Through a Glass, Darkly

It’s a beautiful fall day.  The sky is a deep azure blue without even the trace of a cloud.  There’s a soft breeze gently shaking the reddish-gold maple leaves on the tree in the backyard.  I can smell the tang of wood smoke from the fireplace a few houses up the street.  Somewhere a dog is barking.  I’m thinking of the dinner that I’ll share tonight with a dear sweet friend.  It’s one of those moments in life when you smile, take a deep breath, and whisper a prayer of thanks to God for all His many blessings.  Having your health and your family, good friends and the beauty of creation all around us IS abundant grace and goodness.  As the sign says, life is good.

 

Yet this life is just a pale imitation of the joys of our life to come in heaven.  C. S. Lewis describes life here on earth as life in the “shadowlands” as if all the beauty and wonder of creation is a mere hint of what life in heaven will be like.  He doesn’t mean that life on earth is somehow less real or any less amazing or miraculous or heart-stoppingly beautiful.  It IS a wonder, in all its depth and complexity.  From the tiniest butterfly to the full majesty of a Beethoven symphony–we are surrounded by and immersed in indescribable beauty.  But heaven is and will be, immeasurably more beautiful.  How do we know this?  Because heaven is where all the beauty in this world comes from.  God is the source of everything that’s good and true and beautiful.  From Him comes every good thing we know here:  a mother’s loving touch, a bluebird’s song, the soft velvet on a Christmas stocking, fresh apple pie, the love between a husband and a wife.  Everything we hold dear and cherish so deeply and reverently is just a hint of the beauty we’ll know in His presence.

 

There we’ll know the One Who dreamed of a sunset and made it real; Who breathed upon the waters and made the crashing waves.  We’ll be face-to-face with the source of all Beauty.  We’ll still love everything and everyone that we’ve loved in life, but in a way that will make our five earthly senses seem fuzzy and clouded.  St. Paul says this very thing when he describes the difference between our earthly perceptions and our heavenly ones:  “Now we see through a glass, darkly, but then, face to face; now I know in part, but then I shall know even as I am known” (I Corinthians 13:12).  We’ll see with new eyes, hear with new ears and in every way experience life, real life, as we’ve never known it before.  When we speak of heaven, we use the language of faith because we don’t yet have the experience of it, though we hope to.  Love leads us to imagine what it will be like.  Love calls us on an autumn afternoon to close our eyes and thank Him for all this beauty, here and now and all around us.  If this perfect October moment, clothed in splendor, is just a shadowland of our true home in heaven–then how wonderful heaven will be.  And how dearly we must treasure this life and these days we’re given to walk with Him and know Him —and follow Him as He leads us home.

“Has this world been so kind to you that you shall leave with regret? There are better things ahead than any we leave behind.”

–C. S. Lewis

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The Power of Words

What sort of books do you read?  Do you ever think about how they affect your thoughts and your actions?  Listen to the stories of four people whose lives were forever changed by what they read.  The first one is a soldier, a real “man’s man” who came from a wealthy family with lots of political contacts.  Their influence could have kept him behind the front lines, but he loved being in the heat of battle and so he fought.  He was seriously wounded in one of those fights and was forced to spend many months recovering from his injuries.  Bored and restless as the weeks went by, he asked for something to read to help pass the time.  He was given a copy of “The Life of Christ” by Ludolph of Saxony, a German priest.  In reading it, he found himself transformed and lead to read the Gospels with a new and deepened understanding.  When he was back on his feet, he didn’t return to the life of a soldier, but instead devoted himself to a life of prayer and service.  Later, he was called to religious life and he founded the Society of Jesus—the Jesuits.  St. Ignatius of Loyola heard Christ calling to him through reading His life story.

 

As a child, she loved reading stories about missionaries who spread the good news of Christ in far-off lands.  She went on to become a nun and a schoolteacher, teaching the daughters of wealthy families in exotic India.  One day, while taking a train trip she experienced God’s call to serve the poorest of the poor in the streets of Calcutta.  She founded a new order of sisters called the Missionaries of Charity and today they work in slums and inner city neighborhoods around the world.  Her selfless love of the poor earned her the Nobel Peace Prize.  We know her as St. Teresa of Calcutta.

 

His father was a city bureaucrat who never went to church.  As he grew up, his mom never stopped praying for him, but he liked drinking and staying out late with his friends.  Still, he was a good student and he got a job teaching at a prestigious private school.  He lived with a woman for many years and they had a son together.  After reading the life story of St. Anthony of the Desert, he had a conversion experience and was called to the priesthood.  He later became a bishop and Doctor of the Church.  St. Augustine’s best-known work is his life story, his “Confessions.”

 

She was born into a Jewish family but had become an avowed atheist in her teenaged years.  On a vacation one summer, she read the biography of St. Teresa of Avila and was called by Christ to a life of faith.  A few years later she became a Carmelite nun, like St. Teresa.  The Nazis came to power in her native Germany and in order to protect her from them, her order sent her to a convent in the Netherlands.  When the Nazis invaded, she was taken to the death camp at Auschwitz where she was murdered in the gas chambers for being born a Jew. Edith Stein, who had become Sister Teresa Benedicta was martyred in 1942 and made a Saint of the Church in 1998.

 

Words have power.  What we read can affect us in deep and powerful ways, even if we might not be aware of it at the time.  Feed your mind with words that nourish and sanctify you.  But be careful what you read—you might just become a saint.

“When we pray we speak to God; but when we read, God speaks to us.” –St. Jerome 

Body, Mind, & Spirit

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

A Hidden Faith?

She was the First Lady of the Soviet Union for 18 years, married to Leonid Brezhnev. They had two children and she kept their private life as private as she was able. Victoria Brezhnev was described as old-fashioned, gentle, and retiring. She rarely traveled with her husband and she hated speaking in public. By all accounts, Mrs. Brezhnev’s life centered on her husband their children and later, grandchildren. Her favorite hobby was watching ice dancing on television. While she stayed home, her husband led the Soviet Union through much of the Cold War. Under him, their military power grew dramatically while domestic life there became more difficult, more impoverished, and more hopeless. The Soviet economy was on the verge of collapse. A loyal and lifelong community, he used the KGB to quell any opposition to his repressive regime. The government-controlled agricultural efforts became less and less able to feed the country. In many ways, Brezhnev was like Stalin, but without his level of government-sanctioned civilian murder.

For Brezhnev and his wife in this environment, the Church did not exist. They never spoke of religion and certainly never practiced it. Faith was seen as a weakness in Soviet culture, to be controlled and limited by the government. No one with any government aspirations could be known as a person of faith. Brezhnev imprisoned priests and believers, closing seminaries and churches whenever they got in his way. Both in his public life and at home, Leonid Brezhnev and his unassuming wife were examples of communist atheists. Faith was nowhere to be found.  

Which makes this incident at Brezhnev’s funeral all the more interesting. When he died in 1982, the US representative at his state funeral was Vice President George H.W. Bush. He remembers being moved by Victoria’s actions that day, which was to be her last public appearance. She stood without moving by her husband’s coffin until seconds before it was closed. Then, just as the soldiers touched the lid, Victoria leaned over her husband’s body—and made The Sign of The Cross. There at the center of an atheist empire, she traced the image of our hope and salvation on the body of the man she had loved for 54 years. Did she have faith in God’s love for us? Hope that there was more in our destiny than the black end of atheism? She must have done. For to so publicly express hope in Christ in an atheist nation was an act of great courage. This is what Mr. Bush recollected.  

Courage, Hope. Faith. The grace and the love of God never stops reaching out to us. Even when we run from Him, He still pursues us. So long as we have life, He loves us and wants us to be with Him. He reaches out to us with a relentless love. Through decades of life in a godless regime, He reached out to Victoria through her love for her husband. In her heart, He kindled the light of hope—that maybe there really is more to life than this hurting world and its politics and bread lines. Maybe there is a Truth that made us in His image and loves us, even when we have rejected Him. That Hope gave Victoria the courage to trace the Cross on her husband’s body. To say, in her own way, that we are more than what the world has told us that we are. We are the children of the King of Kings.  

I hope that she embraced God’s love for her. The rest of her earthly life was lonely and painful, at least as far as we know. But, like she showed at her husband’s funeral, we can never know the workings of God in someone else’s heart. So let’s pray for one another and be kind to one another, always. We’re all on this wondrous journey together and life is too short to spend our time making the trip any harder. Let’s practice the love of God.  

“Rest in God alone, my soul, for my hope comes from Him.”

            —–Psalm 62:5

Begone, Satan!

I believe in the devil. Satan. Lucifer. Beelzebub. The father of lies. Whatever you want to call him—I believe he exists.  And not as a theory or a concept but as a real living creature, as real as you and me.  After all, The Bible teaches us that the devil is real and was created as an angel (Genesis 3:1-7; 14-15, Isaiah 14; II Corinthians 11:14; Luke 10:18; Matthew 25:44; Revelation 12:4-10).  Along with other angels, Satan chose to reject God and was expelled from heaven. Scripture also teaches that the devil and his demons work here on earth encouraging sin and evil (Ephesians 2:1-2).  Those who follow Christ have been redeemed by His sacrifice on the Cross.  Yet we continue to sin and are engaged in the daily battle to combat our tendency to sin. It’s in this struggle that the devil plays his part. He thrives on sin, on fear, on our doubts and our anger. 

 

I know many people no longer believe in the devil.  It’s not scientific or modern, I guess.  But Jesus Himself was tempted by Satan (Matthew 4:1-11) and I believe he tempts us as well.  As St. Paul says, we are in a battle with evil spirits of darkness (Ephesians 6:12).  If Jesus and St. Paul know the devil exists, we should too.  But we aren’t bound to be the devil’s “victim.”  There are things we can do to protect ourselves and our families from his snares and influence.  To begin with, your Baptism made you a child of the Father and left an indelible mark on your soul.  Simply put, baptism is your “seal of ownership” by Jesus.  His grace is within you.  Yet our sins after our baptism are proof that we’re constantly vulnerable to going against the will of God.  We strengthen the armor of God (Ephesians 6:11) through frequent sacramental confession, going to Mass and receiving Holy Communion. Avoid the trappings of evil like fortune telling, horoscopes, witchcraft, Ouija boards and the like.  Don’t invite evil into your home.  Pray each day for God to protect us from the snares of the devil.  “Deliver us from evil.” Surround yourself with Christian friends who will hold you close in prayer, share fellowship with you and correct you in charity when you need it.  Catholics view the Rosary as a particularly effective tool against the devil because it centers our hearts and minds on the life and Passion of Christ through His Blessed Mother’s eyes.  We also have sacramentals like holy water, sacred relics, blessed statues and rosaries and, my favorite, the medal of St. Benedict which has been seen for centuries as a very strong defense against the devil.

 

Benedict was born to a noble family in Nursia, Italy in 480 AD.  He was well-educated and drawn early on to the religious life.  He’s known as the founder of Western Monasticism because he founded many monasteries and wrote the handbook of monastic life, called “The Rule of St. Benedict.” Renowned as a holy man and gifted preacher, he dearly loved and fearlessly proclaimed the Cross of Christ.  Many miracles were attributed to him, most centered around his love of and devotion to the Cross.  In one instance, a group of monks disliked his strict monastic rule and tried to poison him with tainted bread and wine.  When St. Benedict made the Sign of the Cross over the food in blessing, the cup holding the poisoned wine shattered.  A raven flew in an open window and snatched up the poisoned bread and flew away with it.  To remember his holiness, a St. Benedict medal was struck in 1880 on the 1400th anniversary of his birth.  This medal has become one of the most popular religious medals ever made.  The face of the medal shows St. Benedict holding a cross and a copy of his monastic rule.  Also pictured is the shattered wine cup and the bread-stealing raven.  On the reverse of the medal the Cross is dominant along with a Latin prayer: “May the Holy Cross be my Light.  May the devil never be my guide.”  It’s cooler in Latin because it rhymes.  Around the margin of the medal are the first letters of another Latin prayer: “Begone, Satan! Never tempt me with your lies.  Everything you offer is evil. Drink that poison yourself!” The medal is itself a prayer of exorcism and of strength in times of temptation.  It’s a prayer that the Cross of Christ will protect and guide us and that we reject the charms and lies of Satan.  Many people wear the medal (I do) as a constant reminder that our hope is in the Lord.  Others place the medal in their homes or businesses and put one in their car.  The medal, like other sacramentals, is a visible sign of our faith in Christ.  It’s not a magic trinket.  When we wear St. Benedict’s medal we reaffirm our Baptismal promise to reject Satan and all his works.  In a world filled with evil and shattered with sin, the Cross remains our true Light, our one Hope, and our everlasting Guide.  The medal of St. Benedict is a holy reminder that God’s love and protection always surrounds us.  We are held close in our Father’s care.  

 

“Begone Satan!” The Messiah’s resolute attitude is an example and invitation for us to follow Him with courageous determination.”      

                                    —St. John Paul II

The Rock

I’m a fan of St. Peter.  I love his big heart and his big faith.  He loved Jesus completely even though he often got Jesus’ message wrong.  He was emotional and quick to anger.  But he was also quick to ask forgiveness and express real contrition.  I love when Peter confessed that Jesus was the Son of God (Matthew 16:16).  I love that Peter had faith enough to get out of the boat and walk on the water (Matthew 14:30). This big, loving man is the rock upon whom Christ founded His Church (Matthew 16:18). But one of my very favorite stories about St. Peter isn’t found in the Bible but comes from an apocryphal book from the second century called the “Acts of Peter.”  It’s well-known to most Catholics, but many protestants may never have heard the story.  It goes like this. In the decades after Christ’s Ascension, Peter had traveled to Rome to spread the Gospel  The young Church there was being heavily persecuted by the Roman authorities.  Soon Peter found himself on the wrong side of the pagan Empire and was in fear for his life.  His friends urged him to quickly flee the city.  Finally, he agreed and made his way out of Rome.  As he was leaving the city gate he saw a figure approaching him on the road.  As the man drew near to him, St. Peter realized that it was Jesus.  He fell down in adoration and famously asked, “Quo vadis, Domine?” or “Where are you going, Lord?” Christ replied to Peter, “I am going to Rome to be crucified again.”  Peter knew then that he must return and face a martyr’s death, as Jesus had foretold (John 21:18).  It was Peter’s love for the Lord that had led him to Rome, and it was that same love that led him back to his own crucifixion that day. Love was what bound Peter and Jesus together.  After the Resurrection, Jesus asked Peter three times if he loved Him, because love is the measure of faith.  Jesus wasn’t interested in Peter’s business success, or his annual income, or if he was an inspiring leader or had great organizational skills.  Jesus asked, “Do you love me?” (John 21:15-17).  And Peter confessed, “Lord, You know all things.  You know that I love You.”

 

Even though the “Quo Vadis” story wasn’t included in the canon of the Bible, I don’t think that makes it any less “true.”  The Peter in this story is so true to the character of St. Peter in the Bible that it makes the story authentic, at least for me.  And it illustrates something about our relationship with Christ that we all should consider — when you imagine your future, is God in it?  St. Peter imagined Christ with him in Rome and so he went there to spread the Gospel.  He taught and preached in a hostile environment because he invited Christ into every meeting, every homily, every Mass.  Christ lived in Peter and the fisherman was able to do things he could never have done on his own.  It was only when Peter let go of Christ that he sank in the water, fled from Gethsemane, denied knowing Jesus, and ran away from Rome.  When Peter lost sight of Jesus, he was really and truly lost.  What’s true for St. Peter is true for us.

 

You can’t follow Jesus at a safe distance.  Being His child means being immersed in the life of Christ, because our faith is the faith of relationship.  We are created to be in relationship with our Creator.  God IS relationship:  the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  And God wants nothing less than that sort of love relationship with each and every one of us.  And that means including Him in every moment of every day.  Invite Him to share your day when you wake up.  Ask Jesus to be with you in your commute.  Invite the Lord to be with you in your work.  Ask Christ to enter into your family time at meals and as you spend time at the ballgame or dance recital or mall.  When you look at your weekly schedule, ask God to share it with you and to sanctify it with His indwelling presence.  Invite Jesus to lead you in every step and then FOLLOW HIM.  Never let anything or anyone come between you and Jesus.  Like St. Peter, always be ready and willing to ask the Savior, “Where are you going, Lord?” And no matter what answer He gives you, take up your cross and follow Him.  Your only future, your only life, is in the love of Christ.

 

“Let this be your whole endeavor, this your prayer, this your desire—that you may be stripped of all selfishness and with entire simplicity, follow Jesus only.”                  —Thomas a Kempis (1380-1471)

An Old Falsehood

Sometimes it’s hard to imagine that our loving God would let any of His children suffer an eternity in hell. Just the idea of it seems to go against the merciful Creator Who healed the blind man and cured the leper. We remember how Jesus cried over the death of His friend and Whose love called Lazarus back to life and out of the grave. This God surely wouldn’t allow anyone, especially a “good person” to end up in hell. It’s hard for us to imagine that and so we don’t think about it very much. We surely don’t want to hear it preached to us on Sunday morning. On Sundays we want to hear music and sermons that make us feel good. We want to leave church in a good mood. Many churches go to great lengths to never speak about hell or the judgment of God. When someone dies, there is never any consideration of the state of their soul. You never hear hell mentioned at a funeral. Everyone goes to heaven, right?

But this is not what God has told us. The Bible is the story of how much God loves us and desires that we be saved from our sins. If we didn’t need to be saved, then the Lord would not have left heaven to become one of us, to suffer, and to die on a Cross. The entire story of Jesus would be reduced to a fairy tale about a nice guy. Yet many people who claim to be Christians believe that good people who are kind and merciful will enjoy God’s eternal presence. You may hear them say, “I’m a spiritual person, but I’m not religious.” Translated, this means, “I think I can get to heaven on my own. I don’t need the Church that Jesus founded.” This kind of thinking is especially attractive to us modern folk because concepts like independence and hard work are dear to us. We think we can do just about anything if we set our minds to it. I can save myself by being kind to others, by worshiping God in the beautiful outdoors, and by leading a “moral” life.”

Sound familiar? It should. All this “do it yourself” Christianity has been around since the 4th century. A medieval thinker named Pelagius started it all. He denied original sin. That is, Adam and Eve sinned against God, but the rest of us didn’t inherit that wound. We’re born good and we can stay in that good state so long as we are moral people. Pelagianism denies our need for God’s saving grace. That’s why the Catholic Church condemned it as a heresy around 1500 years ago. Catholicism teaches that the only path to heaven is by the unmerited grace of God through the sacrifice of Christ. We can do nothing to save ourselves. We’re born with original sin which is our natural state. The grace of God in Baptism cleanses us of this sin. Faith is a gift God freely gives us, but we can’t earn faith through good works. Without God’s grace, we are headed for hell. It’s that simple. And that gloriously beautiful.

Unfortunately, this old heresy is still with us today in varying degrees. Churches that believe that Baptism is a symbol of spiritual rebirth or that don’t believe Baptism is necessary for salvation are Pelagian. If your pastor isn’t teaching you about original sin, you’re in big trouble. If you believe that you can “self-help” your way to God, that you needn’t rely on God’s grace—you’re in big trouble. Faith isn’t a choice, it’s a gift. You can’t be a good ol’ self-reliant American when it comes to your salvation. That’s why this heresy is so rampant. It agrees with our politics. But grace isn’t political. God calls us, we don’t call Him. There are 613 rules under the Jewish law and obeying each one of them perfectly won’t get you one step closer to paradise. Just ask St. Paul. We don’t come to Christ unless we’re first called by Him. We don’t “make a decision for Christ.” Christ makes a decision for us. Love is beyond our choice or decision. We are “in Christ” just like we are in love—head over heels and beyond our control. So un-American. And so perfectly Catholic. Take that, Mr. Pelagius.


“You did not choose Me, but I chose you.”
—John 15:16

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