Lord, Hear Our Prayer

One of my favorite Pope Francis quotes is this one: “You pray for the hungry.  Then you feed them.  That’s how prayer works.”  I suppose I’ve always known this was true, but each time I pray, it makes me more aware of how I’m praying, of what I’m praying for and of what I need to do so that my prayers are more fruitful.  It makes me aware of what I need to do every day in order to be the love and mercy of Christ to my neighbor.

Let’s start with what Pope Francis said about praying for the hungry.  Pray and work in your church’s food pantry.  Start one if you don’t have one.  Organize a drive for the local food bank.  Start a neighborhood vegetable garden.  Collect restaurant donations for the soup kitchen.  Host a community yard sale to benefit a feed-the-children program.

Pray for the homeless and educate yourself about all the reasons someone might end up without a roof over their head.  Many suffer from mental illness and/or addictions.  Many more are families who have fallen on hard times.  Don’t assume they just don’t want to work for their housing.  Use the skills you have to help them find jobs. Cut their hair.  Help them with their resume.  Donate to the agencies in your area that can make the biggest impact.  Do your homework.

Pray for the lonely.  Take a meal to your aged neighbor.  Volunteer to drive a parishioner to Mass.  Or drive them to a doctor’s appointment, or the hair salon, or the grocery store.  Deliver meals-on-wheels to the shut-ins or elderly in your area.  Organize a parish ministry that provides in-home help with small housekeeping tasks like taking out the trash, changing lightbulbs, or doing light yard work or repairs.  Even something as simple as a phone call can make all the difference to someone who rarely hears another person’s voice.  Don’t forget those folks in nursing homes, either.  Many of them rarely get visitors.

Pray for your sick friend.  Take them their favorite meal, or music, or movie.  Read to them, especially something you both enjoy.  Or buy them a gift subscription to an audio book service. Be their library connection.  Do a load of laundry for them.  Walk their dog.  Rake their leaves.  Call them when you’re at the grocery store or Target and ask if you can bring them anything.  Be their hands and feet until they’re feeling better.

Pray for your friend who is grieving.  Contact them as soon as you learn of their loss.  Be honest and direct in acknowledging their grief.  Let them mourn they way that they need to mourn and for as long as they need to.  Be available but don’t be hurt if they need their alone time.  Keep asking and keep inviting.  Share your memories of their late loved one, if you know them.  Cry together.  Give them flowers a month (or two or three) after their loss.  They’ll appreciate them more then.

Pray for peace in our world.  Be a peacemaker in your family, at your job, in your parish, and in your community.  Help each other.  Forgive old grievances and hurts.  Your children will learn kindness by how you treat your spouse and other people.  Show them how to be open and accepting towards folks who might look different or speak differently or have different abilities.  Involve yourself in civic organizations that work for justice, especially for the most vulnerable members of our society.  Consecrate your heart and your family to serving the Lord of peace.  Love.  Forgive.  And be patient with everyone you meet.

When we pray, we’re grateful for all the Lord has generously given to us.  We ask Him for His forgiveness of our sins and for His help in avoiding sin in the future.  We ask for what we need, for what our family needs, and for what our world needs.  And we ask for the faith and the strength we need to live out the Gospel in our lives.  As we enter the seasons of Thanksgiving, and Advent, and Christmas, we encounter so many opportunities to help those around us.  May our prayers be more than words as we open our hearts to the Lord’s call of service.  As Pope Francis said, “That’s how prayer works.”  Amen.  

“We prove our love for Jesus by what we do, by who we are.”

       —–St. Teresa of Calcutta.

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A Spiritual Diet

Diet. It’s a four-letter word. Most people hate having to give up the foods that they love in order to lose weight. But we do it—at least for a while. We know that in order to meet our goal we have to take in fewer calories than we expend. When we’re able to do that consistently, we starve those nasty fat cells and we lose weight.

There’s a similar principle at work in our spiritual lives, too. When we identify something that is getting in the way of our journey with Christ, we need to starve it. These obstacles used to be called “sins” and the strategy to overcome them was called “virtues.” We need to use those terms more often. For every sin, there’s a corresponding virtue to be practiced. We know how this works because the Catholic Church has been teaching it since the earliest days of Christianity. We know that the great Saints dutifully practiced some kind of spiritual diet as they progressed in holiness. St. John the Baptist said it best when describing his relationship with Jesus. “He must increase, but I must decrease”(John 3:30). So how do we do that?

We pray that the Lord will reveal our sins to us and we pray for the humility to accept what He shows to us. I can almost guarantee that your number one stumbling block is pride. We know that this is true because Scripture reveals it to us in so many circumstances. It was pride that brought about the fall of the Lucifer and his fellow disobedient angels. Pride fed the original sin of our first parents in the Garden. Pride says, “I know better than God. I can do this on my own. I don’t need any help.” Pride truly is the root of most, if not all, of our sins.  

Starving pride means feeding humility. Talk less. And when you do speak, let it be less of your concerns, your wants, your accomplishments. Don’t seek out praise or sympathy from others. Always put others before yourself. Let yourself be last in all things. Practice mercy. Deny yourself little things that give your pleasure and after a while you can do without more and more. Every denial of self is a step closer to a humble soul. Fast, not only from food, but from gossip, judgement, prejudice, impatience, and envy. Pray constantly the prayer that never fails: “Thy will be done.”

Starving anger means feeding forgiveness. Whether it’s getting cut off in traffic or responding to more serious betrayals, anger is a natural human response. But it doesn’t have to become sinful if we combat it, with God’s help. “…Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” We pray these words from the Our Father, but do we put them into action every day? Are we as quick to forgive others as we are to become angry? Do you hope that the other person offending you “gets what they deserve,” or do you offer them the mercy that you hope to receive?

Starving greed means feeding charity. Do you have to have the latest gadget, the fastest car, the biggest house, or the most impressive wardrobe? Does it make you feel bad to see others with these possessions? Greed and envy eat away at the muscle of our charity. These sins hold onto things, instead of people. And we can only give to others with open hands. Overcoming greed, like pride, means thinking less of ourselves and thinking more of others. When we realize that everything we have is a gift from God, it’s much easier to share these gifts with others. We’re called to take care of one another, to help the needy, to feed the hungry, to shelter the homeless and to be Christ to everyone we encounter.  

Putting yourself on a spiritual diet is only successful if you humbly pray for God’s assistance and strength. Like any diet, it’s harder at the beginning. After time, and daily practice, you’ll develop spiritual practices that help you in walking more closely with Christ. Frequent confession and Holy Communion give you the graces needed to continue growing in your relationship with Jesus. The process of becoming like Him is what St. John meant when he said, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” Life is learning to die to self and to live in Christ. As St. Paul writes, “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come. The old has gone, the new is here! (II Corinthians 5:17).  

“The more a man dies to himself, the more he begins to live unto God.”

                 —-St. Thomas a Kempis

A Nail Through God’s Heart 

Five hundred years ago this week, an Augustinian monk named Martin Luther made public his complaints about the Catholic Church. He wasn’t the first churchman to raise these concerns, but he’s remembered most. We don’t know for sure that he actually nailed any of his complaints to the Wittenberg church door, either. For the sake of imagery, we’ll allow it. So there he is, holding his 95 theses and nailing them to the door. I imagine that every blow of the hammer was as painful to the Lord as the nails He suffered on the cross.  

Luther had several concerns about the Church he had taken vows to serve for the rest of his life. But the major issues involved the sale of indulgences, the belief that faith alone assures salvation, and the primacy of Sacred Scripture. It takes a certain mindset about the Church in order to look at any of her teachings and think that you alone have a better idea than the Apostles and their successors over the fifteen hundred years of His Church on earth. For if you believe the words of Jesus, you believe that he established His Church with St. Peter as the head (Matthew 16:18) and you see that the other Apostles also believed this. They looked to Peter as their leader and relied on him in forming the Church. Jesus assured us that His Church, inspired by the Holy Spirit, would never falter or be deceived. This isn’t to say that the Church doesn’t evolve and grow in her teachings, but this must occur via the pope and the bishops acting together under the inspiration and leadership of the Holy Spirit. One person, one German monk, is not the teaching authority of the Lord’s Church. Luther’s attempt to question the Church could have played out much differently. There’s much debate over whether he intended his theses to result in schism. His behavior and tactics were rooted in revolution and not reform, though. He dug in his heels and within a couple of years, he was excommunicated. He had broken his vows and “married” a nun and written and preached extensively of his hatred for the Church and her members. He called for the murder of bishops and proclaimed himself Christ on earth. Sad.  

The unity of believers which Christ desired for His children has been broken through Luther and the others who claimed his legacy. Five hundred years of more and more denominations has given us thousands of groups with little in common. Anyone can interpret Scripture. Anyone can proclaim himself or herself to be a minister. The beliefs and practices of many of these denominations bear little if any resemblance to the Church founded by our Lord. This should be a source of great sadness for all Christians. Our division is not what Jesus envisioned for His Bride. This year marks 500 years since Luther’s rebellion began and any sense of this anniversary as a “celebration” is extremely misguided. We should instead be praying for the unity of believers. We should be actively working together to undo the last half millennium of confusion.  

The Council of Trent (1545-1563) addressed the issues of indulgences, faith/works, and the primacy of Scripture among many other reforms. In it, the Church condemned Luther’s heresies and reaffirmed teachings on the Bible and the Sacraments. Luther died, unrepentant, just as the Council was getting underway. As a Catholic, I look on Luther and the rise of protestantism with great sadness. I was raised in the Baptist church, but when I read the early Church fathers, I knew I couldn’t remain a Baptist. I believe that Christ would never allow His Church to fall into error. How could His spotless Bride ever teach anything not held in truth by the Holy Spirit? Impossible. This would contradict Scripture and the very Truth that is God Himself. So on this anniversary, remember the pain that our separation causes God. How much He longs for us to worship together, as one family, at one table. Pray that we can heal the wounds that divide us and humbly ask for the Lord to bring us all into the unity of His love.  

“Lord Jesus Christ, at Your last supper You prayed to the Father that all should be one. Send Your Holy Spirit upon all who bear Your name and seek to serve You. Strengthen our faith in You, and lead us to love one another in humility. May we who have been reborn in Baptism be united in our faith under one shepherd. Amen.” 

Christians and Depression 

Some nights you don’t sleep at all. And on other days, you can’t get out of bed. You don’t feel like eating anything, or maybe you eat everything in the house. The things that you used to enjoy seem lifeless to you now. You can’t focus, you can’t get started, you’ve lost all your energy to do anything at all. Sometimes you cry and other times you yell. Little things can set you off. So you stay in your room with the curtains drawn. It feels like hell. It’s depression.

This is more than “the blues” that all of us experience from time to time. Depression is a chronic physical and emotional disease that can lead to job loss, family dissolution, substance abuse, and suicide. Yet even now, after decades of study and treatment, many people remain ashamed of having depression. They try their best to hide it from their family and friends for as long as they can. They don’t want to admit that they need help. And sometimes Christians can be the worst at this. We think our faith should somehow protect us from psychological problems. Like the rest of our culture, we don’t want to seek help for depression. If we’re filled with the joy of our faith, how can we depressed? Well, I’ve got news for you, Christians are just as susceptible to depression as anyone else. Does our faith protect us from cancer or diabetes or heart disease? Then why should we believe that Christians can’t be depressed? The Bible gives us plenty of examples of folks who struggled with it. Moses, Elijah, David, Job, and Naomi all suffered emotional pain and depression, for a variety of reasons. Psalm 42 is a great example of someone struggling mightily with his faith and feelings of desolation, loneliness, abandonment, and despair.  

Among the great saints, several were plagued by depression throughout some or most of their lives. These are people like us who were able to persevere through trials and sufferings with heroic faith and virtue. Yet some also had to fight depression every day. One of my favorites is St. Noel Chabanel who worked with the Huron Indians in Ontario, Canada during the 16th century. As a Jesuit missionary, Fr. Chabanel worked closely with the Hurons each day in the school and village. And he hated it. He disliked the natives, their culture, and their habits. He struggled just to be around them. He became very depressed. But he renewed his promise to stay with them for the rest of his life. He kept his vow and persevered until he died at the hands at one of the Huron men when he was just 36 years old. He offered the Lord his life of suffering and sadness and, in return, God gave him a martyr’s crown.  

Depression can be a kind of martyrdom. Just as any affliction can aid in our holiness if we give to our Savior. God never wastes any opportunity to draw us closer to Himself. Even in the midst of a dark depression, Christians can be assured that our Lord is with them. There’s nothing shameful about being depressed and nothing “un-Christian” about seeking help for it when you need it. Also, be aware of the people in your life and help them if they show signs of serious, lasting depression. Your concern could be exactly what they need but might not be able to ask for. We’re in this life together and we owe one another our kindness and compassion. We haven’t yet become so divided that we don’t still know how to care for one another. Suffering and sadness are both a part of life in this broken world, but we are all members of one body and when one of us hurts, we all do. Be kind.  

“Now I rejoice in my suffering for your sake and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s affliction for the sake of His body, that is, the Church.”

            —–Colossians 1:24

The Hunter’s Saint

A long time ago, a baby boy was born to a royal French family. His name was Hubert and his father was the Duke of Aquitaine. His family had money and power and they were regular members of the court of King Theodoric in Paris. The court became Hubert’s home and he grew up surrounded by other royal offspring who spent much of their time enjoying the distractions and pleasure of life at the court. For Hubert, this meant hunting. Every royal son was expected to be a master of the art of bow hunting and Hubert was an eager student. He loved the early morning stalk over the hills and through the forests, learning how to track the deer and to silently close the distance between himself and his prey.  

For years, Hubert sharpened his hunting skills in the woodlands of France. Sometimes with a group of friends, and sometimes alone, he stalked and killed the beautiful stags who lived in the royal preserves. Always by his side were his faithful hunting dogs. They helped him in tracking and could chase a deer close so that Hubert could have a clear shot. He enjoyed his dogs almost as much as he enjoyed the hunt. As Hubert grew into manhood, his hunting skills were unsurpassed. Even after his marriage, he spent most of his days enjoying the thrill and freedom of the hunt. Sadly, his wife died giving birth to their first child, a boy named Floribert. After his wife’s passing, Hubert seemed even more addicted to the chase and spent weeks on end in the woods, alone with his dogs. It was on one of these hunts that everything changed for the young man.  

On a Good Friday morning, everyone else was in church for Mass on the holy day. But not Hubert. He and his dogs had been tracking a huge stag for hours and they were almost within range of him. Just as Hubert began to draw back on his bow, the stag turned and looked at him. To his amazement, there between the stag’s magnificent antlers was a crucifix of our Lord. It seemed to glow in the dim light of the forest. Hubert was stunned. He knelt down and heard a voice say to him: “Hubert, unless you turn to the Lord and lead a holy life you will soon go to hell!” Shocked, Hubert asked the voice: “Lord, what do You want me to do?” He was told to go to St. Lambert, a local bishop, who would instruct him. Hubert did just that. He gave his royal title to his younger brother, who was Floribert’s guardian and he gave all his possessions to the poor. Hubert studied for the priesthood and was soon ordained. While he was on a pilgrimage to Rome, Bishop Lambert died and Hubert was made his successor. Hubert was a holy and wise man, known for taking care of the poor in his diocese and traveling widely to preach and win souls to Christ.  

God used Hubert’s love of hunting to transform him into a hunter of souls. He pursued the lost with the same zeal that he tracked down deer in the forest. That’s how God works in our lives—by using the gifts He’s given to us for His greater purpose. We become the person He made us to be when we hear HIs call and allow Him to use us. What is God calling you to do for Him today? What gifts can you use to lead others to Christ? Remember the words that God spoke to Hubert in the forest and say, as he did: “Lord, what do You want me to do?” St. Hubert is the patron saint of hunters and hunting dogs. His feast day is November 3.  

“Great St. Hubert, bless all who gather here in this natural setting, whose aim is to follow in your footsteps, to be skilled and ethical hunters…”

    —from St. Hubert’s Prayer

The Life of God 

Grace. It’s something we hear about a lot. In songs and books and sermons. But what is grace? Could you explain it to someone who isn’t a Christian? Or, for that matter, to a fellow believer? In my experience, most folks have a pretty fuzzy notion of what grace really is. Unfortunately, lots of people use grace to describe a feeling that they experience in certain situations. Grace means feeling close to God, or experiencing consolation in prayer or feeling uplifted in worship. 

In fact, grace isn’t a feeling or emotion at all. It’s the love and mercy of God, given freely and undeservedly to a believer. Grace is so fundamental to Christianity that St. Paul wrote that our relationship with Christ is “the gospel of the grace of God”(Acts 22:24). This grace is given to us first in Baptism, and then through the other Sacraments which Jesus instituted. There is actual grace and sanctifying grace, both of which justify and save us. “Grace is a participation in the life of God”(Catechism #1997). Grace is also that tugging of your heart to become more like Jesus. To love more, to forgive more, to seek forgiveness of your sins and to conform your heart to the Lord’s heart. It is supernatural because no one can do this without the grace of God.  

We share the grace of God with others when we give His love away, just as freely and undeservedly as He loves us. When we are living in the grace of God, we can’t help but share it with others. It can’t be contained. Many years ago, I knew a priest whose presence was joyful, kind, forgiving, and powerful. I watched people blossom and grow in faith around him, like flowers nourished by the rain and the sun. I was one of them. I used to think that he chose people to befriend because he saw something special in us, but now I know I had things backwards. We began to feel and behave differently because he treated us as if we were special. We were transformed by how he saw us. That’s how grace works among us.  

We are transformed by how Christ sees us. To Him, we’re His beautiful child. No matter how broken we feel, no matter what our sins might be, no matter how many times we’ve tried before and failed—in His eyes, we’re more precious than gold. Under His gaze, our wounds are healed, our sins forgiven, our hope restored. Grace isn’t some magical pixie dust. Like the Catechism says, it’s participating in the very life of God. It’s undeserved intimacy in the life of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  

Grace is what gives us supernatural life. Without it, any hope for heaven is lost. When we confess our sins and receive Holy Communion, the grace that we receive is the life of God pulling us to His heart and giving us the strength and the will to lead others to Him as well. Like the priest I knew, a grace-filled life radiates love and encouragement, joy and acceptance. People will want what you have and will want to know how your life was transformed. Grace leads people to know God. What better way to spend your days here on earth than bringing other souls along on the road to heaven?

“Have you seen with the eyes of your soul how He looks at you with love?”

           —-St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta.

They’re Our Family

I love the Saints of the Church. I love that they inspire me, and challenge me, and draw me closer to Christ. Sure, I have my favorites but I also love discovering new ones. I have a few on my heavenly committee that I turn to almost every day, year after year. When I read St. Augustine, it’s as if he’s writing directly to me, not to folks in the 4th century. The words of St. Therese of Lisieux and St. Maximilian Kolbe pierce my heart with their deep love of God. I struggle to be a follower of Jesus and the Saints struggled, too. That’s a great comfort to me. They lived lives of heroic faith and that’s what I want, as well. Heroic faith.  

In the little Baptist church of my childhood, the only people we ever learned about who weren’t in the Bible were Lottie Moon and Corrie ten Boom. The first was a missionary in China and the second helped Jews escape the horror of the Holocaust. But I never heard any mention of the Saints of the early Church like St. Justin Martyr, or St. Ambrose, or St. Jerome. There didn’t seem to be any great examples of the Christian life between St. Paul and Lottie Moon. Even my squishy young mind knew that couldn’t be right. Reading about the early Church and those Saints who emerged in the times of persecution and martyrdom really opened my eyes. I came to realize that there was a whole huge family of fellow Christians I’d never met. So I set about getting to know them. And I’m still on that journey. Like Blessed John Henry Newman (an Anglican priest who became Catholic) said: “To be deep in history is to cease to be a protestant…”. The Saints feed me with their words and the stories of their lives. They aid me with their prayers and I feel them kneeling with me at the Lord’s altar.  

I finally had to come to terms with what I was learning about the Saints. The more I read the more I found men and women living the Gospel and bearing amazing fruit. They planted churches all over the world, baptizing thousands. They suffered prison and torture and death for their Savior. They wrote of their struggles and their need for God’s grace. They founded hospitals and universities and monasteries that fed the hungry and cared for the poor and the sick (and still do to this day). If the church of my childhood didn’t offer these Christians to me as examples of heroic faith, then the church had to be wrong. If you failed to share the stories of St. Francis of Assisi and St. Catherine of Siena with your children, then you were failing in your duties. The fruit these Saints, and countless others, have born for Christ and His Church is more precious than gold.  

It’s always easy to find a Saint you can identify with since there are thousands of them, from all kinds of backgrounds. Mothers and fathers, soldiers and doctors and students. If you believe the Bible, then you believe the Saints are alive with God in heaven. And just as we ask our family and friends to pray for us, we also ask the Saints for their prayers. These are folks who lived their lives as Jesus calls us to live. They’ve faced all the trials and struggles and sins that we’ve encountered and they have allowed Christ to transform their hearts and guide their lives—just as we hope to do. I hope you’ll do some reading and learn about these members of our Christian family who are alive in heaven today. I pray that their beautiful and holy lives will draw you ever closer to the Lord.  

“The deepest reason why the Church is weak and the world is dying is that there are not enough Saints. No, that’s not quite honest. The reason is that WE are not Saints.”

            —–Dr. Peter Kreeft

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