Monthly Archives: February 2012

The Best 40 Days of Our Lives – A Reflection for the First Week of Lent

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"The Temptations of Christ" 12th-century mosaic at St Mark's Basilica, Venice, Italy

Our readings this Sunday are short and to the point. We have just begun our forty days of Lent and the first reading recalls for us of the first event in the Scriptures 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 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 the sign of the cross. We are baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and 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.

What Do Jesus’ Words Mean?

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.

Why Should I Pray, Fast & Give Alms?

These forty days are a time for all of us to take God seriously and to make a new beginning with God who 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 and 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 to overcome every challenge. 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 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, that is denying ourselves 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 and there is nothing more important than being connected to God – because He is the source of our happiness and our eternity.

This was Deacon Tom’s homily for the 1st Sunday in Lent (Cycle B), preached at St. Matthew Catholic Church in San Antonio, Texas.

Do you have trouble praying? You’re not alone. (Includes tips from the experts!)

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For me, prayer is not easy. While this probably surprises most of my acquaintances and friends, prayer isn’t the first thing on my mind every day. (That award goes to ‘What’s for breakfast?’ or ‘Ugh, do I have to get up?’) Usually, I put off my daily prayers. My confessors know this well!

I admit my weakness not because I’m proud; it frustrates me terribly. I admit my struggle because you probably share it. And we’re not alone.

The Saints Were Sinners, Too!

Did you know that the saints were in our shoes, too? Yup, those people with the halos on our stained-glass windows and holy cards also struggled with prayer. This is often left out of books and biographies for piety’s sake. But every saint in heaven, at one point or another, wrestled with the issues we commonly face. For instance, I remember being shocked when I read this from the autobiography of St. Therese of Lisieux (‘The Little Flower’):

I am ashamed to confess it, but the recitation of the Rosary costs me more than to use an instrument of penance. I feel I am saying it so badly. Try as I may to make myself meditate on the mysteries, I never manage to fix my thoughts on them.

WHAT?? I couldn’t believe it. The Little Flower – a woman declared a Doctor of the Church – had trouble praying the Rosary? Wow, that’s like me! St. Pio of Pietrelcina, also called Padre Pio, is known for his holiness and closeness to God. But that closeness did not come easily or ‘naturally.’ He wrote to his spiritual director, Fr. Agostino,

My Faith is upheld only by a constant effort of my will against every kind of human persuasion. My Faith is only the fruit of the continual efforts that I exact of myself. And all of this, Father, is not something that happens a few times a day, but it is continuous…

Holiness ain't easy! (Photo: Blessed Pier Giorgio, rock climbing.)

Yes, the saints struggled just like us! A testimony from Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, a young man:

With every day that passes, I grow more and more convinced how ugly the world is, of how much suffering there is, and, unfortunately, of how it is the good who suffer the most. Meanwhile, we who have been given so many of God’s blessings have repaid Him poorly. This is an awful reality that racks my brain; while I’m studying, every so often I ask myself: will I continue on the right path? Will I have the strength to persevere all the way?

Reading the saints’ writings helps me renew my hope. Look at these three models of holiness – who spent hours of their day in prayer – yet they constantly struggled. St. Paul writes about his own struggle in his letter to the Romans: “I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want” (Rm. 7:19).

So, if the saints struggled like us, but they made it to Heaven, how did that happen?

Tips from the Saints

1. Ask God for the grace to love prayer.

“…I feel myself somewhat drawn to prayer, I have asked of God […] that He would give me the grace to love this holy exercise more and more, unto the hour of my death. It is the one means for our purification, the one way to union with God, the one channel by which God may unite Himself with us, that He may do anything with us for His glory. […] The counsel, or rather the commandment: Pray always, seems to me extremely sweet and by no means impossible.” – St. Claude de la Colombiere

2. Ask the Holy Spirit to teach you to pray.

“The Spirit too comes to the aid of our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit itself intercedes with inexpressible groanings.” – St. Paul

3. Put prayer in perspective.

“Remember that you have only one soul; that you have only one death to die; that you have only one life, which is short and has to be lived by you alone; and there is only one Glory, which is eternal. If you do this, there will be many things about which you care nothing.” – St. Teresa of Avila (also called ‘Teresa of Jesus’)

4. Get a new hobby: Do good deeds; they turn your soul to God.

“Accustom yourself continually to make many acts of love, for they enkindle and melt the soul.” – St. Teresa of Avila (…she has lots of great advice)

5. Begin with the Sign of the Cross.

“The illusions of the devil soon vanish, especially if a man arms himself with the Sign of the Cross. The devils tremble at the Sign of the Cross of our Lord, by which He triumphed over and disarmed them.” – St. Anthony the abbot

6. When you pray, quiet yourself.

“What we need most in order to make progress is to be silent before this great God with our appetite and with our tongue, for the language he best hears is silent love.”  -St. John of Avila (also called ‘John of the Cross’)

7. When you pray, let God love you.

Prayer is the inner bath of love into which the soul plunges itself. – St. John Vianney

8. Use small doses of spiritual reading as a springboard to prayer.

“Read some chapter of a devout book….It is very easy and most necessary, for just as you speak to God when at prayer, God speaks to you when you read.” – St. Vincent de Paul

9. Don’t let prayer intimidate you. Talk with God.

“To pray is to talk to God, but about what? About Him, about yourself; joys, sorrows, successes, and failures, noble ambitions, daily worries, weaknesses! And acts of thanksgiving and petitions: and Love and reparation. In a word: to get to know Him and to get to know yourself: to get acquainted.” – St. Josemaria Escriva

10. Schedule time for prayer, but also pray throughout the day.

Aspire continually to God, by brief, ardent upliftings of heart; praise God, invoke His aid, cast yourself in spirit at the Foot of His Cross, adore His Goodness, offer your whole soul a thousand times a day to Him, fix your inward gaze upon Him, stretch out your hands to be led by Him, as a little child to its father, clasp Him to your breast as a fragrant bouquet. In short, enkindle by every possible action your love for God[…] – it may be interwoven with all our duties and occupations – St. Francis de Sales

Love on Valentine’s Day only?

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As I was looking over the Sunday paper, I saw so many advertisements for jewelry, perfumes, chocolates and flowers. I was telling my husband, “Honey, don’t feel you have to buy me anything for Valentine’s Day. Please don’t waste your money on flowers or jewelry or chocolates.”

As I continued to read the paper, I noticed that many restaurants were having Valentine’s Day dinner specials, too. So, then I said, “Let’s go have dinner on Valentine’s Day instead! There’s a restaurant that is offering dinner for two; which includes an appetizer, main course and dessert for only 19.99? That’s a good deal.”

Then, my husband says, “Let’s just have dinner at home.”

I thought for a moment. What am I doing? I’m sending mixed messages. First, I said, ‘Don’t waste your money on me,’ then I say, ‘Let’s buy dinner at a restaurant just because it’s Valentine’s Day?’ Why does my husband have to show me one day out of the year that he loves me? For that matter, why does anyone have to use Valentine’s Day to demonstrate their love for someone?

I began to think: God loves us every day, 24/7. He doesn’t decide on one special day to show His love for us; He shows it every day. Aren’t we supposed to do the same?

So then, I started to look in the Bible to read His Word about love. I’m very familiar with 1 Corinthians 13 (“Love is patient, Love is kind…”) since it’s often read at weddings. But then, I found a scripture in 1 John 4:7-11;

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is of God; everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God. Whoever is without love does not know God, for God is love. In this way the love of God was revealed to us: God sent his only son into the world so that we might have life through him. In this is love; not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as expiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also must love one another.

With this scripture, I challenged myself to love – not only my husband, or my mother, my sister, my friend, my neighbor – but also my enemy. I’m not just doing this because I feel like it. I’m doing this because God told me to. Shouldn’t you do the same?

Listening can change the world.

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Artwork from Shepherds' Field in Bethlehem: The shepherds rejoicing as they leave Christ's nativity

by Paul Vance, Assistant Pilgrimage Group Leader
(submitted from Jerusalem)

The act of listening is at the heart of pilgrimage. Like Mary, we listen to the Word spoken to us. A human-divine interaction results when the Word of the Lord presents itself to us, and, again like Mary, we ponder it. When we love God, the Word spoken must rest in our heart until we rest in it. To love our neighbor as ourselves is the next greatest commandment. The fruit derived from that love requires us to listen to our neighbor.

Today, our pilgrims celebrated Christmas for the second time in as many months. In the Church of the Nativity, where our Lord drew his first breath, we listened to the proclaimed Word. In that Word, we learned that the shepherds keeping watch in the nearby hills were the first to listen to the words of good news brought to them by the heavenly host. They left for Bethlehem to see the wondrous thing told to them. Upon entering the stable where the child lay in a manger, they were filled with joy at all they saw.

As shepherds, their station in life was the lowest of the low in the eyes of their own people. In many cases, they were perhaps treated as less than human. When they left the stable, yes, they were filled with joy, but they possessed something else. They had hope. It was a hope derived from the fact that they had encountered the Christ-child. Because they listened, they went and saw and understood that they were more than what others considered them. With Christ, there was hope born within them. They too could be children of God.

Our pilgrims experienced the same kind of hope today. They visited a Palestinian university today and participated in a forum consisting of many young Palestinian women and men. They are working on social projects oriented toward helping the marginalized in their land. Imagine that: a group of marginalized Palestinian Christian and Muslim youths are working toward improving the even more marginalized poor throughout their land. Listening to them, was to experience their hope for the future. It was a hope worth listening to and pondering in the heart. At that moment, the barriers between Christian and Muslim broke down and all that was left were children of God. To hear their dreams and watch their faces light up with the hope of a better, more just, and peaceful world is the best Christmas gift of all.