with such confidence?

Third reading: I am sensing a new path the Holy Spirit wants me to walk because the phrase He stops me on is, “because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice . . .”

The Lord said, “Pay attention to what the dishonest judge says.” What did the judge say? He said the word ‘justice’ as if he knew exactly what the justice rendered should be, he just didn’t feel like giving it to her. Why? Could be any number of reasons: perhaps it meant more work for him or maybe he never felt he got justice so why should anyone else. Or maybe, it was just a power trip, who knows?

God knows. He knows the judge’s heart and what the Holy Spirit was telling me is that there was a purpose to the consistent ‘coming to him’ through the widow’s perseverance. He was relying on her persistence to force the judge to choose good.

That choice for good may have been the crack God was waiting for to enter this dishonest judge’s heart. God was counting on His faithful daughter, this bold and confident woman, to not give up. He needed her faithful perseverance to be the hammer that made the crack in the judge’s stony heart.

What about the stony hearts in our lives? How often do we pray for others only to give up before we see the results we want? How many hearts have stayed sealed because I failed to remain confident in prayer? I think of what God told St. Catherine of Siena, “I created you without you, but I will not save you without you.” Or others either, it would seem. This passage reveals that it is the very act of persistent prayer that is the force that effects the outcome. Our lack of confidence in an all-loving, all-knowing, all-merciful God results in us too often putting down the hammer of our asking, just before the heart is set to crack.

I end with the Our Father thanking God for helping me know His Way, to love Him for showing me who I am created to be, His confident and faithful daughter, and the opportunity to serve Him in perseverance.

I read the parable one more time and stop at the end . . . .

But “when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

If we remain persistent in confident prayer . . . . Yes!

Hosanna In the Highest – Palm Sunday

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"The Hand of Christ. The Palm of Peace" by Akseli Gallen-Kallela (1897)

“The Hand of Christ. The Palm of Peace” by Akseli Gallen-Kallela (1897)

Today is Palm Sunday, the day we remember how Jesus was gloriously received as he entered Jerusalem amidst the shouts of “Hosanna in the highest, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” It was the only time that Jesus was received with great jubilation by the crowds as he entered Jerusalem. However, we have just read the “Passion of Christ,” and we know that these same people who shouted Hosanna will also shout “crucify him.”

Today, during the reading of the Passion we also shouted “crucify him” and it is fitting that we did. It was our sins also that he bore on the way to Golgotha. He carried the weight of the sin of all humanity for all time with him to his death. He died for my sins and for yours so that we might be saved from eternal death. Even though he died for all humanity, all humanity will not receive the same benefit from his death. He himself has told us the condition of discipleship, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross and follow after me” (Mk 8:34). We can’t just live for ourselves. He has entrusted his plan of salvation to his Church, expecting those who believe in him to be a light in the world, sharing the Good News of salvation with others so that they might believe in him and their lives be transformed by his grace. We each have a free will and we each must make the choice to turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.

Next weekend during the Easter Vigil there will be thousands of people received in the Church throughout the world In a way, it will be a little like Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem as these people joyfully welcoming Jesus into their minds, hearts and souls, and the whole community will proclaim Alleluia as it was proclaimed for each one of us when we were baptized. During the Easter liturgy we all will renew our baptismal vows together as a reminder of what Christ has done for us and of our need to put our total faith in him.

The reading of Christ’s Passion today reminds us that our baptism is not only about the joy of welcoming Jesus Christ. It is about a lifetime of believing in him, trusting in him and being faithful to what he has revealed to us through the Scriptures and the Church. Our purpose in this life is to know, love and serve God so that we can be happy now and forever. When we refuse to be faithful to Jesus Christ, we once again say, “crucify him.” But Jesus shows us how to live our life close to God so that our faith will influence all the decisions we make.

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

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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”)

Suc

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!

Kissing

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!