Her Beautiful Hands

  
The first time I met her I was sick with a fever. We’d been traveling for days and I was dragging. She welcomed me into her home and nursed me back to health. Now, whenever I see her, she feels my forehead with her well-worn hands and says, “There now, no fever today,” as she smiles up at me. At five-foot-nothing, she has to look up to most everyone. Small and wiry, Gran is a bundle of energy, even now in her late eighties. And she gives that energy away, to everyone she meets.  

She lives in a stone cottage with a thatched roof that was built by her great-great-grandfather. Until 1965, it didn’t have electricity. Gran still likes to make tea and soda bread on the turf fire, although she has a modern kitchen. All 6 of her children were born in this house, just like Gran was. Her husband died here almost 30 years ago. Gran has some chickens and a milk cow, but the rest of her farm is rented out for cattle and silage. She has flowers on every windowsill and patch of ground and a few tomatoes and cucumbers growing in a tiny greenhouse. There are probably a thousand other cottages like hers in this corner of Ireland, but not one of them is more full of life and love than Gran’s house.  

I asked her once what kept her going, especially after her husband’s death, all these years ago. We were shelling peas in the sunshine behind the kitchen. Her hands flew down each pod as the peas dropped into the pan on her lap. She smiled down at her work and, not missing a beat, answered,”Because my life doesn’t belong to me. It’s meant to be given away.”  

And for more than 8 decades, that’s what she’s done. As the eldest of 5 children, she helped care for her younger brothers and sisters and worked on their large farm while going to school. When she was 17, she got married, and she and her husband made their home with her parents, caring for them both until their deaths. She helped her neighbors when childbirth came and nursed the sick and the dying. Her hands never stopped. Cooking, cleaning, laundry, milking, and holding babies. Gran’s life is told in her warm, wrinkled hands. As she sits by the fire in the evening, she embroiders altar linens for her parish church. One day several years ago, I was with her when there was a knock at her door. In this heavily-Catholic part of Ireland, two young Mormon men wanted to talk with Gran. She smiled and listened for a few minutes and then she pointed down across the fields to the small village she called home. There soared the spire of her Church. She said, “Look there. I can go there and sit with my Lord. I can receive His Body and Blood at every Holy Communion. Can your church give me more than that?” The young men thanked her and went on their way—with a loaf of her soda bread in their backpack. 

Gran has given me so many things over the years I’ve known her but what I treasure the most is her reminder to work hard at being generous and kind. Give your time to help others and listen twice as much as you talk. And a little whiskey at bedtime is a blessing. 

As I’m writing this, Gran is watching the evening news on her new flat-screen television. The lead story is about the terror attack in Nice. I notice that her eyes are nearly closed and her hands are busy in her lap, praying her Rosary. Probably for France, but also for her large family, now spread out over 4 continents. Those hands are always busy. Weaving a life lived for others, giving away love every day and never stopping to think of herself. I pray that God will make me more like her and I give thanks to Him for her example of a grateful servant of the Lord. Thank you, Gran. You’re a wonderful gift to everyone who knows you.

“Love does not measure, it just gives.”            —Blessed Mother Teresa

Farming My Soul

  
I grew up on a farm. We raised vegetables to sell and to eat and we had cows and pigs and chickens. The land provided for us, so long as my family provided the work. We had the food and money we needed to buy most everything else. My parents worked very hard for us and spent a lot of time planning for next year. Farmers do that. They live in the future: the next harvest, next year, the weather tomorrow and next week. I grew up learning about fertilizer and soil conversation and what made cows sick. I watched my dad repair broken tractors and hay balers. We’d get up at night to help birth a litter of piglets or a baby calf. I knew better than to make pets of any of them because in a few months they’d be on our dinner table, or sold to pay bills. The land was everything to us. We completely depended on it for our lives. As the writer Dr. Ferrol Sams said, “In the beginning was the land.” The Georgia soil and rains never failed us. As I learned a little history and my worldview widened, I realized how blessed we were. We didn’t have devastating droughts or hurricanes to deal with. Locusts and disease passed us by. We were never brought low by price collapses or natural disasters. We depended on our farm and it met all our needs. It never failed.  

We go through our lives looking for what we can depend on like my family depended on our farm. But we’re frequently disappointed in the things we find in this world. Relationships fall apart; we lose a job; our health fails. Even when we work hard and do all the “right” things, sometimes nothing seems to work out. It’s what we choose to do in those broken moments of our lives that reveals who we really are. Do we become bitter and blame others for our failings? Do we shake our fists at the sky, shouting at God? Do we turn to something like alcohol or pills to take away our pain? Or maybe we just give up, withdraw into ourselves and avoid giving our hearts away to anyone else or to any new pursuit or purpose. A spirit that is crushed by the world is a sad and hollow life. It becomes like barren earth that has been made lifeless through over use and lack of care and proper stewardship. Weeds have been allowed to creep in and deplete all the nutrients. Such a life bears little fruit. And a life like this rarely draws others into it.  

Jesus often used images of farming and shepherding to describe the Christian life. He talks about pruning and being pruned, about tending the flock and feeding the sheep and heeding the voice of the Shepherd. Anyone has farmed the land or tended stock knows how important humility is. You’re not really in control of very much on a farm. You’re at the mercy of the weather and wind, of plague and flood. You can’t will a crop into existence or demand the birth of a healthy animal. You do your best and live in hope. In that way, you are the co-creator of your crops and your flocks. It makes you appreciate the goodness of the earth and the bounty of her fields. When bad years come, and they inevitably will, you regroup and look with hope to next year’s harvest. You learn not to give up, but to trust and to keep trying. You help out your neighbor when he needs it and you count on him to help you out when times are rough.  

I think back often on those years on our farm. The older I get, the more I value the lessons of living life close to the earth. We were poor, but we never lacked anything important. I witnessed the value of hard work and the rewards that come from it: a fresh tomato, a squirming pink piglet, the smell of fresh hay in the field and the long, slow evening spent reliving the day’s events. The rhythm of the farm is a lot like the rhythm of our spiritual walk. Times of harvest, followed by times of drought; planting seeds in the hope of bounty and quiet times of reflection and rest. It’s no wonder to me that the image of a perfect relationship with God is revealed to us as a beautiful Garden.  

My farm is not where I must soil

My hands in endless, dreary toil.  

But where, through seed and swelling pod

I’ve learned to walk and talk with God.” 

  —from a Novena to St. Isidore

      the patron Saint of farmers 

Do You Pray For Those Who Have Died? 

 

I’ve been thinking a lot about death lately. It seems almost everyone I know has lost a beloved friend or family member in the last few months. So many others are battling cancer or some other serious illness. The specter of death lingers in our shared emails and in our phone conversations. We keep each other updated and share our fears and our hopes. And we pray. We pray for healing and comfort. We pray that the doctors will be guided by the Great Physician and make our friends whole and healthy again. Mostly, we pray for God’s will to be done, for we know that this is the prayer that never fails. And when a loved one dies, our prayers for them continue on. As a Catholic, I believe in praying for the dead because I believe in purgatory.

Souls in hell can’t benefit from our prayers and the souls in heaven can’t draw any closer to Him. But those Christians who have died and still have an attachment to sin must be purified before entering into His presence. The late Archbishop Fulton Sheen described it this way. Imagine that you have hammered a nail into a piece of wood. The nail is your sin and the wood is your soul. Once you repent of this sin, God removes the nail but the hole remains. Your penance and prayers, through the mercy and redemption of Christ, fill in this hole with His grace. So, if you die with some holes still there, you need to “get things right” before embracing Him fully. If prayers can benefit our loved ones in this life, it seems reasonable that our prayers would benefit those being prepared for heaven in purgatory. Praying for the dead is a very ancient practice which is part of the Jewish faith. Even today Jews pray the “kaddish” prayers offered for the purification of deceased persons. Jesus never taught us to stop this holy practice, though He certainly taught us to stop other Jewish rituals which He knew were vain or useless. The purification that happens in purgatory is purely a work of God’s grace and we see it as a part of the ongoing sanctifiction of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross. We read the truth of this in the New Testament in several passages: Hebrews 12:1; Revelation 21:27; I Corinthians 3:13-15; I Thessalonians 5:23; and Hebrews 12:1-2. The early Church encouraged the faithful to pray for the souls of the departed. We see this in the writings of Abercius, Perpetua, Cyril of Jerusalem; Epiphanius of Salamis, John Chrysostom and Augustine. Since all these were writing between AD 160 and AD 421, prayers for the souls in purgatory were a holy practice from the earliest years of Christianity. 

Praying for the dead is a way of affirming that their life goes on, that death isn’t the end but a journey into eternal life. Praying for the dead witnesses our communion and solidarity as members of the Body of Christ. We continue to gently hold onto one another even after death through our faith and by our prayers. Praying for the dead is both a human and Christian way of saying: we have not forgotten you, we will never forget you. Our prayers remind us that we are all made one family through Christ. Back before I joined the Catholic Church, it seemed odd and rather sad to me that my fervent prayers for my loved one were supposed to cease at the moment they took their last breath. Did my love for them stop at the moment of their death? Of course not. And as Christians, we know that life is eternal. Love has conquered death and praying for those we love after they die is one of the great gifts of the Christian life. One of the most beautiful of all Catholic prayers is one we pray at a funeral Mass which, by the way, is called “The Mass of the Lord’s Resurrection.” We pray for the deceased person: “May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Eternal rest give unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May they rest in peace. Amen.” What beautiful words of love to lay at the Lord’s feet as an offering on behalf of anyone we’ve loved and who has passed on to eternal life.

“Eternal Father, I offer Thee the Most Precious Blood Of Thy Divine Son, Jesus, in union with the Masses said throughout the world today, for all the holy souls in Purgatory, for sinners everywhere, for sinners in the Universal Church, those in my own home and within my own family. Amen.” 

–the prayer of St. Gertrude the Great (1256-1301)

Violent Sins 

  
George was born less than 4 months before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. The America of his birth was a traditional one whose family values were strong. His dad was a doctor and his parents raised him in a religious and politically-conservative Midwestern home. He lacked neither for love nor for material possessions. Growing up in the ’50’s, he was a child of the Eisenhower era, of the Cold War, of doing the right thing. It was all God and country at George’s house and he was a straight arrow. A good student, he graduated from high school in 1959 and went on to the state university the next year where he majored in zoology. In 1963, he entered medical school, following in his father’s footsteps and becoming a doctor. After earning his degree, George served in the U.S. Navy for 3 years, completing a medical internship. George’s life was going just according to plan. That is, until 1970.

On a vacation trip to Yellowstone National Park, the small plane carrying his parents, his sister and his brother-in-law crashed. Everyone on board was killed. In a single afternoon, George lost every member of his immediate family. Except for one. His baby nephew had been left behind with relatives. And so George, being alone now, adopted this little orphaned child and made him his son. A few years later, George married and he and his wife added three more children to their family. His medical practice thrived and after decades of hard work, he was a wealthy man. Respected in his community, George was active in his church and local political life. He enjoyed golf, gardening, and Star Trek, often quoting lines from the television show to family and friends. He was known as a happy person, with a big, boisterous and heartfelt laugh. For George and his family, life was good. He had achieved the American dream.

On Sunday, May 10, 2009, George was at church with his wife, Jeanne. As she sang in the choir, George was ushering people to their seats. While he was standing near the church doors, a man came in carrying a gun. He shot George once in the head at point-blank range, then calmly walked outside, got in his car, and drove away. George Tiller, M.D. was one of the few doctors in this country who performed late-term abortions. In fact, George’s entire medical practice and wealth were built on the abortion trade. By his own count, he had performed more than 60,000 abortions in his career. Many of them involved babies that were from 6 to 9 months in gestation: babies who probably could have survived on their own had he not killed them using the most violent and painful ways you can imagine while they were still in their mother’s womb. George Tiller did his part to support the legalized sin of abortion in this country in which 1.3 million babies are killed each year. According to the Centers for Disease Control, only 6.1% of these abortions are for medical reasons. Many experts think that even 6% is an over-estimate. The rest are killed for reasons of convenience. Dr. Tiller believed that every woman has the right to abort her child even up to and including the moments just before the baby’s natural birth. His career and his outspoken support for abortion had made him a target for some militant anti-abortion groups. His murderer probably knew that George wore a bulletproof vest each day under his clothes and so chose to shoot Dr. Tiller in the head. On Mother’s Day. In church. As Catholic Christians, we believe that abortion is murder. Every life is created by God for His purpose. Each human soul reflects the divinity of his Creator and Savior. Just as did George Tiller’s soul. And so now, one of America’s most prolific abortionists is gone. We may think we know what Dr. Tiller deserves. But would any one of us want to receive from God what we truly deserve? No. We hope in God’s mercy as we stand before Him at the end of our lives. We pray for that same mercy for Dr. Tiller. May his soul rest in the peace of Christ, surrounded by at least 60,000 souls he sent there. And may we end abortion through a change in our hearts and our laws. Amen.

“Any country that accepts abortion is not teaching its people to love, but to use any violence to get what it wants.”

—Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta 

Oh, Mary….

  
Mary is the Mother of God.

Why would such a simple statement cause some Christians apprehension? The title “Mother of God” has been applied to Mary since the earliest days of the Church. “The Virgin Mary, being obedient to His word, received from an angel the glad tidings that she would bear God.” (St. Irenaeus, 189 A.D.) All of Christ’s followers believe that Mary gave birth to Jesus Christ and that Jesus Christ is God. It would follow logically that Mary is the Mother of God. Sacred Scripture affirms that Mary is the Mother of God when her relative Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit proclaimed: “And why is it granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Luke 1:43)

Being the Mother of God does not mean that Mary is somehow “older” than God, or that she created God, or originated Christ’s divinity, or that she is herself, divine. Mary is a person made by God whose faith in Him allowed the Incarnation of our Savior. The Council of Ephesus was held by the Church in 431 A.D. and one of the outcomes of this Council was to declare the doctrine of Mary as the Mother of God. In Greek, the title is “Theotokos” or “God-bearer.” At the time, there were some in the Church who were teaching that Mary gave birth to Christ, but not God. Taught by Nestor, the bishop of Constantinople, this heresy held that Christ was a human person who was joined to the Second Person of the Trinity. Nestor believed that the human Jesus died on the Cross, but not the divine Jesus. These teaching were found to be heresy because they deny both the Incarnation and our redemption through Christ’s death and resurrection.

The truth is that Mary said “yes” to the Lord and gave birth to a person, Jesus Christ, not a nature. Women give birth to babies, not natures; to people, not bodies. Christ is fully God and fully man in a mystery of faith that we can’t comprehend with our limited understanding. The Gospel tells us that the Word did not unite with man, but was made man. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). But Mary wasn’t merely a human incubator. She was called by God to be His Mother in every sense of the word. She nursed Him, cared for Him, comforted Him and raised Him up in a Godly home.

So, if Mary is the mother of Jesus and Jesus is truly God, then Mary is the Mother of God. Calling Mary “the mother of Jesus” but denying her the title of “Mother of God” diminishes Jesus, for it denies that He is truly and fully God. Furthermore, if we believe, as Scripture tells us, that Christ is our Brother, then Mary is our Mother, too.

Some might say that “paying all this attention to Mary distracts us from God.” Mary is the loveliest of God’s creatures, the one He handpicked to bring Salvation into the world. How can any of His creation distract us from the Creator? A beautiful sunset, a waterfall, a fragrant forest — doesn’t creation bring us closer to God? In honoring Mary, God’s masterpiece, we praise the Master, the Divine Artist. Others might say that “I don’t need Mary if I have Jesus.” Why not say “I don’t need the rest of my family if I have my father?” The Church is a single body; the different members inter-relate and rely on one another. “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!’ ” (I Col. 12:21) Jesus is our Savior and Redeemer, the Alpha and the Omega. His loving Mother, Mary, became our Mother as she watched her Son die on the Cross. He gave her to us at that moment, as a gift of His love. (John 19:26-27) Embracing Mary as the Mother of God, as our Mother, draws us ever closer to the Savior.

“The knot of Eve’s disobedience was untied by Mary’s obedience: what the virgin Eve bound through her disbelief, Mary loosened by her faith.” (St. Irenaeus, 189 A.D.)

St. Peter & Forgiveness 

  
He’d always been the kind of guy who’d done the right thing. His dad had seen to that. He’d been raised in a strict home, and a religious one. But instead of finding his parent’s morality and church-going ways restrictive or irritating, he flourished in them. He and his brother Andrew were both good kids, the kind of sons parents prayed for. He grew into a large man, with a heart to match his frame. Quiet and unassuming most of the time, he was a man of few words, the kind of guy who let his deeds speak for themselves. Both he and Andrew had joined their dad in the family seafood business. It was hard work but it let them all be together, working shoulder to shoulder each day earning an honest living. Before long, he’d earned and saved enough to buy his own boat. And with that financial security in hand, he felt able to marry his childhood sweetheart and begin a family of his own. He and Andrew remained close though and together with another childhood friend, Phillip, they and their families spent lots of time together in their small hometown. They often talked about their faith in God, which was important to all three men. But the church of their childhood wasn’t always completely fulfilling to them anymore. Something was missing. Andrew especially was a seeker. He often sought out others’ opinions on religious matters. He’d found a new preacher he wanted his brother to hear, and one afternoon they both went to listen to him speak. This preacher, John, was an amazing man, full of love for God and so unlike what they were used to hearing in church. It was exciting for them. But it was the preacher’s cousin who would change both their lives forever.

When John’s cousin, Jesus first met Andrew’s brother, Simon, he told him his name would be Peter (John 35:42). The big fisherman from Capernaum was being called by God to become a fisher of men. And on this rock, this Peter, Christ promised to build His Church (Matthew 16:18). Peter’s big heart allowed God’s gift of faith to confess Christ as his Savior before any of the other Apostles (Matthew 16:17). So wholehearted is his commitment that when Christ later asked the Apostles if any of them wanted to leave Him, Peter can only say, “Lord, to whom shall we go?”(John 6:69). In Jesus, Peter found the Messiah, the Lamb of God. And in Peter, Christ found a heart large enough and strong enough to be the foundation of faith for the whole world. But Peter’s heart, like all our hearts, was a wounded one. We don’t know the source of his pain, but we see and hear his hurts lived out in the Gospels.

For some reason, Peter found it difficult to forgive. Someone must have seriously hurt him. His parents? His wife? Her mother, who shared their home? When he asks Jesus, “Lord how often must I forgive my brother if he wrongs me? As often as seven times?” (Matthew 18:18-19). We can hear the hurt in his voice. And haven’t we all felt like Peter felt that day? Wronged by someone we loved and finding it hard to let go of the hurt, we hold onto our anger and resentment until it eats away at us. On some level we can even enjoy the self-righteous feelings of being a victim. Yet, as Christ told Peter, we must always be willing to forgive one another. Forgiveness is a decision we make, a habit that we continually have to practice and strengthen, with God’s help and love. And ultimately, it was this gift of Christ’s love and mercy that transformed Peter from the simple, wounded fisherman into Christ’s first vicar on earth. What Jesus did for St. Peter, He offers to do for you and for me—to lead us out of the darkness of our resentments and anger into the sweet freedom found in His forgiveness. His love transforms our wounded hearts, if we only allow Him in.

“To forgive is to set a prisoner free, and discover the prisoner was you.”    Lewis B. Smedes (1921-2002).

Real Hope & Change

  
A tribal chief lay dying. He summoned three of his people and said, “I must select a successor. Climb our holy mountain and return with the most precious gift you can find.” The first brought back a huge gold nugget. The second brought back a priceless gem. The third returned empty-handed saying, “When I reached the mountaintop, I saw on the other side a beautiful land, where people could go for a better life.” The chief said, “You shall succeed me. You’ve brought back the most precious gift of all: a vision of a better tomorrow.”

The hope of a better future, of a brighter day ahead seems a universal human dream. Every heart yearns for happiness. As Christians, we believe that God has placed this yearning in our hearts because He loves us and wants us to be happy. And we know that the fulfillment of all our human desires lies in our union with God. He created us with a God-sized hole in our hearts that only He can fill. As St. Augustine wrote, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in You.” But it wasn’t always like that. In the Garden, our first parents were created out of intimate union and love with God. His very breath gave them life and their intimacy with Him was perfect and beyond all our imagining. Somewhere deep inside our own DNA we “remember” that bliss and long for it as we long for that shared breath of life with God. It was sin that shattered our relationship with Him and we are all the inheritors of that original wound.

Out of God’s love, Christ redeemed us through His Passion, Death, and Resurrection, healing the rift of our sin and opening the doors of heaven to all who love Him. He came from heaven as a man, as the Good Shepherd and offered our own wounded and broken humanity on His Cross. When He ascended into heaven, the path of our own return to the Father was opened again. Catholics celebrated this wonderful Feast of the Lord’s Ascension just a few weeks ago. We celebrated our own healing hearts and our own return to the God Who made us. We celebrated hope and freedom and love. Not mere words tossed around by everyone from political candidates to talk-show hosts, but real Hope, real Freedom, and real Love found only in Jesus Christ.

In His Ascension, we can also celebrate the hope of our own better tomorrow. For where Christ is, He has promised that we may also be. We too will have glorified bodies, ourselves still, but whole and beautiful and perfected in God’s sight. This is the vision of the life to come that has been given to the Church. When we picture people we love who have gone before us, we can picture all of them this way: whole and beautiful. When we see them again in the fullness of heaven this is what we’ll see. Until then we are the members of His Body, building the Kingdom of God right here among us, through our love and care for one another, especially for the most vulnerable. He calls us to make that vision of a better tomorrow an earthly reality for all His children. We are His hands now.

The Ascension of Christ is the end of the Gospel and the beginning of the mission.” —William Baird

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