Faith in Bloom

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Springtime gives me hope. Every year as the earth blossoms into new life, I’m filled with gratitude for the beauty of creation. Spring affirms change and growth and renewal. It reminds me in a million different ways that I have been made “a new creation” in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17). So many of the familiar flowers and shrubs in our home landscapes have long traditions as living reminders of our faith. I’m sure most of us have at least a couple of these examples in our gardens, but we might not know their histories.

Probably the most beloved flower of all is the rose. St. Ambrose tells us that the rose grew as the greatest and most beautiful of all the flowers in paradise. It flourished there without thorns until sin entered the world. The rose then grew thorns to remind man of his sins but it retained its beauty and fragrance to remind us of the splendor of heaven. A red rose is the symbol of martyrdom, of giving our life for our faith. A white rose symbolizes purity. Roses are often associated with the Virgin Mary. A rosary is a series of prayers which we present to Our Lady like a garland of these most beautiful flowers.

Most of us know the story of St. Patrick and the shamrock. As a missionary to the pagan people of Ireland, Patrick used the three leaves of the shamrock to illustrate how the three Persons of the Holy Trinity exist as One. Americans often confuse shamrocks with clover, but the shamrock is a lovely green plant that is much larger than the tiny clover and makes an excellent bedding plant.

Holly is a staple of most American home gardens. The waxy green leaves and bright red berries make it a favorite at Christmastime. Legend has it that the holly was used to make Christ’s Crown of Thorns and the bright berries reflect the drops of His Precious Blood which the painful Crown produced. Its evergreen beauty reminds us of the promise of eternal life in Christ and His promise to be with us in our darkest trials. The old poem, “The Holly and the Ivy” contrasts the two plants and their symbolism.

Laurel is another beautiful shrub that comes in many varieties. In ancient times, the winner of a race or other athletic competition was rewarded with a crown made of laurel leaves. It reminds me of having run the race of faith that St. Paul mentions. Laurel symbolizes triumph as well as chastity. Several orders of nuns wear wreaths of laurel on the day they make their final profession of vows and many sisters choose to be laid to rest wearing a laurel crown, as well.

One of my favorite flowers is the columbine. Brilliant blue, it’s a real show-stopper. Another name for columbine is “Our Lady’s Shoes” which comes from a legend about the origin of this flower. After the angel Gabriel had come to Mary at the Annunciation, she left to share this good news with her cousin, Elizabeth. As her feet touched the earth on her journey, columbines sprang up in bloom at each footstep. What a wonderful story! Columbines remind us of the joy that Mary felt knowing the Savior of the world was on His way.

Lilies are hardy perennials that multiply rapidly and bloom their hearts out. They have been seen as symbols of purity and chastity for centuries. You’ll frequently see lilies in paintings of Saints who died as virgins. St. Joseph, the husband of Our Lady, is often depicted holding a lily—both as a symbol of his own chastity and in his role as the protector of Mary’s virginity. The fleur-de-lis is a variety of lily that was adopted by King Clovis of France when he was baptized. This familiar 3-petaled bloom went on to become the symbol of French royalty and of France itself. An early bloomer, the fleur-de-lis is a sweet, fragrant addition to any garden.

So many flowers and shrubs have been linked to events in the life of Jesus, Mary, and the saints. Do a little research for stories about daffodils, bleeding hearts, Passion flowers, and marigolds to find more about your “faith garden,” These are just a few of the many reminders of the love of Christ and the faith of His followers. Plant a corner of your garden with some flowers or shrubs that will pull you closer to our Creator. He made a Garden for us all, once. And the beauty of springtime is a reflection of that first, perfect garden.

The soul cannot thrive in the absence of a garden.”
—–St. Thomas More
(1478 – 1535)

A Good Death

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“A good death.” You hear that said in Catholic families who are facing the loss of someone they love. Non-Catholics usually have no idea what this means. This is because a) most folks could never imagine death or any of its trappings to be “good” and b) many non-Catholics believe that their salvation is assured beyond any doubt. As usual, we Catholics have a rather different understanding of both death and our salvation.

We believe that all our sins are forgiven at our baptism. We are initiated by those waters into the new life of Christ and His Church. We know as well that we will sin after our baptism. Jesus knew this too, which is why He instituted the sacrament of confession. While with His disciples, “[Jesus] breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven, if you retain the sins of any, they are retained ‘ “(John 20:22-23). From the beginning, the Apostles began baptizing and healing and forgiving sins. Confession has been a function of our priests since the very earliest years of the Church. So confession is something God wants us to make use of whenever we commit serious sin. In it, we encounter His mercy and forgiveness. We remain in God’s grace when confession is used regularly. Through it we receive His sanctifying grace which helps us to resist sin.

We confess because Jesus told us to and because He empowered His Apostles and their successors to share His forgiveness with us. Like St. Paul teaches, we know that our salvation is a gift which, through sin, we can abuse and lose. “So if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you do not fall” (I Corinthians 10:12). Our faith must take root and work in our lives or it is a gift that is lost.

So what is a “good death?” For Catholics, we pray and hope to die in the grace of God, sharing His friendship. To that end, we should go to confession whenever we’ve committed serious sin and frequently receive Holy Communion. If we are ill with physical or emotional disease we should receive the Anointing of the Sick which will strengthen us in our journey. If you are undergoing surgery, you should request this anointing. What used to be called “the last rites” includes anointing as well as confession and Holy Communion. If someone in your family is Catholic and is seriously ill, it’s important that these Sacraments be made available to them. Like many Catholics, I wear a medal that requests a priest to be called in case of an emergency. As we say, if I’m in an accident, call a priest first and then call the doctor. My soul needs healing, too.

Dying in the grace of God is a wonderful comfort to the patient and to all those dear to them. We Catholics also believe that our prayers should continue after the death of our loved one. God alone knows the fate of each soul, so it’s an act of charity to pray for the dead. We are all part of the Body of Christ and praying for one another is what families do.

Each of us should consider the state of our soul. Catholics call this “an examination of conscience.” It’s a good habit to acquire because it keeps your heart tender towards your sins. At the end of every day, think back on your actions and thoughts and words. Consider how your sins affect your soul and your relationship with God. We are all going to come face-to-face with The Lord at the end of our lives. Surely we’ll want to meet Him in a state of grace. We want to meet Him with no regrets, having lived a life pleasing to God and poured out in service to one another. Part of running “the race” (II Timothy 4:7) that St. Paul writes about is keeping close to God and allowing His grace to transform us. We live in the joy of Christ, so that when we meet Him, He’ll welcome us into His arms.

“Precious in the sight of The Lord is the death of His Saints.”
—Psalm 116:15

The Gospel of Pinterest

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There are pages and pages of beautiful things there. There are gardens and living rooms, fireplaces and baby cribs. You can see before and after pictures of salvaged furniture and upcycled old pallets and you can learn how to decorate cakes or paint ceilings or braid your hair. It’s full of sports trivia and inspirational quotes and Snoopy cartoons. It has…well…everything. Things you’ve seen before and other things you’ve never imagined. It’s like Disney-meets-Martha Stewart-meets-Wikipedia. It teases you and tempts you and sucks you in. You look at the clock and realize you’ve just spent two hours browsing nail polish hacks. You’ve fallen down the rabbit hole of Pinterest.

Don’t get me wrong. I adore Pinterest. I love learning how to do crafty things. Or maybe I should say I love thinking about doing crafty things. Mostly, I pin cute stuff that I know I’ll never really make, but feel bad if I don’t pin them. Since someday, I might actually want to make hummingbird feeders out of old wine bottles. Or make monogrammed Christmas stockings out of vintage dishtowels. But let’s be honest, I’m never gonna make those stockings or bake that cake or learn to quilt. That doesn’t make me enjoy browsing and pinning any less, though. I know women whose obsession with this website makes them feel bad. They see all those wonderful things and they know they’ll never make them. They feel somehow “less” than all the other women “out there” that they imagine live in perfect crafty houses with their perfect monogrammed families. Not me. First of all, I know those perfect women don’t exist. We’re all a bit of a mess. I don’t feel inferior because my own mess isn’t chalk-painted or upcycled. I just like looking at all the beautiful things Pinterest has to offer me.

And that’s why Pinterest is so incredibly popular. Because, in a small way, it reflects the beauty of God. Yes, I said that. Anything that is good or true or beautiful shows us a glimpse of the Creator, Who is all-good, all-true, and all-beautiful. Deep down, we know this is true. We were made in His image and likeness and when we see beauty, we recognize it like an old friend. It’s why, since our beginning, people have tried to create beauty. Music and art and architecture are some of our attempts to reflect God’s truth and beauty. We hunger for it in every breath and with every beat of our hearts. We may say that we don’t believe in God. We may protest that heaven is just a fairy tale. Yet we gasp at the sign of a Monet painting or a Michelangelo sculpture. Who among us hasn’t become teary-eyed when we stood up at the “Hallelujah Chorus?” Even the most committed unbeliever knows the glory of what is truly beautiful. We feel it resonate from within us. Why? Because we came from Beauty.

And through the mercy of God someday we’ll return to that immensely beautiful home. This Easter season reminds us that in Christ’s Passion and Resurrection, the doors of heaven are made open for us. Every pale beauty of our earthly existence reflects the true beauty of our heavenly home. It is and it will be absolutely incredible. We will be with God and in God and He will be with us and in us. We will be more alive there than we have ever been here on earth.

So embrace the beauty you see around you, every day, in every person. Be grateful for sunsets and sonnets and symphonies. Love those around you who reflect God in their bodies and their spirits. We’re on this journey together and we belong to one another. We come together at the altar of The Lord. And we come together as well in our families, our neighborhoods, our schools and our workplaces. And we come together on Pinterest,too. We’re drawn to the beauty we find there, aching for that greatest Beauty of all.

“The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing…to find the place where all the beauty came from…”
—C.S. Lewis

In The Valley Of Tears

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Like many middle-aged folks, I have a chronic illness. The medications I take to treat it have some really delightful side effects. Between the disease, the doctors and the medicines, some days are a struggle for me. Lots of you reading this know just how I feel. We all suffer. Some of us have physical illnesses, other folks battle emotional wounds, or addiction or any of a hundred other issues. In this world we live in, broken by the sin of our first parents, we struggle and work, we suffer and stumble through this “valley of tears” (Psalm 84).

One of the great joys of the Christian life is that, in Christ, our suffering has meaning. It’s not just worthless pain. On the Cross, Jesus turned the world’s truth upside down and transformed suffering into the ultimate power. In His Passion, we see The Lord humiliated, tortured, abandoned and killed. And yet His death is our great hope, opening the gates of heaven. His love overcomes the grave, once and for all. Jesus made suffering into the source of life and therefore He imbues suffering with value and purpose and meaning. And yet in the middle of our sufferings or illnesses or struggles, the search for purpose and meaning sometimes seems fruitless. How can we watch a loved one suffer and die and say that there is meaning and purpose in their pain? How can the agony of terminal cancer ever be redemptive?

The only way we can do this is by entering into Christ’s Passion. From the earliest years of the Church, the saints have proclaimed this truth. The suffering Creator giving His life for His children is the only way to make sense of our own pain, and the only way that our pain can redeem. “Rejoice that you are partakers in the sufferings of Christ”(St. Clement of Alexandria, 150-215AD). “…as God suffered for our sakes, so should we suffer…”(St. John Chrysostom, 347-407AD). Without redemptive suffering, by which we are united to Jesus’ suffering, all our pains and struggles make no sense. This kind of suffering is self-centered and pointless. Uniting our pain with Christ and His Cross is the only way out of self-pitying agony. The Cross is always our only hope.

We know that God could have saved us from sin in any way that He willed. He could have just waved a hand and it would have been done. Yet the way that He chose was the Crucifixion of His only Son on a Cross. In this way, our Lord revealed something very important: suffering and death have meaning. They are connected to our salvation. And if they have meaning for God, they have meaning for you and me, too. Pain and illness are not just random and horrible effects of original sin. Not since the Cross of Christ. That ultimate act of selfless suffering and death not only conquered the grave for our eternal souls, but it transformed suffering and pain for our physical bodies. Through Jesus, through His suffering, we can understand and value our own pain. The most important lesson that our pain can impart to us is the lesson of humility. Suffering is never an end in itself or a goal in itself. Suffering points the way to the Cross and to the total self-giving love that kept Christ nailed there. When we suffer in union with Him, in humility, when we offer our weaknesses to Him, in thanksgiving, we say, “Lord, I’m not doing this very well. I’m impatient and self-centered. But please use this pain in whatever way You will to increase my faith and trust in You.” Our broken hearts and broken bodies are a way to holiness, if we offer them up to our Savior. When I accept that I can’t fix my own pain, I can let The Lord heal my self-importance.

Understanding suffering from the foot of the Cross is the only way I can get through the bad days of my illness and treatments. Hurting makes me call on my Savior. It takes me out of my own self-centeredness and allows me to give it all, again, to Him It reminds me that, although He didn’t have to suffer and die, He did. For me and for you. My small sufferings are the tiniest echo of that great act of love and sacrifice. And for this, for Him, I give thanks to God.

“He gave our pain and struggles a holy significance, a redemptive power, which makes it a privilege to suffer with Christ.”
—-Dr. Scott Hahn

Another Country, Not My Own

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Because he would not permit same-sex marriages in his diocese, the Bishop was put into prison. The court appointed a secular committee to oversee the running of the diocese in his absence. They closed many parishes and schools and rewrote the Liturgy to “make it more inclusive and progressive.” When the Bishop later died in prison, his successor rallied his flock to return the diocese to Church guidance. This was met with protests and street demonstrations led by violent anti-Catholic groups. Three weeks into his leadership, the new Bishop was beaten to death as he tried to talk with a group of protestors outside a church. His death was the first of many, until churches and cathedrals only existed in the dreams and memories of a handful of the faithful. They met together in secret and taught the Gospel and the Catechism to their children. In three lifetimes, the Church once again emerged from the shadows and helped their country begin to find its way. It was a time when many saints were made by God to save the faith.

This hasn’t happened in America. Yet. But it may not be too far into our future. I based this little vision on something Francis Cardinal George of Chicago said in 2010. In an interview, he said: “I expect to die in my bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square. His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the Church has done so often in human history.” The Cardinal may not have been speaking as a prophet, but it’s prudent that we pay heed to his words and consider what they might mean for our Church and our country.

Francis Cardinal George has seen the Catholic Church in America for the last seven decades. Born in 1937, he contracted polio at age 13. He was ordained in 1963 and has served the Church as priest, Bishop, and Cardinal since then. In 2006 he was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer for which he received treatment. His resignation from Church office was accepted last year. Since then Cardinal George has lived quietly at his residence while receiving medical care. In the span of his one lifetime, the Cardinal has witnessed the Catholic Church in America go from being a highly-respected provider of education, health services and spiritual guidance with an abundance of priests serving growing parishes to…something else. Parish numbers and active priests have decreased, especially in northern states. The sex-abuse crisis has damaged the trust of many people. The secular press seems to make every effort to attack the Church. We see restrictions and impositions from the government regarding the free practice of our faith under the Affordable Health Care Act. Colleges and universities regularly restrict the activities of Christians on their campuses. Slowly but inexorably it’s becoming harder and harder to live our faith in the public arena. When you think about it, Cardinal George may be a prophet after all.

Today’s news comes from San Francisco, where many are up in arms about the Archbishop. His Excellency Salvatore Cordileone wants teachers in his Catholic schools to adhere to Catholic teaching. This means teaching what the Church has taught for centuries. Marriage is ordained by God as between one man and one woman. Abortion is a grave sin. Human life is sacred. Protestors want him removed due to his “outdated” beliefs. This Archbishop is standing his ground, but legal challenges are yet to be decided. Once again, the courts may intrude on the free practice of religion in America.

It’s no exaggeration to say that the Catholic Church in our country and elsewhere is under attack. But then the Church has always been under attack. The Roman Empire put Christians to death—and the Roman Empire fell. Catholics have been imprisoned and martyred for their faith for centuries. And yet the Church remains. We remain because of what Jesus promised to the Church He founded on St. Peter: “…the gates of hell shall not prevail against it”(Matthew 16:18). Christ is with us. Christ goes before us. The Church is His spotless and holy Bride. But the times we live in demand us to be watchful, faithful and prayerful. And kind. Many who attack the faith have never felt the charity of the faithful. We also have to vote in support of those who will respect freedom of religion. Know your faith. Love your faith. And put on the armor of God.

“Therefore put on the full armor of God so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground…”
—Philippians 6:13

Our Treasure

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Recently I attended the funeral of an old friend at a parish in an adjacent state. Another friend, a non-Catholic, went with me. On the drive to the funeral Mass, I talked with her about Communion and let her know that only Catholics may receive the Holy Eucharist at Mass. She didn’t ask me any questions, but only nodded. During Mass, she stood and kneeled with the rest of us. The priest informed the mourners that only Catholics could receive the Eucharist, but that all were welcome to come forward to receive a blessing. My friend chose to stay in our pew when I walked up for Holy Communion. On the trip home, she was quiet and thoughtful. She talked a little about how different Mass was from the services at her church. Finally, as she was getting out of my car, she turned back and said, “You have a treasure in that Catholic Eucharist.”

Yes, we do. A Treasure, indeed. And yet some Catholics don’t embrace or adore our Savior present in the Holy Eucharist. We see it in the life of our parishes, when we fail to teach our children of the beauty and holiness of the Blessed Sacrament. When we enter the presence of God without reverence, or when we talk and laugh in our pews before Mass begins, we fail to honor Him. If we receive communion in a state of sin, we not only dishonor Jesus, we compound our sinfulness. The line for Communion is long, but all too often the line for Confession is very short. We hear of even worse disrespect by some careless or thoughtless priests who fail in their vocation to reveal the truth of the Holy Eucharist to their flocks. Many of us in the pews can become tepid in our faith, too. We can forget that we are at Calvary whenever we go to Mass. It can slip our minds that when we kneel before the Eucharist, we are kneeling before the Lamb of God, Emmanuel, the Creator, the Alpha and Omega—the Savior of the world. Sometimes it takes the words of an outsider to remind us of our Treasure.

There was a 2010 Pew Research Survey which revealed that only about 45% of Catholics in America believe that the Eucharist is truly the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ. More than half of us don’t realize Who we receive in Holy Communion. St. Ignatius of Antioch (35 – 107AD) wrote that “without the Eucharist there is no Church.” If there is a wound at the heart of Catholicism it is this unbelief in the Holy Eucharist. It reveals itself in the number of Catholics who don’t come to Mass, in the parishes and schools that are being closed and in a hundred other heartbreaking ways. But the most damaging and painful wound is how much our unbelief must hurt our Lord. This Treasure of Himself that He gave to his Church sometimes isn’t being treasured. You see, the truth of Who the Eucharist really is doesn’t depend on our belief. Whether or not we believe that Jesus is really and truly present in the Holy Eucharist—He is. We know this is true because He told us so Himself. St. Paul taught us this. From St. Peter to Pope Francis, the Catholic Church has always affirmed this belief. Our Catechism puts it simply: “The Eucharist is the Source and Summit of the Christian life”(para. 1324). Source and Summit. Where we come from and to Whom we aspire. Alpha and Omega.

I heard a priest once say that if the Church was handing out hundred dollar bills at every Mass, the line to come in would be miles long out the door. And yet at every Mass, we are given a Treasure beyond all the money and gold in the world—and yet people don’t come, or if they do come, many may not know Who is waiting for them. Some choose other churches because “Mass is boring.” As if an intimate encounter with Jesus Christ could be boring. My friend realized that truth at the funeral Mass we attended together. She realized Who the Eucharist is. As Catholics, we need to pray that The Lord awakens this believe in all of us and opens our eyes and our hearts to this Treasure of our faith. He is our Source and our Summit.

“A Christian life whose weekly high point is essentially a concert followed by a lecture (even a very good lecture) is not going to have the kind of otherworldly power as one where you get to eat and drink God. It just can’t hold a candle.”
—Fr. Andrew Damick

The Soldier’s Faith

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In my parish church we have beautiful plaques depicting the Stations of the Cross. These stations tell the visual story of Christ’s last hours. Traditionally, the 14 stations start with his arrest in Gethsemane and end when His Body is placed in the tomb. In our stations, there is the figure of a Roman soldier who follows Christ’s journey along the way. And, at the crucifixion, the artist gives the soldier a halo as he gazes on the suffering Christ. It’s at that moment when the soldier is transformed from a pagan employee of the Empire into a new believer in Jesus Christ. In Catholic tradition, the soldier’s name is Longinus and he is the centurion who thrust his lance into Christ’s side after His death. It was St. Longinus who then proclaimed, “In truth, this man was the Son of God” (Matthew 27:54).

Often when I’m sitting in “my” pew at church, my eyes follow this centurion as he helps guard Christ through His trial and condemnation, and then as He carries His cross to the hill at Golgotha. Each station shows this soldier carefully observing Christ. His eyes never leave Him. Jesus is tortured and beaten. He falls down again and again under the weight of the cross. Jesus is dirty, bleeding and exhausted. The centurion looks regal and important in his spotless Imperial uniform. The two men couldn’t look more different. And yet the centurion is transfixed by this beaten man. He walks with Jesus, seeing Him struggle to bear the weight of the cross in His weakened state. Jesus meets His mother and Longinus watches. Our Lord’s face is wiped of sweat and blood by St. Veronica, and Longinus watches. He sees Jesus stripped of His garments and stands looking when He is nailed to the cross. Surely Longinus must know why this Nazarene is being put to death by Rome. He’s heard the stories. He knows a bit about the Jews and their laws about blasphemy. And he’s witnessed dozens of other crucifixions. Oh yes. His superiors make good use of the cross. And yet, there’s something different about this one. This Jesus. Longinus can’t take His eyes from Him. It’s as though the Person of Jesus Christ is revealed to Longinus in His faithful suffering and tender self-sacrifice.

I pray to be more like St. Longinus. I don’t always keep my eyes fixed on Jesus. I stumble and I fall. I let myself be distracted by the things of the world. Unlike my savior, I care about what others think of me. I want to be admired and respected. I’m prideful and full of conceit. I try to do everything myself. When St. Longinus witnessed Jesus’ death on the cross, his heart was filled with faith and he allowed the Holy Spirit to open his eyes. “In truth this man was the Son of God.” Am I willing to be such a fearless proclaimer of Christ crucified?

During Lent, we journey with Chris as He moves through His Passion and death towards the resurrection of Easter morning. Like St. Longinus, we’re called to participate in Jesus’ suffering. We meditate on the Stations of the Cross. We imagine ourselves being there, seeing Jesus, seeing His pain and suffering. And knowing that He’s doing all of this for me and for you. Every drop of His Precious Blood is given out of love, to save us. His very life, poured out in love.

St. Longinus allowed God to enter His heart and reveal the truth of Jesus to him. Tradition tells us that Longinus left military service, became a monk, and was ultimately killed for his faith in Christ. I pray that God will fill my heart with that depth of love for His Son. I pray that my eyes too will always be fixed on Christ. And that, like St. Longinus, I will always fearlessly proclaim Christ crucified and give my life over to Him, every day, every hour, every moment. May all of us experience the sweet love of our Lord on our journey through Lent. Amen.

“I do not pray for success; I ask for faithfulness.”
—-Blessed Mother Teresa

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