With Arms Wide Open

  
You may have heard it said that there are two kinds of people in the world. There are those who go through life with their arms wide open, embracing whatever comes their way. There are others who journey with their arms held tightly against their chests, protective and defensive. Maybe most of us are mixtures of both postures—sometimes unafraid and open to life, and at other times we are more fearful, afraid of losing what we have. These days, nothing seems sure anymore. Everyone is calling for change, though not necessarily the same change. Things appear erratic, unpredictable, and uncertain. It’s no wonder so many of us may feel like withdrawing into ourselves and protecting what is ours.

But for Christians, there is certainty; there is unchanging truth; there is peace. Listen to what St. Paul writes in his letter to the church at Phillipi: “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God.” St. Paul reminds us that we live in the loving, open embrace of God here and now. He calls us to return that embrace in an openness of spirit, holding nothing back. It’s interesting that one of the first postures in Christian worship is one in which the arms are open wide and raised above the shoulders. It’s how a child raises their hands to be picked up by their daddy. Some of the oldest Christian frescoes in the Roman catacombs depict the faithful praying to God in this way. There are 153 such frescoes of Christians in the “orans” posture. “Orans” is Latin for “one who prays.” Catholics see our priests lead us in prayer this way at each Mass. Arms wide open, lifted up, praising and thanking God for His gifts and open to receiving whatever His goodness sends to us. Our posture in prayer is an outward expression of how our hearts and minds are formed towards God. The earliest Christians knew that and their paintings reflect a triumphant and hope-filled worship despite their persecutions.

We also see this “open to grace” posture in the architecture of Saint Peter’s Square in Rome. The Renaissance artist Giovanni Bernini designed a colonnade of 284 stone columns which appear to reach out and gather in the faithful as they approach the church home of our Catholic faith. Robert Browning described this effect in his poem “Christmas Eve” when he wrote “with arms wide open to embrace the entry of the human race.” This goes against what many have recently said about all the walls around the Vatican. If you’ve been there, you know that isn’t true. Catholics also know the iconic black and white photograph of Blessed Miguel Pro, a Mexican Jesuit priest, who was murdered for his faith by a government firing squad on November 23, 1927. Just before the guns fired on him, Fr. Pro flung his arms open wide and shouted, “Vivo Cristo Rey!” or “Long live Christ the King!” Of course these cultural images of openness and embrace have as their source, the One Source of all Life and Truth and Love: Christ on the Cross. At the very moment when He should have been most afraid and most defensive, Jesus’ love for us held His arms wide open to pour Himself out completely for you and for me. He held nothing back, embracing His Father’s will, surrendering Himself to Love. We are called to imitate Christ, not just when life is easy and opening ourselves to it feels safe and good. But all the time, in every moment of joy and in our fears and hurts as well. As St. Paul says, “The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything…” The God of peace waits with His arms wide open, ready to pick you up.

“The love we give is the only love we keep.” —Elbert Hubbard 

Send Us Your Saints!

  
A young man that I know is considering becoming a Catholic priest. He’s a junior at a fine college, studying electrical engineering. He’s been offered graduate scholarships to some of this country’s most prestigious universities. He’s handsome, athletic, and has a great sense of humor. In short, he’s one of those guys you could easily imagine happily married with kids, making a six-figure salary and living in a gated community on a golf course. But he believes that God has called him to another kind of life, a radically different life. He believes that Jesus Christ has called him to the priesthood. While his friends are dating and planning for life and work after college, this young man spends his weekends visiting seminaries and volunteering at a local soup kitchen.

Two thousand years ago, a group of men also heard the call of God to His greater purpose. Simple men, flawed and imperfect men, whose “yes” to God changed the world. They left their lives, their jobs and their families and, owning almost nothing, preached the Gospel of Jesus Christ to an unbelieving and hostile world. For living out their call, they were imprisoned and tortured. Every one of them was killed for their belief in Christ. Their lives were laid down for the Savior they loved and Who had loved and died for them. Looking at this young man I know, I can see some of that same commitment and faith which empowered the Apostles to become more than the fishermen or tax collectors they had been before their calling. Does that make this young man unusual in today’s world? I don’t think so.

Young people want to change the world. They want to give themselves over to a great cause that will give meaning and purpose to their lives. So why are so few young people being called to religious life today? Why do we have a shortage of priests in America? In my own opinion, it’s because we Catholics aren’t teaching our children the Gospel of Christ. To begin with, we don’t know our own faith well enough to discuss it with our children. We can’t expect a couple of hours of religious education classes each week to ground our kids in the faith the Apostles died for. We have to know and to live out our faith each day as examples to them. When they come to us with questions about Jesus or His Church, we need to give them the right answers, or at least know where to find the right answers. Talking about Christ and our faith should be a natural part of family life, as natural as talking about school or sports. And yet how many of us have talked with our kids about Christ during the last week?

While family life is the garden that grows vocations to the priesthood and religious life, the larger Church also has to live up to her responsibility as the depository of our faith. Sunday homilies need to challenge us more. We need to leave Mass inspired by the truth of Christ and convicted of the changes we need to make in our lives in order to live out the truth of His Gospel. We need more Jesus and less Oprah, more courage to live as Christ and less fear that what we say or do as Christians might offend someone. Sometimes the truth isn’t easy to hear, but truth is what saves us and transfigures us into the God we adore. The Church needs to focus less on appearing “relevant” to a modern congregation and courageously proclaim Christ crucified. If we preach the Gospel, we’ll have vocations to the priesthood. If we live out that Gospel, we won’t be able to build enough seminaries to hold all the men called to serve Christ and His Church. We need fearless leadership within the Catholic Church in this country, to stand up for the Gospel, to challenge the Church to preach Jesus Christ to the modern world. As Catholics, we should pray that God will send us this leadership, these shepherds who can guide us out of the doldrums of the past generation. Throughout the history of our Church, God has raised up Saints among us whenever His Bride is in need of reformation. May our prayer for the Church our children will inherit be: “Lord, send us Your Saints!”

“Here am I; send me.”

      —-Isaiah 6:8 

The Real “Old Time Religion”

  
Wouldn’t it have been wonderful to go to church with the Apostles? Think of it—hearing the Gospel preached by men who had actually lived it with the Lord Himself? To know how they worshipped and prayed and what they believed and taught–surely this would enrich our own lives as Christians. We probably all know of churches or ministries that have tried to recapture “the basics” of our Christian beliefs and practices. But did you know that we have a description of that very early Church? We know when and how they worshipped and what they taught their new members. We know how they prayed and when. We know what an early church service would look like and sound like. We know it all.

The early Church faced grave threats from the Roman Empire which killed hundreds of thousands of believers for their faith. We also know that the Church faced threats to the faith from other so-called Christians who denied many of the truths taught by Christ. And so, to further the unity and strengthen the faith of the early Church, a catechism was written sometime between 48 and 110 AD. This was during the lifetime of many of the Apostles including Sts. Peter, James, and John. There is an authority in this text because so many who personally saw and heard our Lord teaching and preaching were present when this document was drafted. It’s called “The Didache” which means “teaching” and it predates the writing of most of the books of the New Testament by several years.

Most scholars believe that the Didache was compiled in Antioch in Syria, the place where the disciples of Jesus were first called “Christians.” St. Peter himself was the founding bishop of the Church in Antioch. The document itself is brief, just sixteen chapters, and is easy to read and understand. It covers morals, prophecy, the Sacraments of the Church and the Liturgy. The opening sections describe the living of the Christian life as illustrated by the words of Christ. The second section describes Christian worship. Baptism in running water is required as entry to Christian life. Either immersion or pouring water over the head is allowed. Fasting was observed on Wednesdays and Fridays as a means of penance for sin and a means of focusing on matters of the spirit. The Eucharist was celebrated on Sunday. Holy Communion was denied to those that were not baptized or those Christians who were guilty of serious sin. Confession was required before Communion would be allowed to them. These earliest Christians clearly believed that the Eucharist was truly the Body and Blood of Christ. Bishops, priests, and deacons were the ministers of the Eucharist and presided at worship. The Didache goes on to uphold the teaching authority of the Church through Her bishops. Abortion is condemned: “You shall not kill the embryo by abortion and shall not cause the newborn to perish.” The ancient beliefs and practices of the early Christian Church contained in the Didache are reaffirmed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The Holy Mass, the Sacraments, the teaching authority that Christ gave to His Church—these foundations of faith were given to us by Jesus. They were recorded in the Gospels and in the Didache and they are preserved and maintained in the Church Christ founded on the rock of St. Peter. The early Church remains ever new.
“Bless those who curse you, and pray for your enemies, and fast for those who persecute you.”                                                                                                                        —Didache, Chapter 1

Prayers For The Dying 

  
When we opened the door of his hospital room, we could hear his labored and uneven breathing. My friend’s uncle, now almost 90, was in his final battle with heart disease. I’d met him a few times over the years, but the man in the hospital bed looked little like the burly, overpowering man he’d been until the last few years. He was thin and gray, with his eyes closed, grasping at the sheets with bony fingers, using all his energy just to breathe. He hadn’t wanted his doctors to put him on a ventilator, so all he had helping him was an oxygen mask. I felt terrible, watching his agony.

But it was more than the hospital smell and the sound of his struggling breaths that was affecting me. There was a heavy, oppressive feeling to this room. Imagine gravity suddenly doubling and you’ll get the idea. The air itself seemed weighted and thick. It felt like I was being pushed down into my shoes. My friend felt it, too He slumped into the only chair and I saw his shoulders fall forward. I didn’t like being there. It felt wrong and somehow, ugly. You know how they say you can sense the presence of evil? It believe it. Not that I thought my friend’s uncle was an evil man. He’d always been pleasant enough to be around, if a little bit loud. I’d never felt this sort of darkness around him before. But then, he’d never been on his deathbed before. So, as the old man struggled with each breath, my friend and I prayed for him. I have the Divine Mercy app on my phone and we spent the next several minutes praying those beautiful words out loud. I’d like to say that the dark, oppressive feeling in the room disappeared right away. Or that my friend’s uncle sat up, fully healed and asking for pudding. But none of that happened. Instead, he died later that night, alone, in his hospital room.

In the Divine Mercy prayers, we ask for God’s mercy on us, on the person who is dying, and for everyone in the world. Our sins offend Him every day and yet His great mercy is so much more than the weight of those sins. God delights when we ask for that mercy. We put all our trust in His love for us, in His blood shed for us on the Cross, and in the hope of the resurrection. The prayers are comforting and tender and are among my favorite devotions. I think I’m drawn to them because I know the darkness of my own sins and how very much I need His mercy. It’s a grace when you know that you sin. A grace I don’t deserve.  

As we prayed for him there at his bedside, I imagined the angels who knelt there, too and prayed along with us. Surely his uncle’s guardian angel was there, and others as well. Were there other spirits in the room, too? Darker energies who feast on despair and anger and loneliness? Maybe their presence was the oppression and heaviness we’d felt when we entered the room. I don’t know. Maybe it was just the nearness of death. Our voyage through this life and into the next one is a mysterious one.. The love of Christ is our hope and our light through a world that is often dark and sorrowful. And yet, even HIs infinite love for us is a mystery, as well. I know that being with anyone as they approach death is a privilege and grace. Praying for them as they journey out of this life is a gift that should never be refused, no matter the difficulty. When you have that chance, be there for them. Pray for the mercy of God and for the grace to love and forgive until each of us take our last breath here.

We weren’t there for him when he passed from this life, but I believe our prayers were. I believe the angels were there that night, long after visiting hours were over, keeping vigil and praying for his soul. No prayer is ever unheard by our Lord. That’s another mystery of our faith. One of the great gifts we share as Christians is praying for one another. Our words rise like the smoke of incense (Revelation 8:4) and are sweet and pleasing to Him. We’re all on this journey together and we need each other every step along the way. Don’t ever miss the opportunity to pray for a brother or sister as they pass on to eternity.

“We are all just walking each other home.” —Richard Alpert 

Another Celebrity Death

  
Did the news of Prince’s death shock and sadden you? Over the last few months several celebrity deaths have been in the headlines. David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Natalie Cole, Glenn Frey, Harper Lee and Patty Duke are just a few familiar faces who have passed. Whenever another famous person dies, television and social media are flooded with the news and career retrospectives. Flower memorials pop up and grow in front of the deceased person’s homes. We post our favorite of their music or movies or books on Facebook and Twitter. We shake our heads and feel as if we’ve lost a close friend. Of course most of us never knew any of these good folks personally, but we feel as if we did. We feel as if they were a part of our lives in some way and we grieve at the shock and sorrow of their deaths.  

But I would argue that a great deal of that shock and sorrow we feel is misdirected emotion. I believe what upsets us the most is the fact of death itself. And, on a deeper level, the reality that each one of us is going to die. When a celebrity dies, death has the audacity to make the news. It interrupts our binge-watching and our instragramming and our selfie-posting. Death comes along and reminds us that not only does everyone die, but that “everyone” includes us. Maybe our celebrity grief helps us from dwelling on that fact very much. Heaven forbid we sit in silence and contemplate the state of our immortal souls and where we’re gonna end up when we die. Of course, in our culture, everyone who dies immediately goes to heaven. And I guess we assume that’s gonna be true for us, too. So we grieve and post and bow our heads and then we get right back to the noise of the world. Until the next celebrity goes. I don’t mean to belittle the feelings of loss when a beloved figure dies. I just question how we tend to over-feel for someone we don’t know while we often fail to take proper and prudent care of our own journey to that same mortality.

Do we know what Christ and His Church teach us about our souls and the reality of immortality? Or do we just have some vague beliefs and hopes about heaven and hell? Have we ever sat down with our pastor and talking about death and dying? I’m wondering how seriously we think about our deaths, in light of how we react as a culture to the deaths of public figures.  

We Catholics have had almost 2000 years to study the Scriptures and the teachings of the Church on death and our salvation. We’ve been given the Sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, Holy Eucharist, Confession and Anointing of the Sick—each a vehicle of God’s saving grace. And yet, even among some Catholics, I fear that we can be just as neglectful of the state of our souls as anyone else. We become sort of like zombies, going through the motions of life, but asleep to our sins. This is not God’s plan for us. He desires us to be fully alive in Him, living with joy and hope and sharing His mercy and love with others. We can’t be the person God created us to be unless we are alive in Christ. When we live in His joy, our lives and our deaths have purpose and meaning. By embracing that purpose, we’ll come to know the peace of mind and heart that only the Lord can give us. In that peace, we share the challenges and losses of life in the company of a loving Savior. We live, and die, in His friendship. We find our true identity in Him, not in the passing things and celebrities of the world. 

“Whenever we fear death, we need to remember that Jesus is the Bread of Life.”

         –Father Matthew P.  Schneider 

Whom Are You Looking For? 

  
“Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for? “(John 20:15). Mary Magdalene has gone to Jesus’ tomb and found Him gone. Her friend was dead and she felt lost and alone. They had killed Him and now they’d even taken His body away. There was nothing she could do now but weep for her lost Savior and her lost hope.

 When was the last time you felt like everything you loved was lost? All of us have been where Mary was that morning. We’ve all been so devastated by a loss that we didn’t anticipate and couldn’t see our way through. Maybe we lost someone to death. Or divorce. Or abandonment. Our dream job was “downsized.” Our usually-healthy body was laid low by an accident or a serious illness. We’ve been betrayed by someone we trusted with our whole heart. Mary Magdalene had put her faith in Jesus and His promise of new life. She had hoped in Christ. Now, in His tomb, she wept because it was all gone. In that moment for her, hope was nowhere to be found. And that’s when Christ asks her: “Whom are you looking for?” You see, Christ was there with her all the time. He was there in the midst of Mary’s despair and hopelessness. He saw every tear and heard every sob. No one knows abandonment like Jesus. His friends fell asleep in the Garden and ran away into the night when the soldiers came for Him. He knows what it feels like for friends to leave you alone. He knows what it feels like to be betrayed by a friend and sold out. He’s been there. His closest friend denied even knowing him and not once, but three times.

 When we’re in a tomb of loneliness and we feel betrayed and abandoned, the question Jesus asked of Mary is the one we need to ask ourselves: “Whom are you looking for?” We want acceptance and affirmation. We want to be valued. We want to feel needed and cherished. We want the wounds of our childhood and past relationships to be bound up and healed. We want to feel good enough. We want to be loved for the person that we are. We want to be needed because we’re valuable and unique. We want to be treated with dignity and respect. We need to feel like we matter to another person. We need to be affirmed and supported in our decisions and choices. And yet most of us are disappointed. Most of us, at some point in our lives, have the experience of Mary Magdalene. In those moments before she recognized the risen Christ speaking to her, Mary was at the lowest point of her life. We’ve all been there. Lost, alone, disappointed and hopeless. It’s the moment Easter was made for.

Easter says to us: “You are loved just the way you are, with all your sins and wounds and shortcomings. You are My unique and priceless child, formed by My own hands. I made the universe for you. I put the sun and moon and stars in place, just for you. You’re the reason I left heaven, to be born as one of you, to live and die on a Cross so that we can be together forever. You are the reason for Good Friday. You’re the reason for Easter morning.” When Mary Magdalene heard Jesus call her by name, she recognized Him at last. Jesus knows you by name, down to the number of hairs on your head and the DNA of your cells. He knows your joys and your fears, all your hopes and every one of your sins. And He came that “you might have life and have it to the full” (John 10:10). This is the promise of Easter, fulfilled by the empty tomb Mary found that morning. So…..Whom are you looking for?

“Now let the heavens be joyful. Let earth her song begin: Let the round world keep triumph. And all that is therein; Invisible and visible. Their notes let all things blend. For Christ the Lord is risen. Our joy that hath no end.”

             —Saint John of Damascus

He’s Thinking About You

  
Imagine that every day of your life began and ended with prayer. And imagine that every moment in between, from the second you woke up until the instant you fell asleep was a prayer to the Lord. Your every thought, every feeling, every action was a living conversation with God. How would that change the quality of your life? What impact would such a prayerful, God-centered existence have on how you lived? On your happiness? On your hopefulness? Well, here’s a newsflash: every moment of your life IS a living conversation with God. The question is, what is your life telling Him? And are you listening to His responses? 

We might think that such a contemplative life could only be lived in a monastery or cloister. Not true. We are all contemplatives. It’s what or Whom you contemplate that shapes your heart and calls you to your destiny. As Christians, we are called to become more like Jesus. If we’re serious about that calling, then our joy and our fulfillment comes in contemplating Him. We can look to the lives of the saints as examples of how this conversation with Jesus can be lived in daily life. 

Saints read the Gospels. Not just on Sundays or not just for their Scripture study meetings, but every day. They read them, they prayed them, they absorbed them. They thought about the life and teachings of Jesus Christ the way some of us think about the news, or music, or politics or the stock market. In many ways, what you think about becomes the reality of your life, good or bad. St. Paul’s advice seems written for our time, “Whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phillipians 4:8). Read the Gospels. Think about Jesus.

And then what? Then listen to what He wants to say to you. You can’t listen to God if you’re watching television or talking on the phone. It’s hard to hear that “still, small voice” (I Kings 19:12) of the Lord while you’re texting your friends or updating your Facebook status. Saints give God their full attention. They listen. They wait. They focus their hearts and minds on Christ and then, they are still and silent and open to hear Him. In the silence of an open heart, a saint finds two persons: themselves, and Jesus Christ. Not like a thunderbolt of revelation, but more like the gradual lifting of a mist. They make small discoveries, hear tiny whisperings, and these little steps, over time, bring them into an intimate relationship with the Savior of the world. Being quiet and still in the presence of God is a radical departure from the way most of us live our lives. And yet, it is what God most longs for. He craves our open and listening hearts. His love for us can overwhelm the noise of the world, if we allow Him. Your life is already a prayer—what are you praying for? And to whom are you praying? Start out small. Ten minutes a day in a Gospel and five minutes afterwards of quietness, just thinking about Jesus. He’s already thinking about you. He has been since the beginning of time.  

“We need to find God, and He cannot be found in noise and restlessness. 

God is the friend of silence. See how nature–trees, flowers, grass —grows in silence; see the stars, the moon and the sun, how they move in silence…We need silence to be able to touch souls.” —Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta (1910-1997)

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