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)

Jesus and Time 

I think about time a lot these days. Maybe because I’ve lived through a lot of years. But also because the idea of time and how we’ve come to understand it has always fascinated me. When I was a kid, I’d search out our library for books about time-travel until the librarian got tired of me asking for new ones. Over the years, I’ve read as much as I can understand about how modern physics explains time and space. But, like many of us I guess, it’s easier to think of time in simple terms, like a river that flows on forever. We step into that river on the date of our birth and we cross out of it on the other side when we die. Our life flows along with the years as we ride down that river of time. We imagine that time had a beginning on that first day of creation in that time will have an ultimate end when Christ returns. 

God created time and He holds time in existence. But God Himself exists outside of time. Without a beginning or an end, God exists in all times, in a kind of perpetual “now.” Imagine a timeline from creation to the end of time laid on a huge, long table. God sees all of time in a single glance. Past, present, and future are all “now.” He sees all of eternity and He sees the entirety of your life, from your conception to your death. And yet, the God we serve isn’t a disinterested observer who watches us from the heavens. God loves us so much that He chose to enter into time and become one of us in the Incarnation. Eternity met time in a Bethlehem manger. Our all-powerful Creator became an infant and lived within a family. And with His conception by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Blessed Virgin, God changed time forever. Through His life, death, and resurrection, time itself was redeemed. The perpetual “now” of God has infused human history with His presence in ways we might rarely imagine, but through which He continues to reveal Himself to us.  

Jesus, as the second person of the Holy Trinity, has always existed. Jesus became a child in Bethlehem. Jesus exists always as the infant born to Mary, and the child in the Temple, and the young man at the wedding in Cana. Jesus is always calling His disciples to follow Him. He is always curing the sick and raising the dead. He is always celebrating the Last Supper and being abandoned in the Garden. Jesus is always being stripped and beaten, and carrying His Cross. He is always suffering and dying for us, just as He is always rising in glory and appearing to those who love Him. Jesus is always ascending to His Father, always reigning in heaven. His eternal presence in time is yet one more way that He extends Himself and offers His love to us, at each step in our own earthly journeys. Because He became one of us in all ways but sin, His life among us shares all our earthly joys, our hopes and fears and sufferings. Through His life, through His time as a man on this earth, Jesus opens the door to eternity for us. Through His life, we see the face our merciful God and by His Cross, we find our hope. Whenever we prayerfully read the Gospel, we can experience the “now” of Jesus’ life, suffering, death, and resurrection. The mystery of our salvation is at once an historical fact and, at the same time, as immediate as the air we breathe. And even more essential to life.  

Physics tells us that time and space are a mathematical function and it uses the language of math to describe it. All of that is beyond my meager skills. But I know that Jesus hears me when I pray to Him as the baby in the manger. I know that He hears me when I pray to Him as the child at His mother’s knee. I know that He hears me when I pray to Him as the young man at Cana, the rabbi in the Temple, the weeping friend at Lazarus’ tomb, and the suffering Savior on the Cross. I know that every moment of His historical life is an opportunity for me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him. In Christ, all time and eternity meet—and He invites us in, to be with Him.  

“What then is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.” 

           —–St. Augustine  

Of Skill Sets and Altar Rails 

At the beginning, we were ushered into a large auditorium. Rows and rows of blue-upholstered movie theater seats all facing an elevated stage filled with green plants and, at the rear, a wide theater screen. A mist rolled across the stage from an unseen fog machine. I took my seat just as a rock band jogged on stage in jeans and t-shirts. Without introduction, they erupted into song and the crowd immediately stood. Lyrics were projected onto the screen and lights flashed in time to the beat. “Draw me close to you, never let me go…You are my desire, no one else will do.” After fifteen minutes or so, everyone still standing and singing, the lights slowly faded and a young man in jeans and a faded western shirt walked towards a podium, adjusting his wireless microphone. “Amen!” he screamed, and the music stopped. For the next ninety minutes, he outlined (in talking points projected on the screen) how his church, this church we were in, had grown from 30 families to 1400 families in the last 3 years. He was the opening speaker at this conference on church stewardship and planning.

The notes I took were the words he used to explain the growth of his church. I won’t give the name of it here, but think of any of the “verb” church names you’ve seen: gathering, crossing, living, growing, etc. No mention of God or His Son or any of His saints. Just a verb with no object. I was to think back on that grammatical faux pas a bit as his presentation unfolded. He spoke to us of “professional worship” and how a successful preacher “prayed with authority” before his congregation. He stressed the importance of using “the right backline” for “performances” as well as lighting and projection and cellphone apps. He spoke of “worship teams” and the “skill sets” they needed to possess. Everything had to work together seamlessly for a “dynamic worship experience.” People had to feel “connected” and “plugged in.” “Small groups” met weekly to emphasize Sunday’s “talking points.” He showed us how he humbly prayed on stage, head down, palms open, whispering “Father God…” There was more, but I had stopped taking notes.  

I realized that what he and I imagined worship to be were very different things. His church model seemed to be built more like a business than a vineyard. It made me uncomfortable because this model is often upheld today. The vocabulary he used sometimes sneaks its way into parish council meetings. Sometimes we think we need to be more like the “verb” churches in order “to keep up with the times.” Stewardship can easily adopt the speech of data analysis and business planning. And I’ve been guilty of that, of seeing my parish as a franchise of some larger corporation.

But then I walk into my church. My beautiful church, filled with the smell of incense and beeswax. I see the statutes of the Saints, reminding me that ordinary people can, by His grace, walk with the angels. The sunlight falls in jewels through the stained glass above. There is an altar here, not a stage, and altar rails, not a fog machine. Above the altar, my Savior hangs on a Cross. Whenever I need to be reminded of what Church is, I look to Him there. On this altar, He becomes my holy food, nourishing me in His Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. This sublime holiness is beyond any talking points. No amount of artificial fog or light shows can improve on this communion. God has no need of enhancement. Our words here are “adoration” and “transubstantiation.” We sing the Psalms and we reverence suffering and sacrifice. Hardly the skill sets that would attract great numbers. In our worship, we use water and oil and wine and unleavened bread. Ashes mark us all as the sinners we are. We fast. We fail. We go to confession and we try again. We mark each day as a feast of a Saint, to whom we look for inspiration. We embrace the mother of our Lord as our own mother, tender and loving, always pointing us to her Son. We witness a miracle at every Mass. We believe in miracles. We have to. Because we don’t have good sound systems and our hymns are too old and complicated to sound like Taylor Swift. We’re bad at talking points. So, it’s a miracle of God that the Catholic Church is still here after 2000 years. I don’t know what we’d do if we depended on a business model for our worship. I just know what Jesus said:

“And I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My Church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”

        —–Matthew 16:18 

The Wood of the Cross

Once again the holiest week in the history of the world is upon us. Once again, I’m not ready. How can I be ready for what is about to happen this week? No matter how I may have observed the season of Lent, despite knowing the story by heart, I’m not ready. This week is too shocking, too raw, too unbelievable to embrace. It’s easier to skip over the truth of this week and focus instead on the new dress, the chocolate bunny and the colored eggs. But as Christians, we’re called to walk the Way of the Cross with Jesus. We enter into His Passion. We call for His Crucifixion with the others in Jerusalem mob. We strike the blows the soldiers delivered as He was tied to the pillar. We see Him killed and we see Him rise again on the third day. It’s too much to imagine, too scandalous to endure. 

And without love, none of it makes any sense. Only through the eyes of love can we bear to watch it all unfold again. No other religion has a story to equal this one, or even compare to the truth of Holy Week. Our Creator died for us, sacrificing Himself for our sins. The One Who is without sin becomes sin so that we may live. It’s not logical, not rational, not pretty. And it’s not safe. Following Christ changes everything. Forever. That’s what Love does.  

His love for me is perfect and yet the love I return to Him is so small and measured, so flawed and weak and failing. That’s why this week is more than I can bear. In the face of His love, I must turn away. Out of the corner of my eye, I’ll watch Him enter Jerusalem on a donkey. I’ll take a sideways glance at the Last Supper, my dull vision obscuring the Truth of the Sacrament. In the Garden, I’ll hide behind a tree before falling asleep with everyone else and when I wake up, they’ll all be gone. I’ll be there at the trial, in the crowd, unable to look at Him, but caught up in the frenzy still. As He struggles to carry the Cross to His death, I’ll hold back, afraid to see or be seen by the One Who made me. I’ll hear the nails being driving into His hands and feet, but I won’t go near the hill. Too hard. Too real. Too much my own fault. My most grievous fault.  

Each one of us experiences Holy Week in our own way. For me, there is a moment in the Liturgy of Good Friday when all my feeble efforts at holding it together come up short. We’ll see the Cross brought inside, the wooden Cross of Christ in our midst. And we will kneel and kiss the rough wood in veneration. That kiss always breaks my heart. With that kiss, I stop trying to be ready for it all and just let go. I’m Peter and Caiaphas and Mary Magdalene. I’m the soldier thrusting the spear into His side and I’m the Beloved Disciple resting my head on His shoulder. I’m the young rich man who walked away. And I’m Lazarus, stumbling out of the grave in my funeral wrappings. I’m the Good Thief and the proud Pharisee praying loudly in the Temple square.  

In the Cross, I lose myself and the Love of Christ floods in. Every year for me, that moment at the Cross is my new beginning The reality of His love and sacrifice is the truth revealed in Holy Week. Every year we experience it anew. I pray that you’ll find a new beginning this year and that some moment will open your heart to the mercy of our loving Father. This week is a treasure of our faith, given to us as our ladder to Heaven. Love opens the way for us.  

“For the message of the Cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

    —I Corinthians 1:18 

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