The Power of Touch

A little boy scrapes his knee on the playground and runs to his mother for comfort.  She holds him close while he cries and gently cleans the scratch.  An old woman sits by her husband’s hospital bed as he lays ill.  She places a cool cloth on his forehead and murmurs her love for him.  A priest stops at a crosswalk and bends to talk to a man sitting on the sidewalk holding a sign and a cup.  He touches the man on the shoulder and the man looks up for the first time.

We all know the healing power of touch.  Without words, the touch of someone we love can comfort and affirm us, can shield and protect, can forgive and heal.  On nearly every page of the Gospels we read of Jesus’ healing touch.  The sick were drawn to Christ for His touch.  They are all hoping for physical healing, seeming to know intuitively that Christ can heal them if He chooses to.  And He does choose to heal them, one after the other.  But He gives them all a “bonus” in the process, something they didn’t expect and weren’t thinking about:  spiritual healing.  In fact, He often withholds their hopes for physical health until He’s addressed the state of their souls and the depths of their faith.  Their spiritual sicknesses are Christ’s primary concern.  And yet He always wants them to be physically whole.  He loves us—body AND soul.  When a leper came to Him for healing, Jesus didn’t rely on parables or preaching or prophecy, but on the simple human gesture of touch.  In the culture of His day, which placed so much value on words alone to convey meaning, thought and emotion, Jesus goes against Jewish norms and touches an “unclean” person.  By reaching out to the leper, Jesus made him entirely whole again.  He healed his body by removing the skin disease.  He healed his dignity by touching his body in the face of social ostracism.  Once excluded, the leper left Jesus accepted, an outcast no longer.

Our mission as His Church is to do what Jesus did.  In anointing the sick, we continue the healing Sacrament established by Christ (Mark 6:7-13;James 5:14-15).  Through the power of touch, infused by the graces of the Holy Spirit, Christ’s healing gifts continue today.  We are also called to minister to the “untouchables” in our own communities:  the homeless, the displaced, the immigrant, the imprisoned, and the forgotten among us.  To fail to love the less lovable and touch the less touchable is to fail in our imitation of Christ.  As He healed the lame, the blind, the deaf and the sick of all kinds, His sacred hands freed them from their spiritual illnesses as well.  Those same hands broke the bread that fed the five thousand, and broke His own Body as the Bread of Heaven at the Last Supper.  And on the next day, His healing hands were pierced through for you and me by Roman nails.  As His Church, we are His hands now, called to heal one another in His love.

“One of the greatest diseases is to be nobody to anybody.” 

St. Teresa of Calcutta

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Kneeling

When we hear “The Star-Spangled Banner” at a baseball game, we stand up.  We may remove our ballcap and place our hand over our heart. You can’t always count on this at football games nowadays, though. Likewise, when we meet an important person, we stand up to shake their hand.  Our British cousins may bow in the presence of their Queen.  We use the posture of our bodies to show respect and loyalty.  In effect, what we do with our bodies gives evidence to others of what we believe in our hearts.  This is why Catholics kneel during Mass.  We kneel because we are in the presence of Christ.

There are many dozens of instances of kneeling described in both the Old and the New Testaments.  Sometimes, kneeling is an act of supplication, of asking for something from God in a humble way.  “And at the evening sacrifice, I rose from my fasting, with my garments and my mantle rent, and fell upon my knees, and spread out my hands to the Lord” (Ezra 9:5).  In other examples, kneeling is an act of worship, of reverence and humility to God.  “O come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker”(Psalm 95:6).  In the New Testament, many people would kneel before Jesus, some asking Him for healing. “…and behold, a leper came to Him and knelt before Him saying, ‘Lord, if You will, You can make me clean’ “(Matthew 8:2).  Jesus Himself often knelt in prayer to His heavenly Father.  “And He withdrew from them (His disciples) about a stone’s throw, and knelt down and prayed”(Luke 22:41).

Kneeling is the ultimate posture of submission and surrender and is the exterior sign of our interior posture before Christ.  It humbles us before God and reminds us that Jesus must increase and I must decrease.  Kneeling takes us out of our usual postures of sitting or standing and radically changes our world view.  We are vulnerable and a bit uncomfortable.  We are saying to the world: “I am not in control anymore.”  Kneeling makes us look up, both physically and spiritually, to the One Who is in control.

When we worship together, all our gestures and postures are meaningful.  As Catholics, the Bishops of the Church instruct us regarding our posture during Mass.  In this way, we worship together as a unified family, both in our words and in our actions.  Our unity is affirmed when we stand together, bow together, and kneel together.  Catholics kneel during the Eucharistic Prayer of the Mass, when the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ.  Kneeling at this moment is also kneeling at the foot of His Cross, on that Friday at Calvary.  Kneeling together is a sign of our unity as Catholics.  We kneel together in reverence and adoration, as a family, in the presence of our Lord and Saviour in the Blessed Sacrament.

How beautiful it was to see the late Pope John Paul II, aged and racked by Parkinson’s disease, slowly and painfully kneeling in prayer.  Towards the end of his public life, he could only kneel with the help of other people.  This “Servant of the Servants of God” showing humility, reverence, and obedient love to the God he had served so faithfully throughout his life.  Like him, our posture reveals our soul.  When we kneel beside the bedside of a dying person or stand up for the dignity of an unborn child, or genuflect before Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, we say what we believe louder than with any words we could speak.  Our posture tells others what we are willing to live or die for.

If we are called to imitate Christ, then are also called to kneel in prayer.  In the garden of Gethsemane, on His knees, He prayed “Father, if You are willing, take this cup away from me; still not My will but Yours be done” (Luke 22:42).  Kneeling is not mere piety.  It is a fundamental act of faith in Christ.  Kneeling is a strong expression of Who stands at the center of your life and Who stands at the center of all creation.  There is nothing passive about kneeling in humility and love.  When knees bend in response to a heart that loves Christ, there is unleashed a force so great and so strong that it can change the face of the earth.  We call this force “grace.”

In the fourth century, a Catholic priest named Abba Apollo described the devil as having no knees at all.  He cannot kneel, cannot adore, cannot pray.  He can only look down his nose in contempt.  St. Paul, in his letter to the Phillipians, believed otherwise.  In his beautiful hymn to Christ, he tells that “at the name of Jesus, every knee shall bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth” (Phil 2:6-11).  When we kneel at Jesus’ name, we imitate the Magi who knelt at His birth.  Instead of gold and fragrant spices, we offer Him our humble hearts.  When we bow down to serve others, we imitate Christ as He washed the feet of His disciples,  We give Him our hands to do His will.  When we kneel in adoration of Christ, we imitate all the angels and saints kneeling at this very moment around His throne in heaven.

“Kneeling does not come from any culture, it comes from the Bible.”

—Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, later to become Pope Benedict XVI

Our Hidden Decay

It was a day like any other day.  The sun came up right on time.  The sky was a deep blue and everyone seemed in a good mood. Buses and subways were filled with commuters making their way to jobs in the city.  The morning news shows were their usual mix of news, sports, and celebrity gossip.  It was just another day in America—or so we thought.  Then, in the space of just a few hours, thousands of Americans were brutally murdered.  Innocent people, killed without a chance to plead for their lives. One minute, full of life and and hope and the promise of tomorrow and the next moment—a horrible and violent death.  Innocent lives, lost forever.  And all of us are diminished by their loss.

No, I’m not describing 9/11, although the scenario is much the same.  I’m describing every single day in America.  Because every day in our country 3700 Americans are violently killed by abortion.  It’s 9/11 every day here, in the greatest country on the face of the earth.  We’re not under attack by Al Qaeda or terrorists from Saudi Arabia or Somalia.  It’s not an organized sleeper cell that’s killing us, but a culture of death that we’ve allowed to infiltrate our land.  We’ve invited them in and given them a home and protected them by our Supreme Court rulings.  And we wonder what’s wrong with the country we love.  We wonder how we’ve gotten so off-track. We wonder why families are disintegrating and why half of all marriages end in divorce.  We’re puzzled when we read statistics about adultery and abandonment.  We shake our heads at stories of child abuse or wife abuse. The #MeToo movement is exposing sexual trauma in a way we’ve never seen before. We’re shocked to hear that the elderly are neglected or mistreated in their nursing homes.  And we allow the treasure of our hearts, of our very lives—our children—to be destroyed each and every day by abortion. Can’t we see the connection between these murders and the state of our American families?

Our country is like a beautiful apple that is lovely to look at and admire, but is rotten at the core.  Death lives at the heart of America and we all must take responsibility for that. We’ve forgotten the values we were founded on which placed God and the gift of life as our anchor and our morning star.  We’ve allowed what is easy to replace what is right. We need an awakening in our land and in our hearts.  We must remember how we all felt that on that September morning—remember the horror and the shock and the outrage. Remember how it felt to know that so many thousands of our fellow Americans—innocent people—had been murdered so senselessly and were now lost forever.  That’s the horror of abortion every day in the greatest country on earth.  We’re in the midst of another election season. Please pray that our President and the political leaders of our country will protect human life from conception until natural death.  And pray that God will have mercy on us all.

“America you are beautiful . . . and blessed . . . . The ultimate test of your greatness is the way you treat every human being, but especially the weakest and most defenseless. If you want equal justice for all and true freedom and lasting peace, then America, defend life.” – St. John Paul II (1920-2005)

Glimpsing Heaven

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.

“There is no other day. All days are present now. This moment contains all moments.”

—-C.S. Lewis

Redemptive Suffering

Here are a few things that make me crazy:  being stuck in traffic; poor customer service; unloading the dishwasher; those cards that fall out of magazines; littering (possibly including those cards that fall out of magazines); and people who don’t listen.

Here are a few things that can make me holy:  being stuck in traffic; poor customer service; unloading the dishwasher; those cards that fall out of magazines; littering (possibly including those cards that fall out of magazines); and people who don’t listen.

Seeing a pattern here?

Good. Whatever causes me to suffer, a little or a lot, can be offered to God and He can take our offering and use it for His good purpose. We Catholics call this “redemptive suffering” or in more everyday terms “offering it up.”  All religious faiths try and make sense out of suffering. Whether it’s karma (Hinduism) or the result of sin (some televangelists) we can all agree that to be alive is to be acquainted with suffering, whether great or small. Catholics understand suffering (and sin and death) as a result of original sin, when our first parents disobeyed God in the garden of Eden. Since that time, God has allowed us to suffer for our benefit. We may not know while we are suffering what that benefit might be but we can usually see His purpose for it when we look back at our past trials. Maybe He allowed it so we’d become more dependent on Him, or maybe by our suffering we’d correct those behaviors or attitudes that had led us away from His path for us. The bottom line is that we’re all going to suffer in this life. The question is: how are you going to handle it?

Christ suffered betrayal, mockery, humiliation, abandonment, was beaten and scourged, spat upon and nailed to a Cross to die. If God Himself suffered so much, we shouldn’t expect not to suffer. As Christ offered Himself to the Father, so must we. We are the Body of Christ and our love for Him unites us in a profound and mystical way. When we offer our sufferings back to Him, He sanctifies them. In that way, we participate in Christ’s redemption of the world. St. Paul writes about this when he says: “…whereof I Paul am made a minister.  Who now rejoice in my sufferings for you and fill up those things that are wanting of the sufferings of Christ, in my flesh, for His Body, which is the Church” (Colossians 1:23-24).

Redemptive suffering means that you offer God whatever you might be undergoing and allow Him to make use of it. No pain or disappointment or inconvenience or sadness ever “goes to waste” in this economy of salvation.  This has changed my life in a profound way. I’m not perfect at it by any means but “offering it up” has set me free from so much of what used to burden and annoy me. Those things that I said “make me crazy” in the first paragraph are small examples of what I can let go of. Every time I do, I grow a little. I offer my impatience as a gift to the Lord. If I’m inconvenienced by slow traffic, I give this tiny “suffering” for Him to use as He will. When customer service fails me, I say a prayer for the harried telephone rep and give it over to God. When I walk by trash on the sidewalk, not only can I pick it up and give that act back to Him, I can ask for His blessing on the one who threw it down. Nothing is lost to the Lord if we offer it back to Him in love. We can ask Him to use our suffering in a particular way, if we want to. “Lord, please accept this pain (or whatever our sacrifice might be) to help bring my co-worker to know Your Son…”  We learn to accept our suffering with peace and we ask God to use it for something good. This is truly taking up our cross and following Jesus.

Living in this sacrificial way transforms our pain and suffering into redemptive acts. It reminds us how we are all connected as members of His Body. For me, it helps me grow in patience and in humility. It helps me react more thoughtfully. It helps me to whine less and be more thankful. It unites me to folks for whom I might never have otherwise offered a prayer. I have a long way to go in learning to “offer it up” but it’s one of the great blessings of my Catholic faith. In my own small, deeply-flawed way it helps me to be just a tiny bit like Jesus. As St. Alphonsus Liguori (1696-1787) wrote: “I have had crosses in plenty–more than I could carry, almost. I set myself to ask for the love of crosses–then I was happy.” Amen!

“Each man, in his suffering, can also become a sharer in the redemptive suffering of Christ.”
                                    –St. John Paul II

The Clutter of the World

Fifteen things. In 2010 a man named Andrew Hyde gave away everything he owned except for fifteen things. He kept a pair of pants, 2 shirts, a pair of sandals, a pair of shorts and some underwear. Everything he owned on this earth fit into a small backpack. He did it in preparation for a trip around the world. He also did it to be free from the ties that bind us to the stuff that we own. He called what he did “an adventure in minimalism.”  Now several years later he’s living in New York and he owns around 60 things. Still. Can you imagine streamlining all your worldly possessions down to just 60 things? I probably own at least 60 pairs of shoes. Most of them black. I really can’t imagine living the way Mr. Hyde lives.

But I’d like to give it a try. I look around the house. Why do I hang onto things I don’t use? Why do I keep clothes I no longer wear or that no longer fit? And here’s an even better question: why do I continue to buy MORE stuff?  I remember when I was just out of graduate school and starting my first real job. I had an apartment that was barely furnished with anything except books, a stereo perched on an orange crate and a mattress on the floor. I couldn’t wait to fill it with “stuff.”  A few years later it took a team of movers and half an 18-wheeler to move my stuff across the country. As I’ve gotten older I’ve gotten a bit better at consuming less. Maybe. Except for the black shoe thing. But reading about Andrew Hyde has made me want to do some serious clearing-out. As a Catholic I know the story of the rich young man whose only apparent shortcoming was his attachment to the things he owned (Matthew 19:16-26).  And we’ve all heard the story of the rich man with the abundant harvest who had great plans to build new and bigger barns to hold all his wealth. Of course God knew the man would die that very night and would never need another barn or enjoy his new money (Luke 12:16-21).  When we fall in love with the things of this world, as beautiful as they are, we lose sight of our true home and happiness which is in heaven. Our hearts were made to love a Person. Only when we fix our love on the Creator do we ever find true joy. No amount of stuff will ever satisfy our hearts. There’s the old question: what is enough? The answer: just a little bit more than you have. And there’s the rub. You’ll never have “enough.”  You’ll never feel content with accumulating more, consuming more, having the latest gizmo. Your heart was made for so much more than mere “stuff.”

From a practical standpoint, our stuff is like debt. It takes time, effort, and energy to manage it—and it leaves you with less personal “capital” to “spend” on more important things. You have to clean it, organize it, store it, move it, etc. Of course it isn’t our stuff in and of itself that’s the problem. It’s our attachment to it. It’s our belief that we need more and more of it to be happy, to feel that we have “enough.”  Every day most of us go out and get more. Can you remember the last day that you didn’t spend any money on anything at all?  I can’t. Try it and I think you’ll see what I’ve discovered: other than groceries and gas, everything I buy is non-essential. I’m not talking about paying the electric bill or the mortgage, but just the “stuff” that I usually buy on any given day. I just don’t need it. I’m beginning to think about what I could do with the money I could save by not chasing “enough.”  I’m beginning to see what I could do with the time I’d save as well, not having to clean and organize and manage it all. And how so much of what I have could help out other people. Not only would I have a lot more room in my house, I could make more room in my heart too: for others, for the Lord, for my parish. I could be a better steward of the gifts God has given me. I could give more to charity. I could share more of my time with those we’re called to help.

No, I don’t think I’ll ever simplify down to just fifteen things like Andrew Hyde did (andrewhy.de/) but I can let go of something today. And something more tomorrow, and the next day. And I can stop chasing “enough.”  I can stop planning those new barns to hold my earthly wealth and use my blessings to bless others and build up treasure in the only place that matters. One pair of black shoes at a time.

“Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have.”
                      —Hebrews 13:5

Little Church, Big Mission

It’s just a little country church on a hill. One brick building with a dozen or so parking spots, way out in the boondocks. But that lot is very often full to overflowing with cars while kids are playing basketball and families are gathering under the picnic pavilion. The church has a prayer box near the parking entrance where anyone who wants to can drop in a prayer request to share with their congregation. This time each year, they sell pumpkins to raise funds for their various programs. It’s beautiful to see that grassy hill covered with hundreds of orange pumpkins. And they have one outreach program that always catches my eye—their church sign.

You know those messages that many churches post on their signs? Sometimes it’s a BIble verse, or maybe a faith-based pun (Know Jesus. Know peace. No Jesus. No peace). The messages are often forgettable and all-too-frequently misspelled. But this little church gets them right. They’re thought-provoking and original and they never fail to get my attention. Their messages make me think of Jesus. That’s a pretty effective ministry for a tiny country church. This week, the sign reads: “Everything God says is an expression of love.”

Sure. As Christians, we know that God loves us. He sent His only Son to save us from our sins. His grace is sufficient (II Corinthians 12:9). The Bible is a love story of how our God created a universe for us, made us His children through Christ and will meet us face-to-face in a heaven that will surpass all our ideas of beauty and love.

But wait a minute. The Bible is also full of heartache and suffering. There are plagues and wars and famine. Families (including the very first one) are torn apart by sin and murder. Whole cities are destroyed by God’s wrath. How can we read about these horrors and believe the church sign, that everything God says is an expression of love? It’s easy to believe in love when we read about the birth of Jesus and the feeding of the multitude and see Jesus healing the sick and raising the dead. It’s more difficult to believe in that love when we read about lakes of fire and awful diseases and the deaths of all those firstborn sons.

This is because God’s plan for us is like the plans of any good parent for their children. Sometimes the things we want are bad for us, so God says, “no.” Anything that distracts us from our “best” is a sin and we know that sin leads to death (Romans 6:23). When the Lord says “no” to our plans, it isn’t to make us feel bad or to frustrate us, but to help us conform our will to His will. You see, His plans for us are so infinitely better than anything we could ever imagine. We’re like little children who chafe and whine when mom or dad won’t give us all the candy we want, all day long, every day of the week. All we can know, with our child’s mind, is that life is cruel and unfair and our parents must hate us for keeping the candy hidden away from us.

The truth is, God loves us in everything, in all circumstances, in every trial and in all our sufferings. He looks on us with longing to know us better and a desire to spend an eternity in our presence. This is the love of our Lord Who is Love Himself. How much He loves us is there on the Crucifix, is there in the cup of His Blood and in the Bread that is His Body in Holy Communion. It is in the marriage feast of the Lamb that He is preparing for you and for me at this very moment in heaven (Revelation 19:6-9). From Eden to Armageddon, God’s every word and action and plan is one of unfolding and unfailing love. I need reminding of this. And the little church in the country did that for me this week. Your sign and your messages bless me and I know they bless others as well. Thank you for reminding me of the good news of His love.

“Everything comes from love, all is ordained for the salvation of man; God does nothing without this goal in mind.”

—–St. Catherine of Siena (1347 – 1380)

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