Thursday, December 15, 2016

Pray Without Ceasing...The Usefulness of Decades of Prayer

We live in a pretty practical society; everything needs a "useful" purpose to have value. Now, we know that there is purpose in less tangible things, like beauty, a smile, time spent thinking rather than just working...but it's hard to explain that to the world in which we live. That simply means we have to speak to the world in its own language to show that there can be value in these things.

As an example, many people don't find value in praying the Rosary these days. It has a bit of a reputation as a rote devotion of little old ladies who have nothing better to do. First, the little old ladies I know are wonderfully busy, usually serving others, and I only wish I had their spare time for that sort of commitment to private devotions. They are able to enjoy the prayer and sacramental life that we often wish we had, but for which we lack time...and, to be honest sometimes, motivation. We do have the opportunity to experience a small taste of that peace, however, and in this time and place, peace is a valuable commodity all too often taken for granted. How do we find a reason to pray? You know me, always about the theological math.

Scripture tends to work heavily with numbers, so when you see repetition of say, three, five, seven, 40, there's usually a reason. In the Church, we recognize the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, which are found in Is 11:2-3: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord. If we apply that same idea to the Marian devotion to the Rosary, we can easily find seven gifts, likely more, to illustrate its very practical usefulness. Don't believe me? Let's go.

1. The most obvious benefit is developing a closer relationship with Our Lady. Some might question why that's necessary, and many even question whether or not this devotion borders on idolatry. First, we don't worship Mary, but we honor her (Ex 20:12, Dt 5:16) as the New Eve, as she's the mother of all of those who are living spiritually a new life in her Son, Jesus Christ. As the mother of the King of Glory, she holds a special place of favor (Lk 1:28) as the Queen Mother, by which she is able to intercede on our behalf in a special way. This is very clearly imaged in another relationship between the king of Israel and his mother in (1 Kgs 2:18-20). Mary points us to her Son always as, "the way, the truth and the life" (Jn 14:6, emphasis mine), telling us to, "Do whatever he tells you" (Jn 2:5). If we're willing to ask others to pray for your needs, then it seems to follow that we ought to ask the one who, in a special way, is closest to our Lord.

2. Attention to the Mysteries of the Rosary brings humility. You might think it a bit self-centered to turn the Rosary back to yourself, but every intention of God is that we would know Him intimately and be known by Him. The mysteries tell us a great deal about Jesus, and when we see Him as he is (1 Jn 3:2), we're able to see who we are in relation to Him...basically, we are not God (big surprise, I know). Choose any of the mysteries, even the Marian ones, and you'll see that they very clearly show that God is One (Dt 6:4), not some shady representation of a conglomerate of do-gooders. God is, and He is not us, or rather, we are not Him, though we look forward to being fully united to Him. Look, for example, at the Glorious Mystery of Jesus' Baptism in the Jordan (Mat 3:16-17). The Father identifies Jesus as His Divine Son, and the Spirit rests on Him as is foretold in Isaiah 11, much like when the Spirit rushed upon David when he was anointed as king (1 Sam 16:13). The Glorious Mystery of the Coronation shows the promise of our future with Him as King in the crowning of His mother as Queen of Heaven. Just as foretold by Simeon (Lk 2:34-35), she shared in the suffering of His crown of thorns, which became the glorious crown of the Resurrection borne out of His obedience to the will of the Father. Her cooperation with the will of God becomes her crown, her share in His glory. Clearly, Jesus is human and lived a wholly human life, but these mysteries of His life also show that He is every bit as much Divine and the designer of our hearts, something we ought to keep in mind when we try to determine whose will is ordered toward our greater glory.

3. Contrary to the belief of many, the Rosary is unbelievably scriptural. Notice how many times above I give a reference to some biblical element of the Mysteries. Even the Hail Mary is an extremely scriptural prayer. If you don't believe me, go look it up (Lk 1:28, 1:42-43). Jesus is the Word Incarnate, and we reverence the Sacred Word just as we do His Body and Blood in the Eucharist (Heb 1:2, Jn 1:1; CCC 103). In order to better know Him, we must study the Scriptures (CCC 133), both with our minds and with our hearts, because it is there where we hear the fullness of the Word the Father desires to speak to us, His longings of joy for us (Ps 16:11).

4. A greater familiarity and devotion to Scripture naturally leads to a deeper relationship with Christ. It's like with any other relationship, growing in knowledge of someone leads to a greater appreciation of who they are. In a well-known quote from his commentary on the Book of Isaiah, St. Jerome, the translator of the Vulgate (Latin translation of the Greek Septuagint Bible), expresses the necessity of Scripture as the place of coming to know Jesus, "Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ" (Commentariorum in Isaiam libri xviii). We grow in love for Jesus as we come to know Him, and we naturally desire more to be conformed to His image.
It's amazing how each of these leads into the next, isn't it?

5. So then, what follows from a closer relationship with Jesus and an appreciation for Him, His life, and the good news He brings? A greater desire for a life of increasing holiness. Think about someone you admire. There's usually something about them that draws you to them, and there's a part of you that wants to become more like them. Growing in the knowledge of Christ leads to growing in relationship and holiness. This isn't something that comes from us alone. In fact, we just don't have the means to make ourselves good. The reality is, it requires Grace, God's free gift of His life within our souls...but also our cooperation, and an attraction to God's goodness makes it much easier to cooperate with His will. During a recent home repair project, I understood this better. Using a perfectly good screwdriver on a stripped screw won't get anything done. The spiritual journey of sanctification is no different; an unwilling object of Grace will not be changed because it refuses to be changed, but the one who sees the surpassing benefit of being conformed to the image of the Son by the Father will be transformed into a new creation.

6. Anyone growing in holiness through prayer will reflect their conversion of heart in their lives. These fruits of praying, in particular, the Rosary, will naturally lead to a life of witness and mission. When one receives a gift that is life-altering, they are moved to a level of thanksgiving beyond a simple, "Thank you." They are grateful in a way that desires to return that kindness, which manifests itself in works of love, kindness, and generosity. A changed heart is a changed life and an opportunity to witness to the Gospel in a world desperately in need of saving. The world cannot change itself, so we are called to be salt and light, but we must first experience the renewal of our minds in order to be the evidence of God's faithfulness when the world shouts over us with empty promises (Rom12:2).

7. Finally, as a more earthly practical matter, prayer quiets. You may have completely lost the sense of the meaning of the word "quiet," and it would be entirely understandable. We live in an overstimulating world, and we rarely have time for quiet reflection, but our souls need quiet. Being peppered with questions from a four-year-old can be overwhelming, and some days, you just need a mute button. As I understand it, that's not an actual thing, but many of us know that feeling, and it's hard to think, let alone remain calm and reasoned in our decision-making. It's hard to believe, but the noise of the world is far more distracting than a four-year-old, so the quiet needed in our hearts is so much greater. Mary was an expert at this, I'd imagine. We know very little of Jesus' early life, but parenthood, even of a perfect child, I'm sure, is trying. Watching a child fail as part of learning or suffer the pain of mistreatment from other is heartbreaking. When you consider the anguish she must have felt as she watched him scorned during His ministry and later, abused and crucified during His Passion, it's a wonder that anyone could endure such a thing. Yet, she did not stop Him from His mission because she had spent time, pondering [these things] in her heart (Lk 2:19, 2:51). The intentions of the world are nothing short of destructive, but a prayerful heart and attentive will can overcome.

The benefits of prayer reach beyond these few, and a devotion to praying the Rosary is no different. We need a sense of humility, a deep personal knowledge of Christ, guidance from His Blessed Mother, and the time and quiet to consider His will. We gain nothing by doing nothing, but honest prayer will always right a wayward heart. It's one of God's greatest gifts; take advantage!

Reprinted at

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Set before you this day...Sin, Choice, and the Lesser of Two Goods

"Why is it that any time we speak of temptation we always speak of temptation as something that inclines us to wrong. We have more temptations to become good than we do to become bad."

Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen

There are some things no one wants to talk about, death, taxes...our recent political cycle, but there's one thing that must be addressed by us all, temptation. We often feel powerless against it, and we can easily dismiss it as just a natural part of life that we can't be expected to overcome, but that sense of hopelessness in the face of sinful enticements is not of God. Rather, from God comes our power to overcome whatever temptation may sneak into our lives...and it does.

We know what we mean by temptation, even without great philosophical and theological discussion because we've experienced it. We know that we've all been there, sometimes conquered, other times failed, but always certain that it is unavoidable and about as miserable as sitting in your car during a hail storm, knowing there is nothing you can do to avoid it. St. Paul, who has something to say about almost everything, tells us that, "No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man" (1 Cor 10:13a). We've all been hit with this, and the Lord of all Creation is not exempt, for even Jesus was tempted in the desert by the Evil One. Now, there are some other typological things going on in that situation, but let's keep it simple; it was necessary for Him to be tempted, both to be faithful to the Father, whose son, Israel had been unfaithful, but also to show the rest of us how to overcome temptation, and that it was actually possible. The author of Hebrews himself tells us what we already know, "For because he himself has suffered and been tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted" (Heb 2:18). Even though Jesus is fully God, because of His human nature, being also fully man, it was necessary for Him to experience the full range of human weakness in order have the credibility we need to trust in His ability to help and model holiness for us.

As I said, we may not have the words to describe temptation at a logical level because nothing quite captures what we experience, for we, like St. Paul, know what we want on a spiritual level, but also what we want on the level of the flesh. We use the word "want" to describe both, and yet, we know that those two senses are fundamentally not the same, and they can't be because the matter (temporal and spiritual) and nature (finite and eternal) of the subjects of our desire are so very different and frequently contradictory. That said, there are some things we can know about the nature of temptation.

Many of us believe that the Evil One hates everything about us, everything created by God, every wonderful bit of His Image that we are, but it's just not that simple. The thing Satan most enjoys is the greatest gift from God at our conception, our free will. It is only by our free will that he can turn God's creation on its head and dehumanize us. How ironic it is that the very thing that most makes us human over every other living creature is the very thing that has the greatest power to diminish our own humanity. And so, our dignity is a choice, and the choice is about temptation, but as Archbishop Sheen said above, we have a choice between two temptations, the obvious one to evil, but also its counter and remedy, the good.

"The greatest temptations are not those that solicit our consent to obvious sin, but those that offer us great evils masking as the greatest goods."

Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island

It's a gift that we have free will, even if it gets us into trouble from time to time. If I were to ask the average person if they had dodged a bullet by opting to not murder someone today, hyperbole aside, I think I can trust probability to keep most people innocent. The vast majority of us don't spend our days wringing our hands over whether or not to steal our neighbor's car, wife, or...donkey (let's keep it family-friendly here, folks). We feel pretty confident that we know the difference between right and wrong, and we find most of those "big sins" pretty detestable. 

But if we're honest with ourselves, we know those big ones aren't the problem.

Anyone who has read C. S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters can almost instantly identify with the subversive nature of our most repetitive failures. We don't immediately acknowledge these behaviors as inherently evil, so we aren't quickly guarded against them. How do we not see these pitfalls until we're standing knee-deep in immoral quicksand? The fact is simply that, we are only doing what we were created to do, which is to desire the good. The God who created us for Himself designed us to desire perfect goodness, love, and beauty, and so we chase these...and their alter egos because they appear so good. Unfortunately, it's this slight of hand by the Evil One, barely twisting a legitimate good into a lesser good that is still very desirable, that characterizes the danger of sin (Summa Theologiae, I-II, q. 87, a. 4). These are sins that are not a glaringly obvious break with the Natural Law, but which are often easily justified away and ignored, only to dull the conscience into acceptance of more and greater sins; these can not be ignored...unless you really do like the idea of a dry heat for all of eternity.

What are we to do in the face of sin, when it seems we are powerless to resist? First, realize that we are in fact, not powerless. We have received great power, in the form of the indwelling Spirit of God, which we know as sanctifying grace, made available as a free gift paid for by the Blood of Christ through our baptism. This is maybe the shortest explanation I've ever given for a theology that is so unbelievably inscrutable. Consider yourselves lucky because I could've used a lot more words. You're welcome. Now, what do we do with this? Remember when I said that Jesus was tempted, and that He overcame that temptation to give us a firm basis on which to trust Him? Our next step is to take Him at His word and follow Him, "Since, therefore, Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same thought, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin so as to live for the rest of the time in the flesh, no longer by human passions, but by the will of God" (1 Pet 4:1-2). How loved are we to be given power and a model to conquer sin! Equally sobering is how close we must follow our model to be firmly established against sin. Paul tells us to, "[P]ut on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires" (Rom 13:14). What sounds rather plain in English becomes a much richer imagery in the Greek. To "put on" is the word ἐνδύω, which can mean to put on or clothe, but it can also mean "to sink into," as with clothing. If you imagine your favorite warm pajamas on a cold winter night, the amount of anything you want to come between you and warm snuggliness is none, none things. What you want more is to be wrapped so tightly in them, that they are like a second skin...and so it is with Jesus. We need to be so tightly bound to Him that it is unclear where we are joined. Furthermore, Paul tells us to, "make no provision for the flesh," which again leaves zero room between us and Christ, simply no space for temptation to enter and bring about sin because we are so close to Him, or rather, we have invited Him to be that close to us.

How do we do that? I won't lie to you; the moral life is difficult, and we will all fail, so be honest with yourself, rather than let pride be your downfall. We're fighting an enemy who knows he has ultimately lost, and to say he's displeased is well beyond an understatement (Rev 12:10). His desire to dehumanize us and convince us to toss out our dignity is ferocious (like Cujo a million times over, for anyone else who had the daylights scared out of them by that dog). To become that close means knowing, intimately, everything that is Christ...and allowing Him to know us just as deeply. That means intimacy, and intimacy is scary, precisely because of the closeness required, which leaves no room for partial honesty or reluctant emotional involvement. This full gift of self leaves us open to exploitation and injustice, which we find even more damaging when it comes from someone with whom we share our deepest self.

The good news? The Good News (see what I did there?)

Yes, intimacy is scary, but opening ourselves up to a deep and personal relationship with Christ is the only safe bet because of the message of the Gospel, which is that, "God so loved the world that He gave his only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life" (Jn 3:16...yes, the "football verse"). God the Father fully gave over his Son, and in His reciprocal love, the Son emptied Himself and gave His life over for us. There is no more perfect love than that, so we have no need to fear revealing our whole selves because He reserved none of Himself but gave all for us. We can trust Him. Our alternative is the Liar and Accuser of the brethren...who has given nothing, but takes everything.

Where does that leave us, day-to-day? First, we need to develop a deeper relationship with Jesus by coming to know Him better through the careful study of Scripture, sharing our lives with Him in regular prayer (CCC 2612), and meeting Him intimately in the Sacraments, Reconciliation and the Eucharist, in particular. I have a friend who truly seems to understand this level of humility. He is honest, almost to a fault, if that could ever be considered a true fault. He acknowledges the good and bad in whatever situation, offers the good as glory to God, but is also willing to accept consequences and damage to the ego when he's made a mistake. I admire that sort of honesty and willingness to go to the Cross for truth. As Catholics, we have this opportunity in the Sacrament of Confession. Sin is devastating, and the idea of even uttering the words to another person is sobering, but isn't that what we need? Jesus did not suffer and die on a cross for us to live in the shame of our sin. His life, death, and Resurrection were to free us from sin to live a new life of profound closeness with Him. St. Catherine of Siena, mystic and Doctor of the Church characterized this relationship beautifully, "God is closer to us than water to a fish." We have only to let Him into our weakness and sinfulness, so that He can heal our hearts, freeing us to be transformed by the renewal of our minds (Rom 12:2).

Second, this isn't so easy to remember in that moment of temptation, so it's important to have a plan. I realize that sounds a little silly, but we have plans in case of fire, medical problems, and lost children, so why is it unreasonable to have a plan for when we're faced with temptation? It's best to keep it simple- call on the name of the Lord (Ps 18:6). Who is the Lord? Jesus is Lord, and His name is power, so call on Him when faced with temptation, and He will come to you and be your strength when you have none (2 Cor 12:10). I can attest that this is real, and it may be that you repeatedly call on Him, as a litany, not because He's not listening, like when I'm asked 500 questions by the kids while I'm trying to talk on the phone, but because He wants you to earnestly trust in Him and desire deliverance. Have confidence in the power we've been given over the Evil One, for as the great ascetic, St. Antony, who was tempted and attacked for much of his life, says, "If you are able, and have received power against me, delay not to attack; but if you are unable, why trouble me in vain? For faith in our Lord is a seal and a wall of safety to us" (Life of St. Antony, Athanasius). Don't doubt the power of the Spirit of God to save us, not just from Original Sin, but from daily temptation to sin.

Finally, pursue a life of love and virtue. Archbishop Sheen is absolutely right, in that, we are tempted, always, but there are at least as many temptations to the good as to evil (Mar 10:27). How often during the day do we have the opportunity to choose something good for another person, and make no mistake, the nature of love is a choice? Whether it's reading a book with a child or helping a friend move, you're choosing to give up some good for yourself (quietly reading a book without hearing "Why?" at every page, or relaxing to watch the game) in order to choose the good of someone else. That is the essence of love and the beginning of the virtuous life. All other virtues come from love, and without love, no act is virtuous (1 Cor 13). Similarly, don't overly concern yourself with the smaller needs, which become a distraction, drawing you away from God, who will always provide. While you're busy thinking of which clothes to wear for the day, you may miss an opportunity to hug someone near you who truly needs it. Of course, still put on clothes before you go out, always clothes, but don't make the lesser good your focus, "But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well. Therefore, do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day's own trouble be sufficient for the day" (Mat 6:33-34). There will always be temptation, but do not fear it. Remain in Christ, for He is love, and perfect love casts out fear (1 Jn 4:18). In Christ, you can trust that you have the power to resist temptation and choose the greater good.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Thanks be to God

To all of my family, friends, those who have touched my life and made me the person I am, to those who are loved and missed, I am thankful for you. Have a wonderful and blessed day.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Our Lady of holy grounds

"Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in awhile, you could miss it."
Well said, Ferris.

Ferris Bueller's Day Off (Paramount Pictures, 1986)
It's true, life moves fast. We're all busier than ever these days with myriads of activities, responsibilities, and distractions. It's hard to know how to stop for a moment of peace so we don't miss it, but as busy as we are, we need that moment of peace, frequently...every day...probably throughout the day. The question is, how do we find it? Clearly, you've mistaken me for someone who knows, but since you're here, I might as well share what I do, try to do.

This is perfect timing, actually, because I just finished my morning cup of coffee. That also means I finished praying my daily Rosary. It's interesting that the Rosary has become my daily dedicated prayer time, first, because I'm a scripture nerd, so you'd think I'd place more emphasis on a period of Lectio Divina, and second, I have just never been able to get a good handle on so much rote prayer. Yet, this begins my day, focuses my mind, and orders my heart toward its Source (I capitalize that because I mean God Himself, in case that wasn't clear).

There are other moments of prayer throughout the day, usually those moments when, if you're attentive to the voice of the Holy Spirit, you stop and thank, praise, or for some us remedials of the spiritual life, just say, "Hi," acknowledging that the Spirit called, and you're not just screening your spiritual calls. Even if you don't know what to do after simply greeting Him, He can work with just that. Thank God...literally. Seriously, take a second and thank Him...right now. See? Done. Easy.
See that "done" up there? Yeah, I have a lot of those. They come in and go out through texts on my phone. Weird? Maybe, but they keep my prayer life adding fiber to your drinks when you get older. Like I said, I have a hard time setting aside prayer time because things get hectic, but I know I'm not the only one. Much like experts recommend having a "buddy system" to successfully maintain an active lifestyle, I thought, there's no reason why it wouldn't work to have someone to keep me honest about my daily prayer workout.

You wish you'd thought of it, I know...or uh, if you had, why didn't you tell me?

Anyway, I asked a friend, who I know is also trying to grow in greater faith and holiness, to keep me on track, and that I would do the same, in return. I began like a teenager driving a stick for the first time, stalling out over and over, but eventually, I fell into a rhythm. We text each other daily, "Done," or sometimes, "Hey, you'd better hurry up." It works pretty well.

Enter, coffee.

Coffee is also part of my daily schedule and has been for years. I generally only have one cup, but it's just enough to sit back and take a breath before the insanity of the day begins. It just so happens that the amount of coffee I drink, when drank one sip per prayer, takes exactly the same amount of time as it takes to pray a single Rosary (*mind blown*). Yep, as it turns out, there seems to be a religious connection with coffee...but then, you all knew that. It's no wonder our parish priest frequently jokes about his close friendship with St. Arbucks (I think they have a special corny jokes course in some seminaries).

Anyhow, special dedications to Adoration, prayer retreats, and spiritual direction are important, and we should absolutely work toward those, but for those just starting out or who have issues with focus and consistency, maybe just invite Our Lady to a cup of coffee in the morning. Tell her how crazy things are, how you're not sure if you're raising saints or monsters, or how you just wish the "right one" would come along (job, future spouse, whatever), the same as you do with your close friends. She knows a little something about how crazy life can get, and like many earthly mothers, she'll go back and share all of your personal stuff with her Best Friend...yep, more capitalization; you know what that means. She'll tell Him, and He'll take care of the rest.

Relax, enjoy that cup of coffee...or tea, if you're one of those, and may your cup runneth over...or not. Coffee and tea stains can be tough.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Pentecost and Family Reunions

Last week, the Church celebrated the great gift of Pentecost, and most of us heard homilies about this being the beginning of something, the birthday of the Church. I won't argue with that (you thought I would for a second there, didn't you?). Pentecost marks the beginning of the Church, the continuation of Jesus' ministry through the work of his the way, that's us. It's also a bit of a family reunion of sorts. Hang on we'll get there...
Pentecost, Jean II Restout, 1732.

Pentecost, originally a Jewish pilgrimage feast, was known as the Feast of Weeks or Shavuot (Ex 34:22). It was a celebration of both offering God the first fruits of the people's labors, but also the giving of the Law at Sinai, 49 days after the Exodus from Egypt. As I often do, let's start with some math because who doesn't love some theological math? Pentecost is 50 days after Easter. Technically, this whole Pentecost thing goes down 49 days after Passover/Exodus. Important? Yes, and here's why.
The number seven is the number of covenant, personal familial relationship; this is quite simply a blood bond. So 7 x 7? That equals covenant, BIG TIME covenant. Remember in Genesis, how God rested on the seventh day? Let's see, He does not tire, so what's that about? Ah, the seventh day is the day of covenant. He promises to provide for His Creation, and we are created to put our trust in Him, saving that day as a remembrance of that promise and relationship. Basically, seven = covenant = promise = rest. Excellent, so it should be no surprise that, at the giving of the Law, that number and the idea of rest appear...a lot. Look especially at the Jubilee year, 7 x 7 years...49 (Lev 25:8-13). Yep, so every fifty years was a jubilee year, in which slaves were set free, lands were returned, and rest was given to land and people as a sign of the rest granted to men by God. There were also intermittent times of rest, like allowing fields to lie fallow every seven years, so that they may also "rest" (Lev 25:3-5).

So now we have a harvest holy day, a jubilee's worth of weeks from Passover (freedom from slavery), and the celebration of the giving of the Law. Last time I checked, I wasn't Jewish, so what does that have to do with disciples of Christ? We have a holy day (Pentecost), that jubilee's worth of weeks from Easter (freedom from slavery to sin), a celebration of a new law (the Beatitudes), and the harvest, which is both the Jews who had come to Jerusalem for the holy day, and the Gentile nations who are called to enter the family of God, beginning with the 3000 who were baptized following Peter's witness to the Gospel (Acts 2:41).
Whew! And I didn't even get off track...much.

Family reunion time...I'm not sure about your family, but mine is full of characters of all sorts. Most of them aren't doing hard time in a foreign prison, so I think we're doing pretty well as a group. We all live fairly different lives in different places, so how we see the world is also different, but when we get together, there is a shared history, a language that belongs to us, made up of our experiences, jokes, and crazy stories. Whatever may otherwise divide or set us apart takes a back seat to the story that unites us. I think you see where I'm going with this.
But wait! There's more!

The people who had come for Shavuot were also different families, clans, even different nations. Not everyone was a "cradle Jew" (not sure if that's a thing, but Catholics get it), and many were even Gentiles who became known as God-fearers because they came to worship the God of the Jews. There was even a section of the Temple for them called the Court of the Gentiles, which was a sign of God's promise to lead all nations to Himself. The intersection of all of these different groups is the heart of our family reunion, where many people come from any number of world views and speak their own language...literally.

The literal speaking of different languages is a byproduct of human pride way back in human history, in Gen 11:4, when the people decided to make themselves their own top priority, even trying to be equal with God. They decided to build a tower to the heavens (sorry, Led Zeppelin fans, I just can't do it), but what they ended up with was a rusty old ladder of confusion. Not concerning ourselves with issues over genre, God steps in and confuses the people, scattering them and destroying their single language, so they could not continue to cooperate to make themselves their own gods. Disaster, right? Fast forward to first century Palestine, when the tongues of fire landed on the people, and they prophesied in each man's language, the human race was now in the midst of a full-on family reunion (Acts 2). The people suddenly spoke the same language, but not because there was a single Palestinian language, but rather, the language was the story of salvation, the story of humanity's relationship with the God who pursued them endlessly, and who had now given His only Son to fulfill the covenant responsibilities, so that they may again be one family. All people were now able to hear these stories, and Peter, whose boldness now became an opportunity for witness, rather than an opportunity for reproach, proclaimed the fullness of the story of salvation history, the language meant for all people. What happened after that? Harvest. The "fishers of men" (Matt 4:19) Jesus promised his disciples they would become were now welcoming 3000 new believers into the family of God. Even our Community Sunday with the donuts and everything doesn't net those kind of numbers.

What made the difference here? The Holy Spirit lights up the hearts of Jesus' followers. Yes, some Divine inspiration helps, but it's the story that draws the people to those who proclaimed it. St. Augustine saw the importance of the story, the narratio early on, explaining that our focus isn't the minute details and long lists of doctrines and rules, but rather, "golden thread which holds together the precious stones in an ornament but does not spoil the ornament's lines by making itself too obvious," (Augustine, De Catechizandis Rudebus). The details of the ornament of our faith are certainly precious stones that enrich our relationship with God, but the foundation is the story that gives those details unity and meaning.

So next time your crazy uncle goes on about his latest conspiracy theory, or your mother takes an inventory of reasons you haven't found "the one," remember that you have a common language, a story that you share. Let it also be a reminder to you, that both the woman who keeps tapping her rosary on the pew, and the man who whispers the entire Eucharistic Prayer, they share your story and speak your common language because by your baptism, you were made brothers and sisters, one Mystical Body in Christ. Talk to them, ask their story, encourage and pray for them. Who knows, you might find you both like the same music...or maybe you're both just tired of hearing your Fr.'s same old corny jokes.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Running Toward Lent: Mercy, Witness, and the Cross

As Lent approaches, our minds turn to images of ashes, thorns, and the Cross. We don't anticipate the Lenten season as we do Easter or Christmas because, let's be honest, self-mortification and deprivation of the essentials (coffee, chocolate, Facebook) is not something we look forward to doing. As Catholics, we love Jesus, and we want to be closer to His Sacred Heart, but as human beings, we hate conversion; it's hard, and we always have to give up something. Converting our hearts to Christ seems like it should be easy because what we give up is sin, which we hate...or think we do. If we're honest, we know that there's that small part of us that doesn't want to give up the sin that comforts us, tells us that people who never gossip are weird or convinces us that we have earned that latest and greatest purchase. Mortal sin, the really obvious stuff, is offensive to our senses; it's the small, petty, "white lie" sort of stuff that actually whispers in our ears, "You can't really help it. It's normal...everyone does it." I don't know about you, but I've had to answer that old question, what would I do if all of my friends jumped off a much for choices being justified by "everyone else."

Mercy is the Key

I'm not going to try to convince you that this attachment to sin isn't normal. "Concupiscence," as it's referred to by theology nerds (you can just say "attachment to sin," much easier to pronounce), is the unavoidable result of Original Sin, the condition we inherit from our parents, just as we inherit our human nature. Does this mean that it's impossible to ever stop sinning? Why do we bother trying, if we can never avoid this unfortunate participation in the human condition? One word: Mercy. How fortuitous that our pope has declared a Jubilee Year of Mercy. Good call, Pope Francis. What the Pope realizes is that mercy is the key to a conversion of the heart, a renewed commitment to witness to the power of the Gospel, and ultimately, the transformative power of sacrificial love.

Before we continue, it's important to get our terms straight, so that we're all using the same language. Mercy can be understood in many ways, so if we think we're saying the same thing, but our definitions are actually different, we are guaranteed that the dialogue will go nowhere. As a first premise, I am going to define "mercy," not as the elimination of suffering, but God's willing act of bringing good out of any situation, the proverbial "writing straight with crooked lines." This is the only explanation for the Cross. The Father didn't compel the people to condemn Jesus, or force Pilate to weakly allow it to happen. Why? Because He is a respecter of the free will He created, and yet, in their own sin, the people crucified the Son of God, and as St. Paul tells us in Romans 5, "...where sin increased, grace abounded all the more" (Rom 5:20). The result? We are now free of the covenantal death that follows from sin (these are the "wages" that Paul mentioned in Rom 6:23), allowing us to enter into a new covenant, greater than the previous one, wherein we receive access to the Father...and the "household of God" (Eph 2:18-19). There are plenty more vocab words in there that we could define, but let's confine ourselves to the idea of "mercy" to avoid what, in light of the vastness of Revelation in both Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition, would be an endless and still insufficient post.

Seeking Out the Cross

So what do mercy, witness, and conversion have to do with each other? The relationship seems obvious- the Eternal God, in His mercy, came among men to bring about the conversion of the world, and out of our conversion, we are called to witness to the Gospel as we go out and show mercy, right? That is all completely true, but with a very major and unavoidable element missing from our modern language and mentality- the Cross.

When considered against the backdrop of human frailty and fear of suffering, it's no great surprise that we falter in accepting our own crosses. We tend to view our difficulties and sufferings with a hardened heart and defeated spirit, but the issues with which we actually wrestle are not the disappointments and pains, but the way in which we approach them. I say, "approach them" because we are not called by the Gospel to leisurely wait for the Suffering Servant to come to us, so that we may help Him on His way to Calvary. No, we are called by the Gospel to go out and meet Him, help Him carry His Cross, and relieve His pain, and we do this by searching for and doing the good we can draw out of others' sufferings. It is our joy to help lighten His burden because by carrying the Cross and accepting the Passion and Death that followed, He lightened our own burdens, and showed forth the Father's mercy. Here's our call to witness, as an image and result of Christ's own sacrificial love.

Critical Math

This is all lovely in its own right, and those who have experienced suffering for the sake of another have certainly had a taste of Jesus' sacrificial love, but what of those times when we just can't joyfully accept our crosses? Answer: we need a renewed understanding of suffering and sacrifice and a willingness to embrace the opportunities we have to witness the beauty and value of Christ's atonement for our sins. Lent is a perfect opportunity to deepen our understanding of mercy, both in acknowledging our own sinfulness and our need for a Savior, and also in our own willingness to go out and accept sufferings with love to bring God's mercy to others. Here's a little theological math secret (this is important, so pay attention):

Suffering + Love = Sacrifice

Yes, it really is that simple. I did say "simple", not easy. Jesus, who completely emptied Himself of His Divine powers (Phil 2:7), though not His Divine Nature, did not necessarily know everything in the future that would come from His sacrifice on the Cross. That would be outside of human power, and what that tells us, is that He suffered unimaginable horror...likely without knowing if we would even accept salvation. Sure, He must've known that at least some would embrace the Gospel, but He did not die for only those people; He died for each and every time...ever.

"O give thanks to the Lord, for He is good; His [chesed] endures forever" (Ps 118:1).

The Hebrew word, chesed is most often translated "mercy," but the larger meaning is much deeper because it reflects God's loving faithfulness to His covenant promises in spite of our sinfulness and failures. The faithfulness of God is found in the eternal benefit of the Cross, available for the salvation of all people throughout all time. God is ever-faithful and ever-merciful; we have only to respond by returning to Him through the conversion of our hearts and sharing in the mystery of Christ's suffering, sacrificing our lives for the good of others as a witness to the world of His mercy.

Return to me with all your heart

The Return of the Prodigal Son, Rembrandt
What we can take from this as we run toward Lent is that, we don't have to shrink from suffering if we can direct it toward our Lord, both as a return to Him, and as a participation in His mercy. We offer that suffering through loving acceptance of our crosses for the sake of another, and ultimately, we do so without needing to know what or if our sacrifice has accomplished. If we have Christ as our perfect model of mercy, we can know that the Father brings mercy about as He wills through our continuous conversion. He may not have known, as He hanged on the Cross, who would choose to follow in His path, but He loved us enough, that He did it anyway.