Heart and Soul…and Body

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There’s the story about the toddler who received a heart transplant from another little boy. The donor had been born with a club foot. A few months after the surgery the little boy with the new heart started to drag his foot behind him, like he had been born with a club foot, too. Another story involved a young man who wanted to be a songwriter. Just before he died he had written a new song and recorded it on tape. It told the story of a man losing his heart to a woman named “Andi.” When he was killed in a car crash, his heart was given to a woman named Andrea. She began to listen to his taped song and was able to sing along, although of course she’d never heard it before. Coincidences? Maybe. Even, probably. But how about the young girl who received the heart of a murder victim. As she was recovering from the surgery she began having nightmares about how her donor had been killed. She saw the murderer and what he’d been wearing. She dreamed of the attack itself and where the murder weapon had been hidden. When she told the police all she had seen in her dreams, they were able to use the information to make an arrest in the case.

Scientists call this “cellular memory.” It’s the idea that the cells of our body can contain memories of what has happened to us in our lives. Of course we know that our brain cells are where memories are stored. We see memory being lost when someone has a stroke or a brain trauma or suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. But cellular memory theorists believe that other parts of our bodies can also hold memories. Most of the stories of cellular memories involve the heart. As a non-scientist, this isn’t a surprise to me. When I consider who I am and what I’ve experienced, it’s always my heart that seems the most “real.”

Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am.” But I don’t believe that’s the whole story. I believe we’re more than just the electrical grid of our nervous systems. I believe that when God created us in His image, He made us more than brains and bodies. He made our hearts and souls to live forever. So while most scientists don’t take cellular memory very seriously, I do. There’s a quote that sometimes attributed (incorrectly) to C.S. Lewis: “You don’t have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.” But this misses the mark, too. Our souls and bodies, our minds and our hearts, are inextricably bound together in this life. And God has revealed His plans for our bodies, as well.

At the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-9) He gives us a glimpse of heaven. On that mountain, we see the glory of the Son revealed to Peter, James and John. He is bathed in the light of heaven and is joined by Moses and Elijah. They are, by God’s grace, enjoying life in heaven even before the Resurrection. In this peek into our next life, we see how intimately our bodies and souls are bound together. Moses and Elijah are recognizable as the men they were in life. Like the risen Jesus, they are alive and radiant and, well, themselves. The bodies they gained in their mother’s wombs are most fully realized in heaven. Like the Blessed Virgin, our heavenly bodies will be glorified and perfected in ways we can’t even imagine. At the end of time, when the bodies of believers are resurrected from the grace, we’ll experience that glory for ourselves.

So the idea of cellular memory seems very possible to me, even likely. God loves the human body so much that He chose to be incarnated. If God loves the cells of our bodies so completely and without reservation, we must as well. We’re called to treat our bodies with respect and dignity and to protect life from its beginning to its natural end. We are a miracle of creation, a reflection of the One Who made us as an act of pure and radiant love. We are more than a collection of cells—we are His children. We belong to Him, body and soul, heart and mind.

Then Christ will make His home in your hearts as you trust in Him…”
—-Ephesians 3:17

Repentance Opens Doors

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Everyone thought he was such a nice guy. His wife and kids adored him. He worked hard to make a good living for them. The folks at his office thought he was a great boss and he made them all feel like family. He coached his son’s Little League team and was always busy with some community project or another. He was one of those men that other people looked to when something needed doing. He was admired and he was liked.

That’s the thing about sin. Most sins are known to God alone. Even the sins that eat us alive and destroy our joy. We know so many folks like the man I’ve described here. Good men, and good women, too. They look like they have it all together while inside they’re nothing but a dry husk. Sin has killed their heart.

The Bishops of the Catholic Church have been meeting in Rome for the last couple of weeks. They’ve been discussing families and how the Church needs to do more to support them in their vocation. Along the way, they also talked about homosexuality and whether or not divorced and remarried Catholics should be allowed to receive Holy Communion. It got to be a bit of a mess. People, even bishops, leaked info to the press that wasn’t accurate. It caused regular folks to get wrong ideas about where the Church might be heading. People are really good at causing confusion. From the very earliest of Church Councils it seems we can make following Jesus a decidedly complicated and divisive journey. But Christ promised His Church that He would be with her always, even until the end of time (Matthew 28:2). And so, at the end of the bishop’s meeting, they said this: “Christ wanted His Church be a house with doors always open to welcome everyone.” And that’s how the Holy Spirit works to lead us through our confusion and our fears, to the truth of Christ and His open arms. The Spirit clarifies and unifies and gives us the courage and the peace we need to do His will.

So back to that likable, admirable, sinful man. He’s the one the Church is called to welcome in. The sinner who has lost his way. The sinner who has lost her way. The gossip. The adulterer. The tax cheat. The fornicator. The liar. The abortion survivor. The person with same-sex attraction. The one who harbors anger in their heart. The one who is addicted to porn. The cold-hearted, the greedy, the abuser, the slanderer. In short, every one of us. Every single, sinning one of us.

You see, we tend to get stuck on the sexual sins. When the bishops talked about homosexuals, suddenly that was all people could hear. Oh we’ll talk to our fellow prayer group members about our anger or our envy. We’ll ask for their prayers to overcome our food addiction or our shopping binges. But we won’t talk about our affair with a coworker, or the hours we spend watching internet porn, or that we struggle with same-sex attraction. We, as a Church, have to make everyone feel welcome, no matter the nature of the sin. Christ didn’t shy away from anyone. To the woman caught in adultery, He offered forgiveness and called her to leave her sinful ways behind her (John 8:1-11). He didn’t condemn the Samaritan woman at the well, either despite her serial marriages and affairs (John 4:1-30). Jesus was clear that sex outside of a valid marriage is sinful, but He always offers forgiveness and mercy to anyone who repents of their sin. His teachings on marriage and on sexuality are simple—but not easy. Being faithful to Christ is never easy. But He is the only Way.

This is what the Church must do. We have to be clear on what God teaches about marriage and sexuality. We have to welcome everyone who seeks forgiveness and repents of their sins. We have to show them by our example what mercy and forgiveness looks like. We have to be Christ to one another. And we have to remember that, no matter what, the Holy Spirit is in charge of things—both within our hearts and in the workings of the Church. We mustn’t forget that the Church is the Bride of Christ and her Spouse will never abandon her or allow her to go astray. We should never fear the workings of the Holy Spirit in our faith, but abandon our hearts to the will of God, Whose love goes before us always. The Church is in His holy Hands.

“Go, and sin no more.”
—–John 8:11

Reminding Me of Jesus

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It’s just a little country church on a hill. One brick building with a dozen or so parking spots, way out in the boondocks. But that lot is very often full to overflowing with cars while kids are playing basketball and families are gathering under the picnic pavilion. The church has a prayer box near the parking entrance where anyone who wants to can drop in a prayer request to share with their congregation. This time each year, they sell pumpkins to raise funds for their various programs. It’s beautiful to see that grassy hill covered with hundreds of orange pumpkins. And they have one outreach program that always catches my eye—their church sign.

You know those messages that many churches post on their signs? Sometimes it’s a BIble verse, or maybe a faith-based pun (Know Jesus. Know peace. No Jesus. No peace). The messages are often forgettable and all-too-frequently misspelled. But this little church gets them right. They’re thought-provoking and original and they never fail to get my attention. Their messages make me think of Jesus. That’s a pretty effective ministry for a tiny country church. This week, the sign reads: “Everything God says is an expression of love.”

Sure. As Christians, we know that God loves us. He sent His only Son to save us from our sins. His grace is sufficient (II Corinthians 12:9). The Bible is a love story of how our God created a universe for us, made us His children through Christ and will meet us face-to-face in a heaven that will surpass all our ideas of beauty and love.

But wait a minute. The Bible is also full of heartache and suffering. There are plagues and wars and famine. Families (including the very first one) are torn apart by sin and murder. Whole cities are destroyed by God’s wrath. How can we read about these horrors and believe the church sign, that everything God says is an expression of love? It’s easy to believe in love when we read about the birth of Jesus and the feeding of the multitude and see Jesus healing the sick and raising the dead. It’s more difficult to believe in that love when we read about lakes of fire and awful diseases and the deaths of all those firstborn sons.

This is because God’s plan for us is like the plans of any good parent for their children. Sometimes the things we want are bad for us, so God says, “no.” Anything that distracts us from our “best” is a sin and we know that sin leads to death (Romans 6:23). When the Lord says “no” to our plans, it isn’t to make us feel bad or to frustrate us, but to help us conform our will to His will. You see, His plans for us are so infinitely better than anything we could ever imagine. We’re like little children who chafe and whine when mom or dad won’t give us all the candy we want, all day long, every day of the week. All we can know, with our child’s mind, is that life is cruel and unfair and our parents must hate us for keeping the candy hidden away from us.

The truth is, God loves us in everything, in all circumstances, in every trial and in all our sufferings. He looks on us with longing to know us better and a desire to spend an eternity in our presence. This is the love of our Lord Who is Love Himself. How much He loves us is there on the Crucifix, is there in the cup of His Blood and in the Bread that is His Body in Holy Communion. It is in the marriage feast of the Lamb that He is preparing for you and for me at this very moment in heaven (Revelation 19:6-9). From Eden to Armageddon, God’s every word and action and plan is one of unfolding and unfailing love. I need reminding of this. And the little church in the country did that for me this week. Your sign and your messages bless me and I know they bless others as well. Thank you for reminding me of the good news of His love.

“Everything comes from love, all is ordained for the salvation of man; God does nothing without this goal in mind.”
—–St. Catherine of Siena
(1347 – 1380)

A Tiny and Wonderful Book

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People are hungry for good books on our Christian faith. Without hesitation, the first one I recommend (after the Bible, of course) is “The Great Divorce” by C.S.Lewis. It’s a small book, just a little over a hundred pages. You can easily read it all in an evening. And you couldn’t spend your time any better, in my opinion. Lewis takes us on a bus ride from hell to heaven and along the way, he explains our faith in words and images we can easily understand. This is good theology for us average folk. We hear the stories of the traveler’s lives and we see ourselves revealed in them. Lewis is one of us, he uses language and references we can understand. And he’s gifted in helping us grasp the great truths of our Christian faith in his “little” stories like this one.

“The Great Divorce” opens in a sad, dark city called “the grey town.” Our narrator encounters others who are there with him and he learns their stories as they travel together on a bus to — who knows where. As they travel, we come to understand more about what heaven is and what hell is. We learn the part that our own choices in life play on our journey to our final home. Much of the despairing imagery of the grey town comes from Lewis’ own experience of wartime London, as the book was published in 1945. I don’t want to give away too much of this story, because I hope you’ll want to experience it for yourself. If you’re like me, you’ll never think of heaven or hell in quite the same way again.

And here’s the thing: all of us are on that journey to our real life in eternity. We are all undergoing a spiritual transformation, as Lewis says: We are becoming either “immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.” That image stops me in my tracks. Created in God’s own likeness, I believe that I’m destined to live forever—the question is, where will that be? We are all given choices to make and these choices (or refusals to choose) shape our souls. When we choose Christ, He makes His home in us (Ephesians 3:16-17). When we deny Christ, we take a different path. But we are in the unfolding process of “becoming.” Lewis says, “There are no ordinary people—only those on their way to becoming devils or glorified creatures like the angels.” Of course, he doesn’t mean that we actually become either devils or angels. We are always human, but oh, the variety of light and dark, of virtue and of sin that we contain.

Our journey has two eventual destinations. Through Christ, we become more heavenly, more in harmony with God, our fellow humans, and ourselves. Or we choose another path and become more hellish—at war with God, our fellow humans, and ourselves. These “becomings” are at the heart of the story Lewis shares in “The Great Divorce.” In our glimpses into the lives of the characters, we’re also confronted with our ideas of both heaven and hell and what they might be like. Lewis’ vision doesn’t include harps and clouds, or lakes of fire. Heaven is a place of infinite realty, where all the beauty we have ever known is a pale imitation of God’s home for us. The closer we get to heaven, the more intense the beauty is and the more there is to experience ahead of us. Each moment is ecstasy. For those who choose a different path, reality becomes smaller, darker, duller, and more self-absorbed. It’s the saddest, most lifeless of realities you could imagine. Lewis is a master storyteller.

Our souls are being formed at every moment, and with every breath. You and I are, at this very instant, becoming either more heavenly or more hellish. We are becoming more and more like Jesus or we are walking down another path. Our ultimate destination isn’t something forced upon us, but is a place and a process we actively choose and embrace. Read this little book. Make your choice.

“While others plan your funeral, decide on a casket, a burial plot, and who the pallbearers shall be, you will be more alive than you’ve ever been.”
—-Erwin Lutzer

A Seed Planted

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I see her standing there almost every week. She’s alone except for her little brown dog, on the same corner each time, across the street from the hospital. When I turn next to where she stands, she looks at me. Not with a glance, but with a solid, almost searching look, like she really sees me and not just another driver in what must be hundreds of cars that pass her by. At first, that eye contact was a little creepy. I thought, surely she can’t look so hard at every driver—so why me? But now, after many months of seeing here there, alone and persistent, I seek out her eyes as I drive past. We look at one another. I slow down, I smile. She smiles. And then I’m past her, until the next week.

This woman on that corner of that busy sidewalk, across from the hospital, has a ministry. Her part of the Lord’s vineyard is in the full hot sun of summer and the cold, biting winds of winter. He’s called her to be a silent witness to the horrors of abortion, and she’s faithfully answered that call. She holds a simple, homemade sign that reads, “Abortion is Murder: Repent.” And each day that she stands there, she reminds people of the reality of what abortion really is. Not a choice, but a murder of an innocent life. I don’t know her name, but I know what she’s done for me.

She’s convicted me. I can say that I’m “pro-life” but seeing her standing there, week after week, month after month, in all kinds of weather, makes me know—deep in my heart—that I need to do more. When I first saw here there on the corner, that’s what was creepy. It was as if when she looked at me, she could see that I wasn’t doing enough. Her ministry, her witness, is bearing fruit in my heart. And that’s a good thing.

So what does “doing more” really mean? I can refuse to be silent when those around me discuss abortion “rights.” I can be a greater voice in defense of unborn children. Speaking up can be uncomfortable if this means being at odds with your family and friends. But I have to do this. Doing more means actively opposing euthanasia and embryonic stem cell research, too. I can’t be pro-life and at the same time, support actions that cause innocent deaths. Doing more means supporting elected officials who protect and defend human life. I know many Catholics for whom this is not a deciding factor when they go to the polls to vote. For this Catholic, it certainly IS a deciding factor.

Doing more means using social media to support and defend the dignity of human life. What I post on Facebook and tweet on Twitter reflects what’s important to me and mirrors my faith and my belief about the gift of life. What I write here does the same thing. What could be more important than standing up for the defenseless? Maybe I’ll get unfriended by some on Facebook or unfollowed by folks on Twitter—it’s a very small price to pay.

Doing more means praying more and giving more financial support to those agencies and ministries who provide prenatal and delivery care to moms who need it. I can reach out to women and men who have suffered abortion and make them welcome in my parish. I can participate in pro-life work in my diocese including the “Forty Days for Life” events and rosary prayer chains. Doing more, in the end, means being less concerned about what others think and being more committed to the truth of my Church and my Savior. I can be a greater voice for the unborn child and for those whose voices are weak and hard to hear due to age or frailty, imprisonment or fear. The lady on the corner with her homemade sign is doing her part in building the Kingdom of God. Is God calling me to stand with her? I don’t know yet. Maybe. Maybe not. But she’s done her part by planting that seed. I trust in the Holy Spirit to help it grow in me and I pray for the courage to do HIs will.

“Evil is powerless if the good are unafraid.”
—–Ronald Reagan

Catholics and The Bible

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“Catholics don’t believe in the Bible.” This is something I’ve heard many times from Protestants. It’s true that we don’t carry our Bibles with us when we go to Mass. That’s because the Bible is already there waiting for us. Scripture is proclaimed aloud to us at each Mass. We hear an Old Testament reading, a Psalm, a selection from the New Testament letters and a Gospel passage. So though we don’t carry our Bibles into the Church, we hear it read at every Mass. And we listen to the beauty of Holy Scripture as it is read. “So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ”(Romans 10:17). In our 3-year cycle of readings, we hear a large percentage of the Bible at Mass, not counting our parish Scripture Studies and the reading we do at home.

At each Mass, the Liturgy of the Word is very important. We gather together as a family of God and then we hear the Word of God. After the Gospel reading, the pastor or deacon preaches to us. Most of the time he preaches on the theme of that day’s Scripture readings. Unlike most Protestant preaching though, the sermon we hear isn’t the focus of our worship. The Holy Eucharist, the very real and literal presence of Jesus Christ, is the source and summit of our faith and is the reason we come together for the Mass.

Where does the Eucharist come from? The Bible (Matthew 26; Mark 14; Luke 22; and John 13). Since the earliest days of Christianity, believers gathered to worship and listen to the Gospel stories before sharing in the Eucharist. The Mass existed for more than 400 years before the Bible did. At the Council of Hippo in 397 AD, the books of the Bible as we know it were fairly well-set. This Council, like the Church Councils before it and after it, were made up of the Pope and the Bishops of the Catholic Church. We reverence the Bible as God’s holy word and we look to His word for our teachings on the Pope, the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Saints, the Mass and the Sacraments including Baptism, Confession, and the Eucharist.

But one thing we don’t share with our Protestant brothers and sisters is a belief that the Bible alone is the source of our knowledge of God and of HIs plan for our lives. For one thing, nowhere in the Bible does it say that Scripture alone is the foundation of our faith. Remember that our faith was born many centuries before the Bible existed. Christ did not leave us Scripture, and never commanded anything to be written down. Rather, He left us a Church (Matthew 16:18). St. Paul writes that the Church is “the pillar and foundation of the truth (I Timothy 3:15). He couldn’t have said that the Bible is that pillar and foundation—because when he wrote his letter to Timothy, the New Testament didn’t exist. Moreover, St. Paul knew the Truth: that the Church is the treasury of all of Christianity and from it, was born the Bible. God’s unfolding plan for our salvation through Jesus Christ was that His Church be the instrument through which His word would be revealed to us. Catholics look to the teaching authority of this Church regarding the interpretation and understanding of the Bible. Our Old Testament also differs from the OT used by Protestant churches. Ours has seven books not included in the King James Version of the bible. This is because the Catholic Church adopted the Greek version of the OT used by most Jews at the time of Christ. Martin Luther wanted to remove any evidence of purgatory taught in the OT, so he deleted those same seven books in the Bibles using during the development of protestantism, including the King James Version.

So yes, Catholics uphold the Bible as the sacred revealed word of God to His people. We love it because it tells the story of His great love for us and His plan for our salvation through His son, Jesus Christ. We reverence sacred scripture in each Mass and we stand in respect whenever the Gospel is proclaimed. Scripture informs our worship, inspires our hymns, and illuminates our prayers. Going to Mass is taking a beautiful journey through the Bible. We share the Eucharist, given to us by Jesus at the Last Supper when He said, “This is My Body…this is My Blood” (Matthew 26). When our Savior tells us something in Scripture, we believe Him. The Bible tells us Who the Eucharist is—not a symbol, not a remembrance—but a Person, Jesus the Christ. Our faith is founded on His Sacred Word.

And the Word was made flesh, and made His dwelling among us….”
—John 1:14

I Want A Requiem Mass

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The late Joan Rivers had written in one of her books that she wanted a splashy “Hollywood” funeral when she died. Although it seems that her actual services may have been much more low-key, lots of celebrities were in attendance for them. I hope that pleased her. Like Joan, I have some pretty firm ideas of the kind of funeral I’d like to have and it’s very far from her Hollywood vision. I hope my family is reading this.

I want a Requiem Mass. This is the traditional Catholic Mass for the dead. It’s not a “celebration of life” service into which many funerals (sadly, even Catholic ones) have devolved. In a Requiem Mass, I am not eulogized or praised—I am prayed for. The focus is not on warm, fuzzy memories of days gone by, but on storming the gates of heaven with prayers for my immortal soul. There are no video montages, no funny stories, no heartwarming remembrances. This is a Mass for a sinner in need of the mercy of God. That would be me.

Yes, I do hope and pray to die in a state of grace, close to God in every way. For me as a Catholic, this means clinging to Jesus in the Sacraments of His Church, especially Holy Communion and frequent sacramental Confession. I pray that, before my death, I’m able to receive the Anointing of the Sick, which we sometimes call “the last rites.” In this Sacrament, the priest will anoint me with blessed oils and will pray for my soul and my body. He will hear my last confession and give me absolution of my sins. He will share with me the Body and Blood of my Savior in the Holy Eucharist. He will encourage me to go with faith to the house of my Father (Luke 15:18) like the prodigal child that I am. And, please God, He will welcome me into His presence.

A Requiem Mass is my Church’s liturgy for a baptized Catholic following their death. My body, anointed in the last rites will be in my casket which will be placed near the altar of my parish church. This liturgy is, first and foremost, a Mass. It is NOT a time to praise me. It is the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. The prayers of this Mass will be offered for the benefit of my soul. The Dies Irae (Day of Wrath) will be sung, which is a beautiful prayer pleading for God’s mercy and forgiveness of my sins. It should be in every funeral Mass. Sadly, many Catholics have lost the sense of praying for the souls of the departed. We prefer to think of everyone heading straight to heaven. But we must not do this, if we love them. We must pray. Other prayers in the Mass will ask that God limit my punishment in purgatory.

Catholics believe that when we sin we can be forgiven by God in the sacrament of confession, but even then we will continue to be wounded by the effects of our sins. Think of sin as a nail driven into a piece of wood. Confession and absolution remove the sin (the nail) but the hole it leaves is still there. That hole is healed by our suffering, either in this life or in purgatory. That’s why we continue to pray for our loved ones after they’ve died. And that’s a wonderful reason for a Requiem Mass. I need those prayers, for sure.

A Catholic funeral is for the soul of the deceased person. We don’t automatically believe that the person who has died is already in heaven. Our prayers for them are for that end. Our hymns at the funeral are for that end. I I pray that my Requiem Mass will pull no punches in begging our generous and loving Lord to forgive me and heal me and welcome me home. If you want to tell funny stories about me and reminisce about the good times and eulogize me into the wee hours, please do—at my wake, but not at my funeral. As a matter of fact, what I truly want upon my death is a Requiem Mass in Latin with a schola, but I’ll save all that for another day. Just remember this: I need your prayers now AND when I die. I need (and desire) the beautiful Requiem Mass of my holy Catholic faith. Heaven is my goal, not Hollywood. Sorry, Joan.

“May the Angels lead you into paradise, may the Martyrs come to welcome you….”
—-from the Requiem Mass

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